Kát’a Kabanová

Article by Robert Thicknesse

Think of Russia in the 19th century and your images will no doubt be of polite society doing its best to be French (to the extent where that’s often the language they speak), a country struggling to be European, of people who spend their time in a grand urban social whirl or in country houses in various states of genteel decay where the languid atmosphere conduces to lengthy conversations about the state of the nation that rarely lead anywhere in particular.

It’s a cosy image that the West has chosen to adopt of the place, and which the Russians themselves tend to prefer as the national myth. This is the country familiar from Pushkin, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekhov and Tchaikovsky. The dark side to the story is pushed into the background: the urban nightmares of Nikolai Gogol’s hallucinatory stories, the apocalyptic visions of Dostoyevsky, the historical horrors documented by Musorgsky: a stranger, scarier and rather more complicated hinterland that civilised Russia is always trying to forget or rationalise, but which blows chilly winds from Asia across the imagination.

The Russia we are given by the playwright Alexander Ostrovsky is a part of this world: old fashioned, feudal, governed by superstition and immemorial custom and ruled by a particular breed of uneducated, violent despots from what was known as the merchant class, who so terrorise the younger generation that they turn into tyrants in their turn. This caste of people (more than a class) had somehow missed out on the modernising reforms of Peter the Great, who had physically forced his boyars out of their medieval dress into European clothes and himself shaved off a good number of their old-testament beards. But the merchants still strolled around 19th century Moscow in oriental dressing-gowns and extravagant facial hair, often held to the unreformed Orthodox faith, tended to xenophobia and that rather undefined Russian sense of mission, and their manual was a 16th century household-management book called Domostroi, which is not precisely Mrs Beeton: one of its snippets advises husbands to beat their wives regularly, but not so severely as to make them go blind. (This may be why Russian women embarked on their campaign to grow bigger and stronger than their men).

Ostrovsky came across this money-grubbing gang when he was working as a clerk in the Moscow Commercial Court; his early play, The Bankrupt, was about the kind of people he saw coming and going in the Court (and the neighbouring debtors’ prison, the source of much of the Court’s business). He wrote it in 1850 and it was banned from the stage by the censor, who said of it: “All the characters in the play are first-rate villains. The dialogue is filthy. The entire play is an insult to the Russian merchant class.” But Ostrovsky managed to get it published and it was a great success; as a result he lost his job and was placed under police surveillance (itself not an uncommon fate for a Russian writer). All rather counter-productive, you might think: now he had to become a full-time writer simply to stay alive.

Ostrovsky went on to write 48 plays and was instrumental in the foundation of the Maly (“Small”) Theatre – a stone’s throw from the Bolshoi – where a statue of him still stands, and indeed of the realistic tradition in Russian theatre. The repressive Tsar Nicholas I died in 1856 and was succeeded by son Alexander II, a reforming figure who later freed the serfs, and who lifted the ban on Ostrovsky’s works being performed. Under the new regime Ostrovsky was one of several eminent people sent out, as a prelude to Alexander’s reforms, to report on the state of the country in various remote regions; the one he got was the upper Volga, and one of the plays which resulted from his travels was The Thunderstorm (Groza), the source of Janáček’s opera Kát’a Kabanová.

Out in the country Ostrovsky found the merchants thriving and, in fact, running the show. But the portrait he painted in Groza is not wholly gloomy: the traditions of Russian autocracy might flow as unstoppably as the Volga, but there are stirrings of change: people are discussing politics and society and the possibility of revolt is in the air. Still, Ostrovsky has little love for the people who are top of the heap: Dikoj (literally “Wild man”) and Kabanicha (the alarming “Warthog sow”) may be only petty tyrants but they can and do still ruin the lives of everyone around them. They terrorise their offspring, nurture religious maniacs who set the moral tone of the place, imprison Kát’a in the house, where this child of nature pines away (this is the usual fate of young married women among the merchants – Domostroi favours a pretty comprehensive immuring). Perhaps the censor who saw Kabanicha as a veiled portrait of Nicholas I was not far off the mark.

It is Kát’a herself, managing to preserve her radiant nature in the face of this appalling subjugation, who best represents hope in the play. The Russian critic Dobrolyubov, who had earlier written about Ostrovsky’s world as “the Dark Kingdom”, called Kát’a “a ray of light in the darkness”. At first sight it’s hard to find much that is hopeful in her story, which essentially sees her crushed by the reactionary forces around her (and by the results of her own actions). But Ostrovsky’s point is that at least she exists: this world would be even worse without her.

“Simply from a human point of view we rejoice in Katerina’s release, even through death, since no other way is possible. What a breath of fresh new life comes to us from a personality with the strength and resolution to escape from that despicable life at any cost…” wrote Dobrolyubov – indeed a very Slavic form of modified rapture. But the way Tichon turns on his mother at the end, accusing her of murdering Kát’a, is the first sign of a rebellion that (this being Russia) might lead anywhere.

As, indeed, had become abundantly clear by the time Janáček came to write his opera based on the play. In 1919, aged 65, the composer was embarking on the last decade of his life, a remarkable explosion of creation that produced Kát’a, The Cunning Little Vixen, The Makropoulos Case and From the House of the Dead. Since completing Jenůfa in 1904 he had written only two other operas, both interesting but very rarely performed, Fate and Mr Brouček’s Excursion.

