Leos Janacek: Katia Kabanova (1921)

Opera in three acts (generally performed as two). Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes.

I started out this review with a performance from Scotland in English so I could get a grasp of what the opera is about, which didn’t really help all that much, although the performance in Czech I am including in this review has French subtitles and those definitely helped! Due to the brevity of the opera and the fact that the first two acts occur on what is supposed to be the same day, the first two acts are generally performed without intermission, a practice which was actively encouraged by Janacek.

SETTING: 1860s, Kalinov, a Russian town on the Volga River. If you think your mother-in-law is the she-devil from the pit of Hell, she has nothing on Kabanicha (contralto) the widowed mother of the merchant Tikhon Kabanov (tenor), the husband of Katia Kabanova (soprano). Having no ally but the orphan girl Varvara (mezzo-soprano), Katia throws herself into a torrid affair with Boris (tenor), the nephew of her neighbour Savel Dikoj (bass), another merchant. There is also Vanya (tenor) the schoolteacher who embarks on a far more chaste (and on-stage) relationship with Varvara while Katia and Boris obviously have sex off-stage.


ACT 1: (39 minutes)

Scene 1: The banks of the Volga River, a Sunday morning.

0: The four-minute long prelude ** starts off dark, then turns into a troika ride through the Russian snows. It then returns to dark, although more dusky perhaps.

15: The opening scene consists of a series of plot establishing dialogues (none overtly musically interesting, although all appropriately mood setting), the first between the schoolteacher Vanya and Glasa, the housekeeper on the Kabanov estate. They are quickly interrupted by Savel Dikoj and his nephew Boris. When Dikoj leaves, Boris explains to Vanya, as Glasa speaks to another servant woman, that in order to collect his inheritance, he has to placate the old man even though he is so unpleasant. He also explains that he is in love with Katia, the wife of the noxious Tikhon Kabanov. Eventually The Kabanovi show up en masse and Kabanicha (whom Vanya describes as a hypocrite who is generous to the poor but horrid to those around her) orders Tikhon to go on a merchant trip while verbally beating up on Katia (who gets a nice little opening line). Eventually Varvara, an orphan taken in by the family, rebukes Tikhon for failing to stand up for his obviously unhappy wife against his toxic mother *.

Scene 2: A room in the Kabanov house, that afternoon.

19: A much more interesting tune finally comes up in the interlude and is expanded upon in the following exposition dialogue between Katia and Varvara ** as the former describes the freedom of her childhood.

23: Katia recollects her past joys and compares them to her current woes (and thoughts of suicide by drowning) ***.

31: Tikhon comes on and Katia confronts him: she really does not want him to go, fearing that she will be tempted to betray him **.

35: Kabanicha comes on and orders Tikhon to extract a humiliating vow of fidelity from Katia **. The concluding symphony implies that Kabanicha is determined to find a way to have Katia killed.

ACT 2: (36 minutes)

Scene 1: The same, but that evening.

3: Kabanicha beats up on Katia, as the three women embroider, for not basically going into mourning while her husband is away. After the old woman leaves, Varvara tells Katia that she has stolen the key to the main gate and has already told Boris to meet with Katia that night for a sexy rendezvous in the garden **. At first Katia is appalled by the young girl and orders her away.

6: Katia contemplates committing adultery ***. Taking the key, she over hears Varvara telling Boris where he needs to be, and she leaves the house.

10: Kabanicha and Dikoj (the latter drunk) come on and the two engage in some sado-masochism *.

Scene 2: The Garden at night.

13: The centrepiece of the score is a twenty minute double love scene with the chorus acting as an orchestral instrument preceded by an interlude *. Vanya sings a blaring song as he waits for Varvara. Boris shows up first and explains that he and Katia are going to do the nasty tonight while Vanya and Varvara talk in the garden. Varvara scampers on and goes off eventually with Vanya.

22: Katia arrives trying to disguise herself and declares her fear of disgrace at her probable shame at the hands of Boris but eventually she gives in to him ***.

28: Varvara and Vanya return and tell them that they will be on the lookout for Kabanicha. The parallel between the amusing duet between V & V on stage while all sorts of acrobatic horrors are occurring off stage is just remarkable ***.

ACT 3: (33 minutes)

Scene 1: A shelter ten days later, a storm brewing in the distance.

1: A comedic opening ** as Vanya, friend Kuligin, and Dikoj discuss their contradictory views of inclement weather. Dikoj believes it is an omen of divine wrath, Vanya tries to put up a lightening rod. The storm dies down.

4: Varvara comes on ** and tells Boris and Vanya that Katia has lost her mind now that Tikhon is returning.

6: Katia comes on as the storm comes up again and even Kabanicha arrives seeking shelter with Tikhon. Katia breaks down and confesses everything in public *** in spite of constant protestations from Varvara, before running off into the storm.

Scene 2: Evening, the storm is over, the Kabanov estate, near the Volga river.

9: Tikhon shows up first, still looking for Katia, he declares that in spite of everything he still loves her. Varvara comes on with Vanya: she is terrified that everything is over and flees with Vanya to Moscow *.

10: Katia appears and expounds in a long monologue *** knowing her life is over but wanting to see Boris one last time.

20: The love duet *** (preceeded by a long orchestral pantomime). Boris eventually arrives and reveals that his uncle has ordered him away to another town. He begs her to leave with him, but she refuses (notice the madness motif that relentlessly pops up in the brass), and he leaves alone.

30: The play-out ***: Kuligin sees Katia throw herself into the Volga from the opposite side of the river, Tikhon and Kabanicha are closer and Tikhon attempts to save Katia but is restrained by his mother, who he publicly accuses of having driven his wife to commit suicide. Dikoj comes on with the lifeless body of Katia in his arms, and as Tikhon weeps over her body Kabanicha thanks the audience for helping her kill Katia.


Once you get over the first quarter hour of, admittedly much needed, exposition, this opera really takes off! One interesting feature is how Janacek can play off two totally separate dialogues on stage at the same time. Usually in opera this turns into a garbled chatty sing-song, but here the dramatic elements are firmly stated, it is impossible to miss any of the dialogue so long as you understand the language. The brevity of the work, particularly the climactic storm sequence, might be slightly odd (Wagner would have done it in around quadruple the time it takes Janacek), and this may give the impression that enough time has not been given to fully establish the characters (except for Katia herself), especially the males, but somehow the rapidity of the action works. The plot is intellectually engaging with multiple psychologically well sketched characters, and the music, apart from perhaps that opening scene, is rather consistently good. I might make a bugaboo that Boris is not totally projected (he seems to have only just enough time in order to make sense of his role) and the focus is more on the three primary female characterizations, but that is a trifle. Varvara seems like an ideal role for a young mezzo, and there aren’t many of those around. An alpha.

One response to “Leos Janacek: Katia Kabanova (1921)”

  1. That climactic storm sequence was influenced by The Queen of Spades which Janacek called ”a masterpiece of horror”

    Glad you’ve finally featuring the greatest operatic composer of the 20 century 🙂 Hope there’s more coming?


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