The opera is set in a Russian village in the 1860s. ACT ONE begins in a public park. A teacher named Kudrash watches while his friend Boris is belittled by his uncle, Dikoj, a local merchant. When Dikoj leaves, Boris tells Kudrash that he's fallen in love with a married woman.
Nearby is the home of the Kabanov family. The young man Tichon lives there, with his gentle wife Katya and Tichon's domineering mother, known as Kabanicha. Tichon is a mild man who drinks too much, and doesn't pay much attention to Katya. Yet Kabanicha accuses Tichon of loving his wife more than his own mother. When Katya comes to Tichon's defense, Kabanicha tells her to shut up and mind her own business.
Michael Pöhn/Vienna State Opera
Janice Watson as the title character in 'Katya Kabanova' at the Vienna State Opera.
Janice Watson as the title character in 'Katya Kabanova' at the Vienna State Opera. Michael Pöhn/Vienna State Opera
Tichon says he loves them both. Kabanicha tells Tichon not to tell his wife that he loves her — otherwise, she'll never fear him. Kabanicha coldly says that if Katya had an affair, Tichon would probably do nothing about it. When the old woman goes inside, Varvara, a young girl they've taken in, tells Tichon that she feels sorry for Katya.
In the next scene, inside the house, Katya and Varvara are talking. Katya says that before she got married, she used to live a peaceful, carefree life. Now she's unhappy, and feels like she's "falling into sin." In her dreams, Katya says, she's been having an affair with another man.
Tichon enters. Kabanicha has ordered him off on a trip to do some business. Katya begs him either not to go, or to take her with him. She seems afraid of what might happen while he's away.
Kabanicha then comes into the room and forces Tichon to have Katya make demeaning promises: that she'll keep busy while he's gone, that she won't be rude, that she'll honor her mother-in-law and that she won't stare out the window at young men. Tichon objects to this as unnecessary, but does as his mother says. When Katya embraces Tichon, Kabanicha rebukes her for such a shameful physical display. Tichon breaks away from Katya and abruptly leaves the house.
At the start of ACT TWO, Kabanicha is railing at Katya for not being suitably upset at her husband's absence, while Varvara is hoping to lift Katya's spirits. She's been trying to arrange a meeting between Katya and a young man named Boris, who seems taken with her. Varvara steals Kabanicha's gate key, and gives it to Katya.
The next scene is at night, outside the Kabanov's home. The teacher Kudrash is there, waiting for someone. Boris turns up. He admits that he's in love with Katya, and says a young woman told him he should wait here, by the gate. That woman was Varvara, who soon appears and goes off with Kudrash.
Katya then emerges from the house and approaches Boris. He tries to take her hand, but she resists. He says he loves her. She's noticed him before, and she plainly feels the same way. Katya warns him that their love will destroy them both — but she soon gives in and embraces him.
Janacek sets their duet to music that's both passionate and tragic. They acknowledge their love, but also seem to know that their situation is hopeless. Then, in a brilliant musical turn, Janacek combines this bittersweet duet with distant exchanges between the carefree couple, Varvara and Kudrash. The act ends as Katya returns home, leaving Boris alone in the dark.
Janice Watson ................. Katya
Deborah Polaski ........ Kabanicha
Klaus Florian Vogt ............. Boris
Stephanie Houtzeel ........ Varvara
Norbert Ernst ................ Kudrash
Marian Talaba ................ Tichon
Wolfgang Bankl ................. Dikoj
Marcus Pelz ................. Kuligan
Donna Ellen ................. Feklusa
Juliette Mars .................. Glasa
Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
ACT THREE takes place two weeks later and begins at an abandoned church near the Volga River. People have come to the ruins to escape a storm. Kudrash argues with the boorish merchant Dikoj. Then Varvara appears, followed by Boris. Varvara is worried about Katya, who has been acting bizarrely ever since Tichon returned from his trip. And Varvara says Kabanicha has been "eying Katya like a snake."
Katya then runs in, nearly hysterical. Boris and Dikoj hide. Katya is convinced that the violent storm is punishment from God for her infidelity. Varvara and Kudrash try to quiet her.
But when Kabanicha and Tichon arrive, Katya immediately confesses her affair. She tells Tichon that while he was gone, she was with another man each night for ten nights. Tichon tries to deny it, but Katya even tells him it was Boris who was her lover. Kabanicha revels in Katya's shame, saying, "It's just as I predicted." Katya runs off into the storm.
The final scene is on the banks of the Volga at nightfall. Tichon passes by, looking for Katya. He says his mother wants Katya "buried alive," but that he still loves her. Varvara appears with Kudrash. She tells him that Kabanicha has been locking her in her room. Kudrash tells her they should run off together to Moscow. She agrees, and they leave.
Katya enters alone. In a long, painful monologue, she wishes for death, saying, "they used to throw women like me into the Volga. But now they tell me, 'stay alive, and let your sin torment you.'" Boris hears her from a distance, and approaches. He tells her that his uncle is sending him to a trading post in Siberia. Katya tells him not to worry about her. They say goodbye, and he slowly walks away. In the background there's a chorus. In the score, they're instructed to sing a wavering vowel, to sound "like the Volga sighing."
Alone, Katya is hallucinating, and thinks she's hearing voices. She crawls to the riverbank. Singing that flowers will blossom, and birds will flutter at her grave, she throws herself into the water.
Someone sees Katya going into the river, and villagers appear. Tichon rushes in, accusing Kabanicha of destroying his wife. A small boat is launched, and Katya's body is dragged onshore. Tichon collapses, while Kabanicha calmly thanks everyone for their assistance.