Janacek: Katya Kabanova

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Janacek
LABELS: Orfeo
WORKS: Katya Kabanova
PERFORMER: Angela Denoke, Jane Henschel, David Kuebler; Slovak Philharmonic Choir Bratislava, Czech PO/Sylvain Cambreling
CATALOGUE NO: C 487 992 I
Given its central significance in Janácek’s output and status as one of the 20th century’s definitive operatic masterpieces, it seems strange that this new Katya swells the ranks of performances on CD to only four. Recorded at the Salzburg Festival of 1998, allowances must inevitably be made for the staged environment – there are plenty of noises off and intonation occasionally lapses. The excellently recorded Czech Philharmonic plays splendidly. Despite Salzburg’s grimly realist setting of the opera in a drab, post-Communist Europe, Sylvain Cambreling’s conducting externalises the radiant qualities of Janácek’s score, reflecting passionate commitment to its moments of rich sentiment. Unfortunately, at times he is also puzzlingly literal, notably in the delicate accompaniment to our first glimpse of Katya.

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Heading a fine cast, Angela Denoke favours, quite appropriately, a mature image of Katya – a woman of significance rather than an inexperienced teenager – driven to infidelity and death by her claustrophobic circumstances, weak husband and appalling mother-in-law, sung with vindictive virtuosity by Jane Henschel. Apart from there being no libretto included – as well as choruses, plus noises off, interpolated between the acts – the main disadvantage of this recording is the Czech pronunciation, which varies from the conscientious to the barely comprehensible; no one would put up with this kind of thing from non-native singers of German or Italian. As a document, this performance has many points of interest, but all the existing recordings in the catalogue transcend it and Mackerras’s now-vintage 1972 recording with Söderström remains the gold standard. Jan Smaczny