Mit Unterstützung der
Freunde der Salzburger Festspiele e.V. Bad Reichenhall
‘They used to kill women like me, people say.’
‘I lived free like a bird’: Káťa Kabanová confides wistfully to her sister-in-law Varvara how different her life used to be. She tells her how during mass at church she experienced celestial visions that moved her to tears, and how she had dreams of soaring high into the sky. The luminous, increasingly ecstatic music to which Janáček sets Káťa’s reminiscences reveals not only the figure’s rich interior life but also an irrepressible urge for freedom. But since her marriage to Tichon the fire within Káťa is at risk of being smothered entirely. The situation she lives in is claustrophobic. Home is ruled despotically by her mother-in-law Kabanicha, the widow of a merchant. Conscious of material dependencies and in the name of tradition and morals, she makes sure that the required subservience is shown by woman to husband and young to old. Ground down by his mother’s constant carping, Tichon lacks the independence to be able to give his wife what she needs and seeks refuge in alcohol. When he departs on a journey for a few days, Varvara, who is aware of the mutual attraction between Káťa and the unmarried Boris, arranges a first night-time tryst for them. This uncaps all Káťa’s pent-up emotions: behind the desperate intensity with which she gives herself to Boris erupt needs that go far beyond a yearning for fulfilled love or shared passion. To Káťa, to go on living now seems more impossible than ever.
Leoš Janáček forged the libretto to Káťa Kabanová from a Czech translation of Alexander Ostrovsky’s play The Storm (1859), which is set in a small-town milieu dominated by wealthy merchants in mid-19th century Russia. Janáček dispensed with many of the specific socio-historical details — and thus also a substantial part of the concrete social criticism that characterizes Ostrovsky’s play. The opera concentrates on the protagonist and the individuals who directly determine her fate. Yet beyond the microcosm of the family, the social environment remains a palpable determining factor.
We are in a village or small town where a traditional value system, as upheld by Kabanicha, has degenerated into repressive convention. An atmosphere of coldness and torpor prevails, colliding with any desire for individual realization or true enjoyment of life. At the same time, the conflict in which Káťa finds herself through her relationship with Boris is an internal one, as she has made the moral yardsticks of her environment so much her own that a crisis of conscience is inevitable. Káťa articulates little of what motivates or oppresses her, or what she yearns for, and is perhaps largely unaware of it — something that makes the figure so true-to-life — but hypocrisy is foreign to her. Unlike Varvara and her lover Kudrjáš, she is unable to blithely disregard internalized moral norms. Even in Act I, the memory of her dreams of flying suddenly turns into panicstricken fear of the ‘sin’ into which desire for another man threatens to plunge her. In Act III, as a storm rages (outdoors as well as inside Káťa), her feelings of guilt impel her to confess to the undiscovered betrayal of her marriage. Káťa is imprisoned in a society in which she cannot exist; she will ultimately choose death over this mental and spiritual violation.
Janáček brings to his portrayal of Káťa the sympathy and subtle sensitivity that he devotes — eschewing all stereotypes — to all his major female figures. First performed in Brno in 1921, Káťa Kabanová marks the beginning of the composer’s final, extraordinarily productive decade. Janáček had now found his unmistakable language as a musical dramatist — a language that conveys the characters and situations, psychology and atmosphere in highly concentrated form, and in its naked immediacy and power gets directly under the listener’s skin.
Translation: Sophie Kidd