Leoš Janáček began composing Kátya Kabanová, his 6th opera, in January 1920 and continued to make revisions until the Brno premiere in November 1921. At its first performance in November 1921, he was sixty-seven years old, estranged from his wife, and his children were long dead. He was deeply in love with Kamila Stösslová, a married woman whom he had met during a spa cure in July 1917. His fixation with Kamila Stösslová, or with his romanticised image of this apparently dull bourgeoise, led him to create a striking heroine. Kátya´s beauty, her fragility, her painful isolation in a provincial town, and the depth of her love for someone she scarcely knows (and whom she certainly overestimates) are the heart of Janácek´s opera. This extraordinary, shimmering beauty takes the opera far away from the play on which it is based (as of course it should!).
That play upon which Kátya Kabanová is based, Alexander Ostrovsky´s The Thunderstorm (1859), placed the character Kátya in a much clearer and more particular context. What we cannot tell is how much of that context Janáček´s audience might have understood. Janáček radically compressed the play´s material so that the theme of the play - the brutality of domestic life in the provincial merchant class - became a sort of shadow. Kátya´s main oppressors, her mother-in-law and her side-kick, the merchant Dikoj, are grotesque in the opera, though it is understood that their public personae are estimable.
Two important characters in the play - Kuligin, the Chekhovian scientist/optimist who looks to the future, and Feklusa, the itinerant pilgrim who as a holy woman stands for tradition - are more ciphers in the opera. Most of the characteristics of Kuligin are transferred wholesale to another character, the saucy clerk Vána Kudrjás, who becomes more a blend of characteristics than a rounded character (though a very effective foil to the romantic lead, his friend Boris Grigorievich). One has to assume that Janáček´s selectivity was careful. Clearly he deemed it important to preserve and emphasize the
public nature of Kátya´s confession of infidelity, so strikingly a feature of the Orthodox Church. At the same time, he cut out much information essential to an understanding of the plot: the fact, for example, that unmarried girls like Varvara had license to roam unsupervised, while married women like Kátya were domestic chattel to be kept under lock and key. In the opera, many aspects of the plot are brittle, disturbing, and oddly resonant - for example, the discussion of lightning rods in the ruined building at the top of Act 3.
Such savage editing and compression of the text of the play, which might might seem a failing, is on the other hand a sign of Janáček´s particular genius. Some interactions and relations in the plot are unclear, certainly, and occasionally characters´ utterances are incomplete: we seem to see snapshots, overhear fragments. What Janáček has done is make room for the music to speak. He has also, in his way, made room for the symbols - the river, the storm - to have their great power and their proper ambiguity. Ostrovsky´s storm is clearly the sound of social change in the 1860´s, while Janáček´s is much more personal, much more to do with the tone of `love against one´s will´. Ostrovsky´s river Volga seems to be the mighty, unchanging, thoughtless force of tradition in Tsarist Russia; Janáček´s river is more spiritual, more seductive, yet no less deadly.
This article was edited from the director's note written by James Conway, and is reprinted with the kind permission of English Touring Opera. The Czech spelling is "Kát'a Kabanová".