It's a heatwave in this new Richard Jones production, brought to a climax by the thunderstorm. In the meantime, the clarity of the staging draws us firmly in to the emotional struggles of the characters, beset by the bullying banality of the Kabanicha. After she utters the last words of the opera, formally thanking the people around her, we hear the wordless intonation of the chorus and see a silent mime as she tries to prise her son's arms off the corpse of his wife, just recovered from the river.
The mighty Volga is ever-present, represented by three fishermen who appear from time to time, but Jones's production makes do with very little — a mostly plain stage and clever lighting, particularly with silhouettes in the tryst between Katya and Boris in Act II. Yet it gets to the heart of this drama, based on Ostrovsky's play Thunderstorm, where the Kabanicha exercises control over her son Tichon along with his wife Katya and her foster-daughter Varvara; and the crotchety merchant Dikoj controls his nephew Boris. Sexual tension is clearly visible: Varvara, for the teacher Kudrjaš, Katya for Boris, and even Dikoj for the Kabanicha whose abusive dominance clearly attracts his half-drunk superiority.
Bringing all this to life was a tremendous cast: Susan Bickley singing majestically as the cold, misanthropic Kabanicha, Clive Bayley a striking vocal presence as the grouchy Dikoj, the handsome Pavel Černoch singing ardently as his nephew Boris, Andrew Tortise as a strongly sung Kudrjaš, and Andrew Staples perfect in the role of Katya's weak husband Tichon. Stimulating Katya to one fatal act of defiance, Emily Edmonds gave a charming portrayal of her confidante Varvara, and as Katya herself Amanda Majeski was sensational in her Royal Opera debut, sensitive and sympathetic with wonderful purity of tone and huge vocal strength matching her quiet suicidal determination at the very end. Two young women in summer frocks they provide a lovely contrast to the older generation.
Conducting this magnificent performance was Edward Gardner in his long-overdue main house debut, giving a slow lyrical start followed by emotional tension that could make the hair of your neck stand up. He well deserved the audience adulation that greeted his return after the interval — a possible future music director after Antonio Pappano leaves that position?
Quite why there were scattered boos for the production team at the end is a mystery. This was admirably uncluttered, yet making the most of important moments such as the car appearing at the end of Act I to take Tichon away on his business trip, and the bus shelter during the storm where Dikoj furiously contradicts Kudrjaš to say that storms are punishment sent to make us realise the power of the Almighty.
Did the minor audience derision indicate a yearning for a more elaborate production, or for the directorial abuse we saw in Queen of Spades recently? I hope not. This was near perfect.
Katya Kabanova is running at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in February 2019