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Lover’s Stormy Suicide; Hytner Triumphs With Farce: U.K. Stage

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March 22 (Bloomberg) -- A desperate and stormy climax is brewing in the orchestra pit. On stage, a towering metal billboard threatens to fall with a crash.

Whoosh! The musical crisis is reached -- and instead of banging down with an appropriate smash, the billboard is winched over very slowly by a rope, like a docile cow being air-rescued from a cliff. As anticlimaxes go, it’s got to be a prize contender.

There are many terrific things in David Alden’s expressionistic production of “Katya Kabanova” at London’s English National Opera. The anticlimactic storm scene is not one of them.

Leos Janacek’s opera is about a naive young woman, stuck in a provincial Russian town, who embarks on an ill-judged affair. She publicly confesses her guilt at the height of a storm.

Claustrophobia and corrosive social pressures are meat and drink to Alden, as we’ve seen in his previous ENO productions of “Jenufa” and “Lucia di Lammermoor.” He’s good here, too.

The characters inhabit an empty and severely raked stage, looking lost, lonely and awkward. Often, Katya stands in the front, by the wings, as if trying to escape. Adam Silvermann’s virtuosic lighting casts shadows around her.

In a minimalistic, angular way, it works beautifully. Costumes suggest that the older characters are stuck in a world of stiff Victorian corsetry and high collars. Younger characters experiment with 1920s short skirts and scruffy leather coats, as if they’re about to rush off to join the Russian Revolution.

Red Devil

The slow-toppling billboard completes the sense of an unknown future by presenting a Soviet-style image of the devil on a red background.

In U.S. soprano Patricia Racette, the production has a top-rank Katya. She has a lustrous voice, and her suicidal leap off the back of the stage near the end is astonishingly fearless.

Susan Bickley is gloriously sadistic as Katya’s vicious mother-in-law Kabanicha, and Stuart Skelton brings gleaming top notes and pathos to the role of Katya’s feckless lover Boris.

The only weak link is Clive Bayley as the reactionary town elder Dikoy. Alden directs Bayley to caper exaggeratedly, like a comical buffoon. The sense of his destructive grip over the town is lost.

No such quibbles in the pit.

From the glowing chords of the introduction to the blaring brasses of the climax, Mark Wigglesworth never loses the urgency and romantic yearning the score demands. Rating: ***1/2.

“London Assurance”

There’s romantic yearning of a different kind in Dion Boucicault’s 1841 farce “London Assurance,” playing at the National Theatre. The vain Sir Harcourt Courtly plans to marry 18-year-old country heiress Grace. His son Charles has other plans, and with the help of the good-natured Lady Gay Spanker, he beats his father to the prize.

There are many sharp jokes and ticklish misunderstandings, and Nicholas Hytner’s handsome period-costume production ticks like well-oiled clockwork. Mark Thompson’s set, a comfortable Elizabethan manor house, is so delightful, you want to move in.

A rouged and effete Simon Russell Beale is pure pleasure as Sir Harcourt, and Fiona Shaw strides about hilariously as the cigar-smoking Lady Gay. Paul Ready and Michelle Terry are note-perfect as the amusingly awkward young lovers Charles and Grace.

The ensemble also includes national theatrical treasure Richard Briers as Lady Gay’s husband Adolphus, and he shows what triumphs a great actor can wring from a small role. Farce doesn’t get any better. Rating: ****.

“Katya Kabanova” is in rep at the Coliseum through March 27. Information: http://www.eno.org or +44-871-911-0200

“London Assurance” is in rep at the National Theatre through June 2. Information: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or +44-20-7452-3000.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What The Stars Mean:
****          Excellent
***          Good
**          Average
*          Poor
(No stars)Worthless

To contact the writer of this review: Warwick Thompson in London at warwicktho@aol.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.