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

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

Katerina Ismailova – Eva-Maria Westbroek
Boris Ismailov – John Tomlinson
Zinovy Ismailov – John Daszak
Sergey – Christopher Ventris
Priest – Maxim Mikhailov
Police Inspector – Roderick Earle
Sonyetka – Christine Rice
Porter – Jonathan Fisher
Aksinya – Carole Wilson

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: Tristan Jakob-Hoff

Reviewed: 3 October, 2006
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

It is instructive to view Richard Jones’s production of “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” – here revived at the Royal Opera House following its original staging in 2004 – alongside the same director’s “Lulu”, from 2002, which was revived at English National Opera last year. For a start, the two works bear some striking similarities: both were written in the mid-1930s; both centre on a sexually-confused femme fatale, and both make an explicit link between sexual repression and murderous violence. It is therefore not surprising that Jones chooses to handle Shostakovich’s self-described ‘tragedy-satire’ in a similar manner to Berg’s ‘tragic farce’, approaching both from an overtly feminist angle and concluding that men are essentially self-serving bastards who use and abuse women for their own sordid amusement.

However, Jones’s ideas have matured and deepened since that ENO production, and his ‘Lady Macbeth’ turns out to be an infinitely more rewarding proposition. Whereas his “Lulu” failed to convince on anything other than a stylistic level, this production succeeds completely in realising Shostakovich’s obvious sympathy for his doomed heroine – whilst finding plenty of room for the work’s darkly comic set pieces.

Katerina Ismailova – boldly sung by Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek – is the ultimate desperate housewife, unhappily married to the impotent, ineffectual landowner, Zinovy. Westbroek imbues Katerina with barely stifled sexual yearning from the moment we first see her, tilting her leg coquettishly as she bemoans her long sleepless nights and clutching her throat at the thought of her suffocating, sexless marriage. As in “Lulu”, Jones shows his protagonist to be largely unaware of her emergent sexuality: when her would-be seducer Sergey arrives on the scene (a laudably sleazy performance from tenor Christopher Ventris), she naively accepts his protestations of love in return for rough, passionless sex. As for her lover, Jones makes it all too clear where his real interests lie: “I’ll make you a merchant”, he has Katerina promise. “All you have to do is make love to me!”

When it comes to the dirty business of murder, Jones goes so far as to imply a degree of blamelessness on the part of the heroine. First to fall victim to the newly emancipated Katerina is her odious father-in-law, Boris – a fantastic turn by John Tomlinson, who portrays him with such breathtaking nastiness that his inevitable undoing is nothing if not comic. Equally funny is the grizzly (if somewhat less justified) attack on John Daszak’s Zinovy, which ends in a splendidly messy bit of stagecraft involving a polyethylene bag and industrial-scale quantities of fake blood. (“Well”, says Sergey with understatement, “that’s the end of him”.) In both cases, our sympathies lie with Katerina, even as she and Sergey busy themselves with the disposal of newly abstracted extremities: though she may be the primary perpetrator of these lurid acts, it is Sergey who inspires them – and Jones’s careful direction only serves to highlight that it is he, rather than she, who is the real ‘Lady Macbeth’.

In the pit, Antonio Pappano whips up some vividly gruesome playing from the orchestra – not to mention a well-deployed battery of off- and on-stage brass instruments. Singing from the large supporting cast is excellent all round, with reasonably authentic-sounding Russian accents – not always a given in this country. But this is Katerina’s evening, and Westbroek – who appears in nearly every scene – gives a truly star-making performance. Her intense and deeply affecting final scene is the jewel in the crown of this magnificent production, which in turn is one of the best to grace Covent Garden in recent years.

  • The first night was 30 September
  • Remaining performances on 6, 9, 12, 14 & 17 October at 7 o’clock
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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