Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is not only one a highlight of Russian opera, but one of the greatest pieces of theatre ever written. It is also one of the more controversial, for while sex and violence may be the roots of many dramas, very few evoke them as Shostakovich does here. Lovemaking is accompanied by coarse, suffocating orchestral textures of brass and woodwind and incessant throbbing rhythms, leading to the infamous trombone glissandi at orgasm. This is music of obscene realism.
Famously, Stalin’s party was horrified by the premiere and wrote a scathing critique entitled Muddle instead of Music. The original (unaltered) version of Lady Macbeth was premiered in the Royal Opera House as late as 2004, and those who missed it would do well to catch it in this second run.
The production by Richard Jones was awarded the Laurence Olivier Award in 2005 for ‘Best New Opera Production’, and it is not hard to see why. Covent Garden has rarely witnessed such a thrilling, dramatically vivid evening as this. Take the drunken wedding scene, with the garish hues of red and the ghost of Boris stalking the boards, or the poignant stillness of the final scene, with two dimly lit trucks seeming to float in blackness. This is high quality staging, and praise must go to the sets of John Macfarlane and the imaginative lighting of Mimi Jordan Sherin.
The cast had changed a little last night from the 2004 run, and most exciting was the Royal Opera debut of Eva-Maria Westbroek as Katerina. Her voice may occasionally need more projection, but it is solid and can produce blisteringly intense high notes when needed. She also possesses a strong sense of theatre, which made her performance compelling and moving.
Her husband, Zinovy, was played by John Daszak in a role debut, and his slightly nasal voice suited the character well. It was, however, understandable that Katerina would choose Sergey as her lover since he was sung so strongly by Christopher Ventris. The man’s acting was boyish, while his tenor was secure and burnished, with powerful high notes and a musical line of phrasing. His flirtations with a brilliant Sonyetka from Christine Rice were among the highlights of the evening.
Best of all was the great John Tomlinson, whose Boris was a startling creation. What the voice has lost with age, it makes up for with experience, and that huge, earthy tone is still present. Meanwhile, Tomlinson’s acting is as excellent as expected watching his range of expressions is theatre in itself and the drama does suffer in the second half without his presence.
All minor roles were taken excellently, with the exception of Roderick Earle as the Police Chief. Not only was he far too quiet to ride Shostakovich’s large orchestra, but his stolid acting removed any sense of comedy from what should have been a hilarious sequence. The chorus tried their hardest and produced a golden ring in that tragic final scene, and the orchestra under Antonio Pappano has rarely sounded more alert.
All in all, this is one of the seminal operas of the twentieth century and the production has returned in fine form. This is not for children by any means a woman being abused with a fire extinguisher is just one jaw-dropping moment but all others should not miss this evening of musical distinction.