Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
– Richard Jones (director) – John Macfarlane (sets) –
Nicky Gillibrand (costumes) – The Royal Opera Chorus and
Orchestra – Antonio Pappano (conductor). 06.10. 2006.
it was first produced in April 2004, it seemed possible
to question whether Richard Jones’s slant on Lady Macbeth
of Mtsensk missed the ‘intentions’ of Nikolai Leskov’s
short story on which Shostakovich and his collaborator,
Alexander Preys, based their libretto. This is undoubtedly
Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth not Leskov’s, nor Shakespeare’s,
and on second viewing it seemed edgier but that may just
have been because of the re-examination available to a
have discussed the background to this work in some detail
but the most important thing to remember was that
Shostakovich was so traumatised by Stalin’s attack on
the work that he never composed another opera, concentrating
on symphonies and film music. The only thing that came
even close was Cheryomushki (Paradise Moscow),
about life in 1950s Moscow. This is a gentle and brilliant
satire on Soviet bureaucracy, communal living and bribery.
The director David Pountney once said that ‘We were cheated
of the composer who could have been the Verdi of the twentieth
century.’ Maybe Verdi is not the name that should come
immediately to mind but the implication is clear that
much of significance is lost to us all and we are potentially
the poorer for it.
was only 26 when he completed Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
in 1932, and it was conceived as part one of a trilogy
revealing how women were oppressed or liberated before,
during and after the Revolution with the composer himself
calling the opera a ‘tragedy-satire’.
The powerful score imposes a duality of perspective on
the listening audience: there is Katerina whose soul-destroying
isolation and rampant sexual needs are accompanied by
soaring lyrical music, but this contrasts with the bile
Shostakovich meters out satirically to virtually all the
other characters. Hidden within all this are also pastiches
of other composers' music. Perhaps it was that my ears
are sensitive to that sort of thing, but I heard a number
of quotations from the Ring this time?
In brief, the story is that the sexually frustrated,
down-at-heel, Katerina Ismailova who has a childless marriage
and an abusive relationship with her father-in-law, Boris.
When her ineffectual husband, Zinovy, is away working
she seeks solace in the arms of a lover, Sergey, and develops
her ubiquitous culinary skill with mushrooms to make a
meal of them to poison Boris. Zinovy returns home and
becomes as suspicious of Katerina and Sergey as of his
father’s recent death and so must be killed as well -
his soon-to-be rotting corpse is left in an adjacent storeroom.
On their wedding-day the two of them realise that their
game is up and decide to flee but are arrested for their
crimes. Whilst being transported to Siberia, Sergey deserts
Katerina and takes up with Sonyetka. The humiliated Katerina
takes her revenge by drowning her rival along with herself
in the river.
The first three acts are perfectly pitched between tragedy
and comedy; the ‘rape’ of the cook, the lovers ‘wrestling’,
Boris’s poisoning, the drunken priest, Zinovy’s murder,
the shabby peasant, the Keystone Cops and finally the
wedding scene. Act IV almost seems from another work entirely.
It was the first three acts that offended Stalin so much
that he left before the last one and Shostakovich might
never have survived had he stayed.The programme quotes
from the great Galina Vishnevskaya’s autobiography:
that oppressive silence, one suddenly hears the melancholy
sound of the English horn and the voice of a solitary,
unhappy woman … When insight comes … the avalanche of
the orchestral prelude to her last monologue brings the
heavens down on her… the road to her private hell … Here,
for the first time, are her horror at what she has done,
her self-condemnation, and her only salvation, death.’
the opera ends with more of the transported convicts’
despair we experience the full impact of Stalin’s terrors.
A word of praise here for the contribution as the Old
Convict of the veteran Gwynne Howell, whose secure and
resonant bass voice showed his slightly younger and much
younger deep-voiced colleagues on the evening just how
to do it.
Macfarlane’s set for Lady Macbeth is cinematic,
and duplicated a split-screen effect with a stage-deep
vertical division between rooms. In an ideal world with
infinite financial resources and Covent Garden’s much-vaunted,
but seemingly underused, modern stage technology perhaps
there would have been a chance for a smooth change between
the scenes without involving a drop curtain. The one inventive,
and therefore most effective, moment when this did not
occur is when Katerina takes advantage of her ‘liberation’,
newly acquired status and ill-gotten wealth and a squad
of decorators hang new wallpaper to give her previously
drab bedroom a designer make-over. The décor of a shabby
communal flat gives way to kitsch with a chandelier, pink
bedspread and modern art.
of Richard Jones’s directorial motifs are present, including
the wardrobe behind which Katerina enthusiastically consorts
with Sergey for the first time. The famous detumescent
bassoon remains a marvellous moment and nothing need be
explicit as it is all in the music. A solitary hanging
light bulb is something else that harks back to previous
productions including his Covent Garden Ring of
blessed memory. There was a Wagnerian denouement as Katerina
clutches Sonyetka and they symbolically sink below the
stage, though neither will be redeemed for their actions.
A raucous Mahlerian brass band wanders around the theatre
and across the stage from time to time celebrating his
influence on Shostakovich’s score if not directly then
merely as reminiscence. Anyway Antonio Pappano conducted
his excellent orchestra and chorus with true Mahlerian
Westbroek gave a wonderful account of what could be a
fairly frumpy role, except that unlike many on stage her
clothes seemed strangely new in their shabbiness. She
oozed almost animalistic sexual energy, eager and impetuous,
and even at her most impassioned her voice retained a
velvet tone. Christopher Ventris as Sergey was equally
muscular, his voice strong and secure. Together
they would make the ideal Sieglinde and Siegmund.
audience seemed transfixed whenever John Tomlinson (Boris)
was on stage – even as a silent ghost climbing over a
ladder – but he is becoming, at this stage of his career,
a bit of an ‘old buffer’. Whilst remaining this amazing
stage presence he has however lost some of his vaunted
earlier menace in both voice and personality.
Gergiev’s concert performance at the Proms recently had
been luxuriously cast in the smaller roles and this did
show up the limitations of some of those cast in those
roles here. Notably John Daszak (Zinovy) and Maxim Mikhailov
(Priest) struggled with their respective high and low
notes and Roderick Earle as the Police Inspector seemed
out of sorts. However on the plus side Christine Rice
repeated her well-characterised Sonyetka.
minor carping about the freshness of some of the singing
notwithstanding, as a piece of pure music theatre this
evening is an undoubted triumph. It makes a masterpiece
out of Shostakovich’s second – and last – opera and confirms
if confirmation was necessary, that Richard Jones is one
of the world’s best opera directors even though he still
remains underrated by many.