Following his review of a filmed concert by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in January, Mike Raggett was able to attend a Glyndebourne event in person in June. Here’s what he saw.

Kat’a Kabanova by Laos Janacek directed by Damiano Michieletto conducted by Robin Ticciati with the London Philharmonic Orchestra 3 June 2021.

So first of all what an absolute delight it is to be back at Glyndebourne with bright sun in the sky, politely handled Covid protocols and then a charming young escort to lead us to a marquee on the Croquet Lawn with a picnic basket full of promises for the interval. To celebrate our return a small glass of refreshing Nytimber English sparkling wine momentarily makes you think all’s right with the world as you admire the familiar lawns dotted with the more optimistic picnickers on the grass, sheep in the meadow and the downs as a backdrop.

But entering the hall it’s clear that we’re still in a pandemic with carefully spaced-out groups of audience members and chairs with straps across to ensure safe distancing. Never seen the house half full before.

And all’s not right with poor Kat’a either. Disastrously married to a drunken lout, shut away by a controlling mother-in-law she has serious mental issues. Janacek’s orchestral writing describes this perfectly with passages of soaring lyricism as she dreams of freedom and flying ‘free as a bird’ counterpointed with rasping bass lines that echo her despair. The small, spaced out band in the pit gave an excellent rendition of the complex score. I felt that the reduced number of players actually helped to clarify the music which ranges from the doom-predicting hushed prelude to ecstatic lyricism for the lovers and the most fantastic storm sequence in Act Three. For me it was a fine example of ‘less is more’ as the musical episodes unfolded from romantic strings, through folk song- tinged ensembles to edgy modern brass blasts always capturing the underlying bleakness of the story of the opera. The musical direction under Robin Ticciati was always clear and the singers all produced the goods for him.

Kateřina Kněžíková in the title role was outstanding in conveying the troubled mind of a woman who finds herself trapped in a bad place, perhaps overacting slightly at times, but giving a reading of the role that gained our full sympathy. As the mother-in-law from hell, Katarina Dalayman scared the life out of me every time she let fly with that sonorous mezzo voice – can’t wait to catch her in some Wagner. Nicky Spence, with liberal recourse to his hip-flask gives a fine reading of the drunken husband Tichon who you couldn’t hate outright and David Butt-Philips is an excellent contrast as Kat’a’s tentative but sensitive and passionate lover. The other late night trysting pair Varvara, Aigul Akhmetshina, and Kudras, Thomas Atkins, added some more fine singing to the quartet scenes with Varvara also excelling in the early exchanges with Kat’a when she encourages her to take her life in own her hands and meet with the man she loves.

So musically most satisfying and the symbolism of the contrasts of caged capture and birdlike freedom were all very clear. But then director Damiano Michieletto ladled the symbolism on with a trowel. Bird cages hung everywhere, a guardian angel white bird was omnipresent both in person and in shadowy projections – the one bit of the production elements I thought worked quite well. Thank you lighting designer Alessandro Carletti for introducing some subtlety into the otherwise harsh in your face cod-psychological concept. And what exactly were those poor dancers doing?

In short great to be back at live opera. Great to hear Janacek’s brilliant score well played and sung. Makes me hungry for another production where the clear messages about the heroine’s mental state are suggested to my eyes and ears not punched in my face.

Mike Raggett 5 May 2021

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