The young teacher Kudrjas is admiring the view of the countryside and the River Volga. The peaceful afternoon is disturbed by the entrance of the angry merchant Dikoj and his nephew Boris. Kudrjas wonders why Boris still puts up with his uncle’s overbearing nature, and Boris admits that he is unhappy in Kalinovo, but has no other options. If he wants to collect his inheritance from his grandmother for himself and his sister he must, according to the will, live with his uncle and suffer all his wrongs until they are both of age. His unhappiness is further increased by his unrequited love for a married woman – Katya Kabanova. Katya is unhappy in her marriage, though, for she had grown up in a family that had surrounded her with love, but now she had a weak and alcoholic husband and a despotic mother-in-law, who mercilessly ruled over the family and detested Katya for she was jealous of Tichon’s love for her. She orders her son to go that day to the market in Kazan and reproaches him for his lack of love and respect towards her.
It is early evening in the Kaban household. Katya and Varvara are sewing and Katya is reminiscing upon her happy childhood days. She admits that she has secretly fallen in love, and the easy-going Varvara offers to be her intermediary. Tichon arrives to bid farewell to his wife before his journey. Katya begs him to swear to speak to no strangers or else to take her along. Tichon does not understand and refuses. Kabanicha watches over their farewells and on her orders Tichon humiliates Katya with an undignified reprimand.
Kabanicha reproaches Katya for not making a sufficient display of grief over Tichon’s absence. Varvara brings the key for the garden gate which she had taken from Kabanicha so that she could visit Kudrjas. Katya hesitates, but takes the key. The drunken Dikoj goes to Kabanicha and implores her for her favour. At the back of the Kaban family garden Varvara meets Kudrjas, and at Varvara’s behest Boris comes also. Katya attempts to overcome her desire for Boris, but she finally falls into his arms.
A severe storm is brewing over the little town. The townspeople seek shelter in the semi-derelict, burned-out monastery. Kudrjas uses the opportunity to conciliate Dikoj by talking to him about a new invention, the lightning conductor, and his idea to introduce them to the town. However, for Dikoj the storm is a sign of the anger of God and dismisses Kudrjas with a curse. Varvara searches for Boris. She finds him and tells him that Tichon has returned home and that Katya was very upset. The Kabans also shelter in the ruined building and Katya, frightened by the storm, confesses in front of everyone that he had been unfaithful with Boris. Kabanicha is triumphant. Tichon wants to forgive Katya, but she flees into the tempest.
Glasha and Tichon search in vain for Katya. Varvara is also determined to leave the family home and agrees with Kudrjas to elope to Moscow. Katya goes to the banks of the Volga having made up her mind that the only freedom from her unbearable life is death, but wishes to say farewell to Boris. He arrives with the news that his uncle has sent him to run his business in Siberia, and after his departure Katya throws herself into the depths of the Volga.
Director: Tatjana Gürbaca
Stage design: Henrik Ahr
Lighting design: Stefan Bolliger
Costumes: Barbara Drosihn
Katya Kabanova: Corinne Winters
Savjol Prokofievich Dikoy: Tomas Tomasson
Boris Grigorievich: Ladislav Elgr
Marfa Ignatievna Kabanova: Elena Zhidkova
Tichon Ivanych Kabanov: Stephan Rügamer
Vanya Kudryash: Sam Furness
It is the first time ever that the ensemble of the Swiss Grand Théâtre de Genève, a theatre with a long and rich tradition, has come to the Janáček Brno festival. Accompanying them is the German director Tatjana Gürbaca, who has been one of the most important figures in the opera world for the last decade, with a brand-new production. Wagner´s The Ring of the Nibelung for the Theater an der Wien (2017) and Parsifal for Opera Vlaanderen rank among the greatest successes of her career. It isn´t the first time this director with a refined style has encountered a Czech opera; in 2020 she staged Dvořák´s Rusalka at the English National Opera, and she is also preparing Janáček´s Jenůfa for the spring of 2022, co-produced with the Deutsche Oper am Rhein. One of the best contemporary Czech conductors, Tomáš Netopil, who performed Janáček´s The Makropulos Case at the festival in 2018, will be in charge of the musical production. Katya Kabanova will be performed by the excellent Swiss symphony orchestra Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, which regularly collaborates with the Geneva Opera. Together with the Prague production of Bieito´s Katya Kabanova, this beautiful opera offers yet another extraordinary experience for festival visitors.
There was nothing traditional in Janáček´s creative life, so it is not surprising that he began to consider the idea of creating the first of his four top operas at the mature age of almost sixty-five. The circumstances were more than favourable. Thanks to the Prague and Viennese productions of Jenůfa, he had finally received the recognition he truly deserved not only at home, but also on the international scene. And a new woman had entered his life – during his summer stay in Luhačovice in 1917 he met Kamila Stösslová, a beautiful lady who became a source of unceasing inspiration to him until his death. The search for a theme for a new opera now led him to Russian literature, and it is not surprising that he was fascinated by the story of Katya Kabanova, the heroine of the play The Storm by Alexander Nikolayevich Ostrovsky. He thus returned to the portrayal of great female characters and their tragic life stories, which he had achieved so masterfully in his previous works Jenůfa and Destiny.
After his negative experience with librettists when creating The Excursions of Mr. Brouček, he decided to prepare the libretto from the Czech translation of the play himself, a strategy which had proved to bring success in the case of Jenůfa. He significantly shortened the extensive play, which largely deals with politics and the moral decline of Russian society in the middle of the 19th century, and he also reduced the number of characters. The focal point was Katya, who deals with her unhappy marriage by fleeing into the world of fantasy, and who is driven to a tragic end by hypocrisy and social pressure. This approach enabled Janáček to create a very intimate drama built on the contrast of two worlds – the dream world of Katya, and the rough and hard world of Kabanicha and the weak Tichon, in which there are only occasional flashes of unstoppable optimism and merriment from the young Varvara.
After his Prague troubles with the performance of The Excursions of Mr. Brouček, Janáček decided to offer the premiere of Katya Kabanova to National Theatre Brno. The opera was performed here for the first time on 23rd November 1921 at the theatre Na hradbách (today´s Mahen Theatre), and it was an extraordinary success. Performances followed in Prague and abroad a year later. He returned to his opera a few years afterwards for very practical reasons – in order to connect the individual scenes in Act 1 and Act 2 smoothly, music was needed for the changes. This was heard for the first time during a performance in 1928. Coincidentally, Katya Kabanova was the last performance of his work that the composer saw before his unexpected death in August 1928.