David Pountney’s production of Shostakovitch’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, first seen over ten years ago, has lost none of its bite. This is the original version, not the revised, watered-down Katerina Ismailova which Shostakovich was forced into to get past Stalin’s censors, and, my goodness, one can see why Stalin wouldn’t have like it one little bit.
Pitch black humour, the destruction of the family and the representation of enslavement were not the order of the day – not to mention the sex. This is not an opera to which you’d want to take your elderly mother, unless she’s very broadminded. The early scenes (set in a meat factory) of the assault of a female worker, accompanied by the most graphic music imaginable, are shocking and work triumphantly.
Katerina, bored and neglected by her husband, is troubled by erotic dreams and is a sitting target for the new employee, the womanising Sergei, with whom she makes love enthusiastically and noisily. Poisoning her brutish father-in-law and killing her husband are child’s play… but of course there is a comeuppance, and she and Sergei are eventually consigned to the camps, where Katerina is discarded by her worthless lover and finally commits suicide, all hope lost.
Not a cheery story, then, but gripping, funny and heart-rending in turns at ENO. The set is fabulous, a harsh metal construction with many contemporary cultural references (Battleship Potemkin among them), and wonderful use of the Coliseum’s famous revolving stage. The music (reputed to be “the noisiest opera ever”) is fabulous, especially in the loves scenes between Katerina and Sergei.
And the cast is really fabulous, from beginning to end. Ten years ago we had the sublime Josephine Barstow as Katerina: this time it’s Vivian Tierney in the title role, and if anything, she was better. Her voice is flawless: secure, clear and thrilling, and her diction is superb. She’s also a great actor, essential in an opera where humour and tragedy go hand in hand. She’s well matched in Robert Brubaker (perhaps best known at ENO for his Mao in Nixon in China) who has no difficulty with the demanding music for Sergei and makes us understand why anyone could fall for such a rat.
Other highlights are John Graham-Hall (as Shabby Peasant – now there’s one for the CV), Pavlo Hunka as the father-in-law and Roberto Salvatori as a wickedly funny Chief of Police. The ENO chorus is in (characteristically) good voice, making the set pieces genuinely exciting, and Mark Wigglesworth in the pit worked wonders. Go see.