This week the Royal Opera House (ROH) ended its successful run of Verdi’s Macbeth. A terrified and guilt-stricken Lady M., performed by Anna Netrebko, left haunting memories behind including scenes of her sleepwalking and dreaming she was washing blood off her guilty hands. Now the Covent Garden’s backstage has filled its walls with Richard Jones’s 2004 production of Shostakovich’s first and last opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1934.). From Banquo’s ghost to Boris Ismailov’s ghost it is no coincidence that Shostakovich’s opera presents many parallels between his version of Lady Macbeth and Shakespeare’s own.
For those who are new to Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: the opera is based on Nickolai Leskov’s 1865 novella. Shostakovich wrote the opera during a time of political upheaval in Soviet Russia; Stalin walked out of a performance of his opera and two days later his music was denounced by the Communist party. He received a scathing review in Pravda: Russia’s political newspaper at the time. It was titled, ‘Muddle Instead of Music.’
Its heroine, Katerina Ismailova, passionately and admirably sung by Eva-Maria Westbroek, is bored, oppressed and unsatisfied with married life. Even though her husband is a rich merchant, she finds no pleasure or purpose in her isolated existence. The matter isn’t helped by her controlling and lascivious father-in-law Boris, which is convincingly and hilariously performed by John Tomlinson: a devoted bass who has been an active performer at the ROH for, exactly, forty years. Tomlinson was indeed exceptional tonight.
For the composer Katerina is a “tragic portrayal of the destiny of a talented, smart and outstanding woman, dying in the nightmarish atmosphere of pre-Revolutionary Russia.” Shostakovich spoke his mind and shared his political sentiment, and interest in Western operas through his dramatic and animated score. Shostakovich embraced every minute detail and characterised it with its own sound world. This is demonstrated by quality performances from the ROH Orchestra. Notable performances include the band of brass instrumentalists who performed on stage and inside the audience boxes for those climactic moments which added extra definition. Maestro Antonio Pappano set the bar high, yet again, following from his recent performances conducting Macbeth. Although he is best known for his expertise in Puccini and Verdi operas, he showed a degree of versatility with his conducting of Shostakovich’s masterwork tonight.
Revival Director Elaine Kidd kept the production true to Jones’s authentic style; Jones loves his set designs with wallpaper, pink hues and chandeliers. With Westbroek standing on a pink bed in a silky pink nightie I had flashbacks of Jones’s other ROH production, Anna Nicole (2011). It isn’t hard to pity Westbroek’s character who ends up being dumped by the man she had murdered, her husband and father-in-law, for. Jones adds a sarcastic, fun and comic tone to the opera and it manages to work regardless of how bleak the overall mood of the opera is meant to be. With the stage split in the middle by a towering wall, with a room filled with as many factory workers it can fit inside it and another with a small kitchen to cook up Boris’s to-die-for mushrooms, the air of detachment and emptiness felt, even, more potent.
The cast list is big and there are many praiseworthy vocal performances; that’s not forgetting the enthusiastic and irrepressible ROH Chorus. I have seen John Daszak as Sergei, in 2015 at the English National Opera, so it was good to see him give a fine interpretation as the cheated husband, Zinovy, this time round. Brandon Jovanovich’s Sergey was brilliant as the young lover. Throughout the opera Jovanovich exuded Sergey’s misogynistic attributes and kept them at bay, even though he makes out that he loves Katerina. Mikhail Svetlov as a police inspector and Wojtek Gierlach’s priest were also excellent. Their characters brought humorous and surreal elements to the opera, while mezzo-soprano Aigul Akhmetshina’s bitchy and coquettish Sonyetka, whom Sergey leaves Katerina for, was vocally exciting and striking on stage. (She is part of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme.)
The production is absolutely marvellous from start to finish, but it is a three-hour long event at the ROH, which entails one interval and multiple pauses in between. In spite of these short waiting times, I would recommend seeing this if you haven’t seen the production yet. The musical performances from everyone involved (23 soloists, members of the ROH Chorus and ROH Orchestra) make it entirely worthwhile.
The Royal Opera House’s production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is showing until April 27, 2018. For more information on the opera and other performances showing at the Royal Opera, please click here.
(I purchased my own ticket to write about the opening night.)
Header image: John Tomlinson, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Antonio Papanno, Brandon Jovanovich and John Daszak. (C) Photo: Peter on Twitter – @oysterman55