Although initially enjoying great success, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1934) has courted controversy almost from day one. Being condemned from various quarters for its lurid descriptive music in the sex scenes, its supposed justification of Stalin’s genocide and its ‘primitive satire’ in its treatment of the priest and police, it was attacked by both Stravinsky (who described it as ‘lamentably provincial’) and the Communist Party who in 1936 banned performances in the Soviet Union for nearly thirty years.
It reappeared in a revised form (Katerina Izmailova) in Moscow in 1962, and although productions (usually of the original version) have increased since the composer’s death in 1975 it is still not frequently performed. Whether Dmitri Tcherniakov’s new production for English National Opera will do much to champion the work remains questionable for in altering the original setting it affects how the relationships are played out, and could leave those unfamiliar with the opera feeling slightly confused.
The setting is updated to the present day so that Boris (Robert Hayward) is the head of a business rather than a mill or farm. The set consists of a large warehouse, with the offices positioned in the centre and Katerina’s bedroom standing next to these! The space is not intended to be taken literally (at one point the words suggest they are outside when they are standing indoors), but the choice of set-up does tend to obscure some of the dynamics inherent in the opera. Katerina is supposed to be stuck in a loveless marriage on a farm feeling lonely, and although it is possible to feel isolated even when surrounded by hundreds of factory workers (which the farm labourers become here), it is questionable whether the opera can be understood as a clash between tradition and modernity. Katerina’s room, covered in traditional red wall hangings, is made to feel different in nature to everything surrounding it, but her isolation should be an inherent part of the old Russian way of life, not a consequence of her detachment from the changing world.
The set-up makes for some confusing moments. In the original, when Sergei climbs from Katerina’s bedroom window and is beaten, Katerina cannot intervene because she is locked in, but here we see her stuck behind a door that he has only just passed through. Sergei reports that he came to the factory from a farm, which is possible, but does not convey the cyclical nature of his actions, moving from one farm to the next as he typically impregnates the mistress. The police do not lament their lack of invitations to the wedding at their station but by passing through the factory, already laid out for the reception, grabbing things to eat and drink as they go.
Although these may sound like minor issues, they are symptomatic of an approach that rather vindicates Daniil Zhitomirsky’s accusation that the opera is possessed of ‘primitive satire’ in its treatment of the police and priest. Although there is plenty of humour in the piece, the production plays it up too much. For example, during Boris’ dying words we are unable to focus on his anguish because we are distracted by the visual gag of the Priest changing out of his civvies into his robes.
Similarly, some of Boris’ gestures to illustrate the passion he wishes to see between Katerina and Zinovy (or himself) are entirely unsuitable for the role, and it should be down to the music rather than the characters’ gestures to play out such emotions. This said, the sex scenes are portrayed with some understatement. The music itself renders everything we need to know so it is totally appropriate to accompany one merely with a swinging light bulb, and to portray another as an act of cleansing. These passages bring the orchestra to the fore, and help to make conductor and Shostakovich expert Mark Wigglesworth’s first production as Music Director of ENO a resounding triumph. The commitment of the performers cannot be doubted either. Patricia Racette has a round and sumptuous tone that makes us at least understand, if hardly condone, her actions in the first half, and totally feel for her in the second as we see her rejected by the man she loves. Jon Daszak as Sergei gives a brilliant portrayal of one who can hide the most sinister actions beneath a jokey exterior, and who can convince the woman he is with at the time that he really has changed and will never leave her.
Act IV is the most successful as the staging alters entirely, and although it presents quite a different version of the set-up to that conceived in the opera, it provides a strong parallel rather than a confusing web of ideas. It takes place in a single cell with the rest of the stage set in darkness so that the chorus and several soloists and are only ever heard rather than seen. This creates a suitably claustrophobic atmosphere, and by changing the ending so that, rather than drowning, Katerina attacks Sonyetka before the guards close in on her, there is a powerful irony to the final words that are uttered. We hear that there is nothing anyone can do for the women, even as we watch Katerina being beaten to death.