The Royal Opera – Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk [Dalayman & Tomlinson]

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – Opera in four acts and nine scenes (after a short story by Nikolai Leskov)

Katerina Ismailova – Katarina Dalayman
Boris Ismailov – John Tomlinson
Zinovy Ismailov – Stefan Margita
Sergey – Christopher Ventris
Mill Workman – Jared Holt
Aksinya – Susan Bickley
Priest – Maxim Mikhailov
Police Inspector – Roderick Earle
Old Convict – Gwynne Howell
Sonyetka – Christine Rice

The Royal Opera Chorus
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano

Richard Jones – director
John Macfarlane – sets
Nicky Gillibrand – costumes
Mimi Jordan Sherin – lighting
Linda Dobell – choreography

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 5 April, 2004
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Despite having been rehabilitated a quarter-century ago, the original version of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is only now being staged by the Royal Opera (the revised version, Katerina Ismailova, was given in 1963-4). Moreover, the polemical debate to have overtaken the composer’s music during the last fifteen years ensures any new production will be scrutinised for its political subtext and/or allegiance to either of the opposing views as to what Shostakovich’s legacy represents in cultural terms.

To say that Richard Jones’s production avoids the polemical issue is not to suggest that it pretends such controversy to be non-existent. Rather that ideological considerations are inferred as part of a generalised socio-cultural backdrop drawing on images from across the last half-century and from a generalised European perspective. Thus the mise en scène for the Ismailov household that suffices for the first three acts tempers its Eastern austerity with elements of Western consumerism – pointed up by John Macfarlane’s stark sets and Nicky Gillibrand’s modish costumes – in a depiction of lower-middle-class degradation such as could have been updated from Nikolai Leskov’s merchant household of 60 years earlier.

This allows the often soap-opera humour to be played up readily – whether in the sarcastic and often brutal exchanges between Katerina and her father-in-law Boris, in her dismissive approach to her wimp-husband Zinovy, or the caricatured passion of her involvement with the itinerant worker Sergey. This latter, underscored in deeply ironic terms by the music itself, is most problematic – as any production needs to establish Katerina as a woman sympathetic in terms of her plight, such that her increasingly drastic measures are justifiable in terms of salvaging some degree of integrity. As in his recent ENO production of Berg’s Lulu, however, Jones alludes to deeper consequences by skimming over the surface of the action as we perceive it. The outcome is a production which touches on most of the salient issues at work in Shostakovich’s drama, without expounding on the pathos that the music gradually but intently works through to in the fourth act.

That act is disappointing scenically because Jones’s staging generalises the dramatic expression just when it needs to open out onto an altogether wider human perspective. Instead, the presence of two lorry rear-ends could refer to Stalinist or Nazi transportation, present-day illegal immigrants, all or none of these: but, above all, it serves no intrinsic purpose either in terms of Shostakovich’s music or the social considerations with which he sought to make relevant his update of a Russian blood-and-thunder tale into a Soviet morality. The opera crucially loses focus as a result.

None of this need invalidate a rendition that is strong and often outstanding. Most especially Katarina Dalayman, whose identity with the role of Katerina grows in proportion to her artistry – mesmerically so in the final act, where her gradual acceptance of the inevitable holds the stage for the 32 minutes it takes Shostakovich to unfold a finale of symphonic coherence. (Those who hold to the idea of him as a frustrated opera composer need to pay closer attention to this music.) The security of her voice in even the most confrontational passages is a further plus-point, given the role has experienced more than its fair share of wobbly Slavonic heroines over the years.

Stage-wise, John Tomlinson is his energised and animated self – sending-up the role of Boris only to the extent that the character needs to be made as boorish and unlikeable as possible, and bringing to life visually those musical allusions that Shostakovich makes to a range of earlier basso ’would-be profundo’ figures. Such evenness of tone as is sacrificed is a secondary price to pay under the circumstances. Stefan Margita’s wheedling Zinovy is so unsympathetic as to make one witness his demise with some satisfaction, while Christopher Ventris’s Sergey has the right degree of macho bravado tempered by emotional weakness to be a foil to Katerina in a relationship which is often desperate and finally hopeless.

Susan Bickley’s understatement rather misses out on the small but pivotal role of Aksinya; not so Peter Bronder’s Shabby Peasant, somewhere between Gogol and Mike Leigh in his depravity and mean-mindedness. Roderick Earle contributes a bovine cameo as the Police Inspector, fronting his third act scene as if master of ceremonies at a secret policeman’s ball. Gwynne Howell brings his customary gravitas to the Old Convict – his monologues setting the final act in a distinctly Mussorgskian context – while Christine Rice’s Sonyetka has just the right shallow flirtatiousness, though Jones should have avoided prolonging her humiliation of Katerina; withdrawing her centre-stage so that the heroine’s isolation, as underlined by the music, is made complete.

Antonio Pappano conducts with verve and conviction a score poised between Shostakovich the radical innovator and re-inventor of tradition. Generalised expression is largely avoided by telling observance of balance and dynamics – from the spare immediacy of the earlier scenes, through the orchestral purple-patches of the Interludes (the tumultuous passacaglia between the fourth and fifth scenes is a demonstrable highlight powerfully rendered and ideally complemented by constructivist goings-on on stage), to the bleakly lyrical final act. The overly soft-grained textures which often marred his Wozzeck two years ago were rarely in evidence and, if other conductors (not least Mark Wigglesworth for ENO) have found greater overall emotional resonance in this music, the pointing-up of connections between Berg’s opera, Lady Macbeth, and Peter Grimes was justifiable enough to make one anticipate Pappano’s approach to Britten’s opera later this season.

So, a confident and generally engrossing Royal Opera debut for this opera as the composer originally conceived it. Those wanting confirmation either way of Shostakovich’s socio-political standing will be disappointed by the overall evasiveness of Jones’s approach, but the musical excellence of so much here is such as to consolidate the work’s standing as a mid-twentieth century masterpiece – which, in the final analysis, is what matters.

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