London Coliseum – Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – opera in four acts and nine scenes, Op.29

Libretto by Alexander Preis and the composer
English translation by David Pountney

Vivian Tierney – Katerina Lvovna Ismailova
Pavlo Hunka – Boris Timofeyevich Ismailov
Rhys Meirion – Zinovy Borisovich Ismailov
Nicholas Folwell – Mill-worker
Robert Brubaker – Sergey
Meryl Richardson – Aksinya
John Graham-Hall – Shabby Peasant
Graeme Danby – Priest
Roberto Salvatori – Chief of Police
Richard Roberts – Teacher
Grant Dickson – Old Convict
Leah-Marian Jones – Sonyetka

David Pountney – original director
Lynn Binstock – revival director
Stefanos Lazaridis – designer
Paul Pyant – original lighting designer
Jenny Cane – revival lighting designer

Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera conducted by Mark Wigglesworth

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 15 June, 2001
Venue: London Coliseum

That Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is Shostakovich’s second and last completed opera has given it a certain caché in the composer’s output: the point at which he ceased to reach the musical public through the explicit medium of the theatre, and turned instead to the more abstract one of the concert and recital hall. The break is by no means clear-cut – Shostakovich wrote intensively for the cinema until near the end of his life, while those who recently enjoyed Opera North’s revival of Paradise Moscow – the operetta-cum-musical from 1958 – will know that the composer’s theatrical instincts had not deserted him. What is certain is that the belated condemnation of Lady Macbeth in the notorious Pravda editorial of 1936 terminated not only a projected tetralogy of operas dealing with the role of women in Russian and Soviet society, but a likely ongoing involvement with opera such as would have created the body of stagework so glaringly absent from Soviet dramatic culture.

As Elizabeth Wilson points out in her programme article, Shostakovich’s 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, Rostropovich’s recording of essentially the original score in 1979, and the British stage premiere of this version in 1987 – corresponds both with the composer’s 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 opera’s success and its undoing; even today, it retains a provocative aspect that Shostakovich’s music readily enhances.

The anti-romantic objectivity which permeates the composer’s earlier work is still pervasive here: the shock-horror theatrics which accompany the murders of Katerina’s 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 Berg’s 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 Katerina’s 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 Brubaker’s 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 Pountney’s 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 Wigglesworth’s conducting: his Shostakovich credentials established through performances and recordings of the symphonies, he takes on Lady Macbeth with conviction, steering the music’s 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 Shostakovich’s scoring with maximum impact. An excellent revival, demonstrating just why this powerful, provocative and tragically solitary opera has become integral to the modern repertoire.

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