Shostakovich on Stage – Katerina Izmaylova

Katerina Izmaylova, Op.114 – Opera in four acts and nine scenes

Katerina Izmaylova – Olga Sergeyeva
Sergei – Oleg Balashov
Boris Timofeyevich Izmaylov – Gennady Bezzubenkov
Zinovy Borisovich Izmaylov – Yevgeny Akimov
Aksinya – Ludmilla Kasyanenko
Sonyetka – Olga Savova
Police Sergeant – Yevgeny Nikitin
Priest – Mikhail Petrenko
Nihilist – Alexander Timchenko
Shabby Peasant – Vassily Gorshkov
Policeman – Ilya Bannik
Old Convict – Mikhail Kit

Chorus and Orchestra of the Mariinsky (Kirov) Theatre, St Petersburg
Valery Gergiev

Irina Molostova – stage director
George Tsypin – set designer
Tatiana Noginova – costume designer
Vladimir Lukasevich – lighting designer

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 23 July, 2006
Venue: The Coliseum, London

In a series devoted to the stage-works of Shostakovich, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” has to form the culmination: an opera which ought to have established its composer as the leading opera figure of the mid-twentieth century, had not events in the spring of 1935 both condemned the work to oblivion and forced Shostakovich to change course irrevocably.

A further irony is that while a Revised Version of the opera surfaced in 1963 and was quickly taken up in Europe and America, “Katerina Izmaylova” – as it was now called – itself fell from favour once the original version was rehabilitated at the end of the 1970s. It is typical of Valery Gergiev’s inclusiveness that, though he is performing ‘Lady Macbeth’ at the Proms in August, he chose the Mariinsky’s current London residency to present what was thus a comparatively rare outing for ‘Katerina’ – enabling audiences to assess whether the much-debated revisions were made primarily out of practical considerations or merely out of political expediency.

In point of fact, numerous of these revisions were already ‘in mind’ while ‘Lady Macbeth’ was enjoying its triumphal first run, and would doubtless have been incorporated into future productions had not fate – in the guise of Stalin – so intervened. Moreover, the revisions as they stand are not so far-reaching as to change its formal continuity or expressive complexion (being much less extensive than those that transform “Leonore” into “Fidelio”): aside from re-writing of two orchestral interludes so as to tone down the younger Shostakovich’s overt enthusiasm for Berg, and the remodelling of the controversial ‘bedroom scene’ in Act One so that its effect is rather less naturalistic, most of the changes focus on matters of orchestration and balance – making ‘Katerina’ an opera that is kinder to singers and less remorselessly up-front in terms of its emotional force. Such considerations ought to have ensured its currency in the present era, and yet this performance was its first UK staging for almost three decades.

Certainly the impression left by this account was of an opera more focussed theatrically and dramatically tighter than its predecessor (though the difference in timing is a few minutes at most), yet also reigned-in – even subdued – in terms of its dramatic impact. True, this account, while rarely lacklustre or uninvolving, seemed intent on placing both characters and situations at a remove from the audience’s sympathies – abetted by Irina Molostova’s staging which, satisfying in its realism (that of a late-Russian or early-Soviet peasantry, according to inclination) and with George Tsypin’s sets tellingly suggestive of a communal prison within which family and peasants alike are kept firmly within bounds, had a formal rigidity often serving to limit the music’s dramatic flair and imagination. Moreover, a full interval between Acts Three and Four hardly seemed necessary when the latter’s Siberian set was neither scenically arresting nor evocative of the main protagonists’ predicament.

Perhaps this would have been otherwise has those protagonists been more communicative of their characters. Olga Sergeyeva took time to evince real empathy with Katerina – neither desperate in her boredom nor unduly humiliated in dealings with an autocratic father-in-law or an inadequate husband, and only gradually aroused by a lover. Only at the apparition of the dead Boris (Vladimir Lukasevich’s lighting worthy of “Nosferatu”), and subsequent murder of Zinovy, did she find deeper resonance within the role; one that served her admirably in the tormented soliloquies of the final act.

As Sergei, Oleg Balashov was too obviously the local stud for his protestations that he was ‘understanding of’ Katerina to be credible, despite his dashing demeanour otherwise making him ideal in the role. Not did he suggest other than a vengeful meanness in the last act, distinguished by Olga Savova’s burnished and almost too sophisticated Sonyetka. Yevgeny Akimov was convincing as the put-upon Zinovy, but the highlight was undoubtedly Gennady Bezzubenkov as the sadistic Boris – humiliating those around him with obvious enjoyment and souping-up his death with a consummate mix of pathos and absurdity.

Of the smaller roles, Ludmilla Kasyanenko convinced as the long-suffering cook Aksinya, as did Mikhail Petrenko as the inebriated Priest. Yevgeny Nikitin was a bullying Police Sergeant and Alexander Timchenko a truly hapless Nihilist: Mikhail Kit’s Old Convict potently set the sombre tone for the final act as a whole.

As before, Valery Gergiev conducted with a keen sense of dramatic pace, and also appreciation of the musical follow-through between individual scenes and across each act as a whole. It will be interesting to compare his approach to ‘Lady Macbeth’ at the Proms – perhaps even confirming whether “Katerina Izmaylova” was subject to too calculated an approach on this occasion, or whether the revision is – after all – too cautious in overhauling a flawed but enthralling early-twentieth-century operatic masterpiece.

  • Shostakovich on Stage continues until 29 July at The Coliseum, London (details through ENO link, below)
  • English National Opera

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