The unlikely muse behind his final ten-year burst of energy was Kamila Stösslová, 40 years the composer’s junior, the faithful wife of an antiques dealer, “undereducated, not terribly attractive, rather large, and hardly with the intellect to satisfy someone as astute as Janáček”, is one upbeat description of her (by musicologist Diane Page – thanks, sister). Their affair was sexually chaste (not that Janáček wanted it that way) but produced 700 letters as well as Janáček’s creative impetus, and Kamila was with the composer when he died in 1928. And it was certainly Kamila’s idealised image Janáček had before him when writing Kát’a: “I always placed your likeness on Kát’a Kabanová when I was writing the opera. Her love went a different way, but nevertheless it was a great, beautiful love!” he wrote. There seems to be plenty of wish-fulfilment in Janáček’s opera. But more to the point, perhaps, is what he did to Ostrovsky’s play and why – because his Kát’a and Ostrovsky’s are not quite the same creature.

It is a little surprising to learn, given the rather depressing subjects he took from it, that Janáček was a great lover of Russian literature, and indeed altogether a Russophile (a reasonably common attitude in the smaller Slavic countries, who often looked on the place as a kind of benign big brother, an attitude many later came to regret). And the world in 1919 was an entirely surprising place: Janáček was now living in the republic of Czechoslovakia, newly liberated from Austro-Hungarian rule, and the whole world was watching in fascination (and with liberal doses of horror on the part of the old monarchies) to see what would happen next in the two-year-old Soviet Union. It is hardly fanciful to see Janáček’s Kát’a in the light of these historical events: it is an obvious fact, if often overlooked, that operas reflect the time in which they are written; the spirit of revolt is in the air, and Kát’a is in some sense an embodiment of them.

Then again, Janáček’s Kát’a is a lot more delicate than her Russian sister, who is allowed a passionate outburst of social criticism in Ostrovsky’s play which Janáček cuts. The composer wrote to Kamila: “The chief character is a woman with a gentle nature. She disappears when you simply think of her; a breeze would waft her away – let alone the storm which bursts upon her.” And again, he describes Kát’a as: “… of such a soft nature that I’m frightened that if the sun shone fully on her it would melt her, yes, even dissolve her…” And yet this Kát’a, gentle, religious, dutiful wife, is capable of falling into the arms of a fellow who amounts to pretty much the first passing stranger and – perhaps less surprising – be driven to madness, public confession and suicide as a result. Compare this to the fate of her friend and step-sister-in-law Varvara: it’s easier for her, since she isn’t married, but the sunny simplicity of her affair with Kudrjáš, and their elopement to Moscow, does at least suggest there is another way.

But not for Kát’a. In many ways she is a standard moral product of the merchant caste, indeed the most conventionally moral person in the play and opera. More to the point she is emotionally extravagant – indeed entirely composed of emotion, a dangerous thing, as everyone knows. Tichon – weak, drunk, cowed by his mother – fails in every way to match up to her idea of what a husband should be, unable even to beat her often or tenderly enough to convince her of his devotion. Boris, who has so capriciously decided he’s in love with Kát’a, must be quite surprised to find his advances so enthusiastically reciprocated. Kát’a’s act of infidelity is really an impulse of despair, expressed in a sexual and therefore sinful way. By her own standards she is a great sinner: adulteress and suicide. The amazing thing about the opera is that it manages to present both transgressions in a mysteriously positive way. In this connection you might note that the Russian words for “crime” (prestuplenie) and “transcendence” (perestuplenie), are, for historical and perhaps also psychological reasons, virtually identical.

This is, perhaps, a matter of opinion and interpretation. There have been many ideas about what symbols stand for in Kát’a, most importantly the Volga itself. Is it the inexorable tide of Russian oppression, or the resistance to it? The implacable force of fate, or a polytheistic celebration of the oneness of nature? Symbolism isn’t a precise science, thank God, so we are left to ponder Janáček ’s music and how it treats its subject – but this is equally hard to pin down. Janáček was a composer sui generis, who followed no school and who probably didn’t see the operas which are said to have influenced him most, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Kát’a was written in the same year as Alban Berg’s modernist masterpiece Wozzeck and manages to be lyrical and swooningly romantic in comparison without seeming remotely old-fashioned. Janáček’s technique of building his works out of small motifs is unique, the more so that the motifs themselves are so protean, can “mean” different things, can crop up in situations that are apparently entirely unrelated. They are feelings, things understood, forces that cannot be put into words (which is what music exists for). The foreboding eight-note timpani theme that occurs first in the prelude comes right back as a jaunty sleigh-bell number – and also returns at the end as Kabanicha crows in glee over Kát’a’s body. The Volga “sings” to Kát’a in a typical Janáček melody, but what do the voices mean?

The opera won’t give you an answer. A conductor and director might try to, but the wonder of Janáček’s opera is really that it takes the heroine out of a realistic play and turns her into something else: a symbol herself, who despite her fate is a representation of the possibilities of being human – as well as an operatic figure with the pathos of a Butterfly, the unfettered spirit of Carmen, the fate of Dido, the loneliness of Verdi’s Trovatore Leonora, the otherness of Mélisande. It’s a lot to ask of a singer. But there’s nobody on the British stage who is likely to do it better than Opera Holland Park’s incomparable Anne-Sophie Duprels, and by any reckoning her debut in the role promises to be one of the highlights of the entire opera calendar.

Robert Thicknesse is a freelance writer and opera critic.