Some productions tell a story. Others are more about the production itself than the work at hand, offering striking visuals in lieu of a coherent narrative. Director Calixto Bieito’s treatment of Kátya Kabanová falls among the latter, more style than substance. And the delicate title character is hardly a character at all, a clichéd victim of domestic abuse rather than the hopeless romantic Janáček sought to portray.

Peter Berger (Boris), Alžběta Poláčková (Kátya) and the National Theatre Chorus
© Zdeněk Sokol

Bieito has directed two operas at the National Theater this season, and this one opens as the flip side of the other (Schulhoff’s Flammen) – instead of an ominous black box, the set is a blindingly white box. Open grid panels covering the top and air vents and ladder rungs in the walls suggest a giant animal cage, an impression reinforced by the abstract staging. Characters occasionally interact, but mostly they stay far apart, singing to no one in particular, lurking in shadows and moving apparently at random. Kátya spends much of the first act literally bouncing off the walls, climbing the ladder rungs and then pacing back and forth, like a trapped animal looking for an escape.

In this sterile, claustrophobic atmosphere, there’s no opportunity for relationships to emerge or develop. Cardboard figures come and go, and eventually one can discern that the man who refuses to tell Kátya he loves her and beats her instead is her husband, and the woman who handles her roughly and throws her to the ground is her tyrannical mother-in-law. As Kátya and Boris, Alžběta Poláčková and Peter Berger manage to bring some genuine moments of warmth and affection to their illicit tryst, though even that ends with him taking her pinned up against the wall, like a captive butterfly. With human connections and sympathetic characters absent, there is little for the audience to identify with or care about, just a visceral depiction of a doomed woman.

Josef Moravec (Kudrjáš) and Alžběta Poláčková (Káťa)
© Zdeněk Sokol

On that level, the production works very well. There are searing, indelible images at fraught moments – Kátya and Boris lit so they cast large silhouettes that put their secret assignation on vivid public display, and their final parting played out against a backlit swirl of curling mist. The third act offers a powerful invocation of the source material (Russian author Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s play The Storm), as the stage darkens and the rear wall slowly drops to become a large trough that fills with water. Kátya wades through it, imagining birds and flowers on her grave before plunging into the black pool amid a sudden burst of rain. After the stark white desert of the first two acts, the effect is stunning.

Alžběta Poláčková (Kátya)
© Zdeněk Sokol

Among a serviceable cast, Alžběta Poláčková deserves special mention, not just for her singing, which glowed with yearning and tenderness. She spends much of the evening curled in a defensive ball on the floor, gamely singing on her knees and being physically abused by anyone who gets within arm’s reach. And she’s thoroughly soaked after being pulled from the water, looking a bit worse for the wear when the lights came up for her solo bow. When she was not playing a tortured Kátya this season, Poláčková had the title role in a controversial postmodern production of The Bartered Bride in which she broke her ankle and finished the opera on crutches, watching an understudy sing her role. If the National Theater were giving out medals for valor onstage, Poláčková would be first on the list.

Peter Berger (Boris) and Alžběta Poláčková (Kátya)
© Zdeněk Sokol

Conductor Jaroslav Kyzlink showed a craftsman’s expertise in the pit, elucidating the fine details in the score and setting note-perfect atmospherics. For this piece to work, the music has to blend a sense of foreboding and guilt with the desperation of unrequited love, a combination he struck to great effect. As in every Janáček opera, the orchestra has a language all its own. If the tight fit between music and singing that characterize the best performances of Janáček’s work was missing from this one, Kyzlink nonetheless evoked his unique musical style in convincing fashion. And while the National Theater Chorus never made an appearance onstage, its offstage interjections added electric intensity to the final scene.

Give Bieito credit for bringing an original vision to the piece, which in the end seems misplaced. Kátya Kabanova is a tragedy that relies heavily on human characters and digs deep into their emotions – which, portrayed properly, are universal. Drained of those elements, it offers no hope for love or redemption, just a brutal descent into the dark abyss that awaits the sinful and unfortunate.