As Elizabeth Wilson points out in her programme article, Shostakovichs involvement in radical theatre from 1927 had led to a variety of productions, notably the satirical opera The Nose (1928) and the ballet extravaganzas The Golden Age (1930) and The Bolt (1931), all of which enjoyed only limited success. Opening-out this involvement to reach wider, non-specialist audiences, without blunting the musico-theatrical edge, was of overriding concern and, from the almost simultaneous stagings in Leningrad and Moscow in May 1934 to the Muddle instead of Music article of January 1936, Shostakovich appeared to have succeeded beyond all expectations. The subsequent history of the opera - including its revision and rehabilitation as Katerina Ismailova in 1962, Rostropovichs recording of essentially the original score in 1979, and the British stage premiere of this version in 1987 - corresponds both with the composers passing into the canon of Western musical masters, and the fight for his soul pursued by academics and polemicists which is only now abating.
All of which is far removed from the composer who completed his culminating theatrical masterpiece when only 27. Shostakovich avoided the easy option when it came to adaptation - choosing a short story by Nikolay Leskov in which the principal female character is hardly a heroine by any personal or social definition. The change in focus which he and co-librettist Alexander Preis brought about is a powerful and effective one: temptress, murderess and manipulator though she may be, Katerina engages our sympathy through the sheer presence of character manifested cumulatively over the course of the opera, while the other main characters remain trapped in their behavioural stereotypes. The very modernity of such a heroine was both the key to the operas success and its undoing; even today, it retains a provocative aspect that Shostakovichs music readily enhances.
The anti-romantic objectivity which permeates the composers earlier work is still pervasive here: the shock-horror theatrics which accompany the murders of Katerinas father-in-law and husband; the satirising routines of Priest and Chief of Police; the post-Mussorgskian portrayal of the Shabby Peasant in all his folk-like garishness; the objective detachment which Shostakovich had witnessed in the operas of Hindemith and Krenek. Yet Lady Macbeth is also an admission that opera could be deeper in expression without compromising its relevance: the arias sung by Katerina in her bedroom in scene 3, and on the road to Siberia in scene 9 - a miracle of stripped-down, searing emotion - typify this widening of approach, as does the sporadic love scene in scene 5; hardly an emotional outpouring in the Puccinian sense, but no less affecting - not least through the Mahlerian undercurrents which Shostakovich would deploy more systematically in his subsequent work. An especially telling feature is the use of orchestral interludes, maintaining continuity or preparing for change between scenes in the manner of those in Bergs Wozzeck. Shostakovich also emulates the older composer in the use of an orchestral passacaglia to render the powerful human emotions in purely musical terms: placed between scenes 4 and 5, it depicts the emerging tragedy with inevitability such as Britten would have recourse to a decade on.
Vivian Tierney is excellent casting as Katerina, the bored unloved wife driven partly by circumstance, partly by the awakening of her latent sexuality, to murder - with, as the title of the opera implies, an attendant remorse. The power of her vocal delivery is matched by the force of her stage presence, while the opening-out of her personality is reflected in the finely-judged expression of her love scene with Sergey, and the resigned emptiness of her aria before death. Pavlo Hunka is a properly boorish, cruel Boris, demanding Katerinas subservience while admitting his own lust in the revealing monologue that opens scene 4. Rhys Meirion can do little with Zinovy other than convey the social and sexual inadequate that he is, while Robert Brubakers initially pugnacious Sergey is increasingly overwhelmed by the emotional force he has unlocked in Katerina; a convincing portrayal only marginally undermined by signs of vocal strain in the final act. John Graham-Hall is priceless in the cameo role of the Shabby Peasant - witness his song-and-dance routine in scene 6, with Roberto Salvatori the figure of corrupt authority as Chief of Police. Meryl Richardson is a plaintive Aksinya, Leah-Marian Jones a shrewish Sonyetka. Grant Dickson is impressive as the Old Convict, opening act four with a monologue whose powerful restraint sets a stark tone after the preceding antics. The ENO chorus has a crucial stage presence, and delivers the anti-fugue of the drunken wedding guests in scene 8 with gusto.
The original staging was perhaps the finest of David Pountneys productions during his variable last few seasons at ENO - striking a fine balance between constructivist and expressionist poles, with a striking and manoeuvrable set from Stefanos Lazaridis, and well-judged extremes of lighting from Jenny Cane. It has been admirably overhauled for the revival by Lynn Binstock, with only the stage-right presence of the witches in the first two acts a questionable, because superfluous, device.
Special praise for Mark Wigglesworths conducting: his Shostakovich credentials established through performances and recordings of the symphonies, he takes on Lady Macbeth with conviction, steering the musics emotional extremes with a sure grasp of the coherence between scenes and across acts, and encouraging the ENO orchestra to surpass even its recent high standard, not least where the additional brass, strikingly absorbed into the production as Red Army extras, project Shostakovichs scoring with maximum impact. An excellent revival, demonstrating just why this powerful, provocative and tragically solitary opera has become integral to the modern repertoire.
- Further performances - June 19, 22, 25, 28, July 3 & 5 at 7pm; June 30 at 6pm
- Box Office: 020 7632 8300 (tel) / 020 7379 1264 (fax)
- Richard also writes on a recent production of The Nose