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Shostakovitch, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk : soloists – Richard Jones (director) – John Macfarlane (sets) – Nicky Gillibrand (costumes) – The Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra – Antonio Pappano (conductor). 06.10. 2006. (JPr)




When 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 second viewing.

I have discussed the background to this work in some detail recently (HERE) 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.

Shostakovich 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:
‘In 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.’

As 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.

John 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.

Some 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 fervour.

Eva-Maria 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.

The 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.

Valery 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.

The 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.

Jim Pritchard




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