Shostakovich’s bleak but compelling drama of brutality, domination and frustration – culminating in double murder – in a typical “quiet Russian family” returns to Covent Garden, for the first time since 1964 and the first time ever in the original version. The production by Richard Jones updates the action to the 1950s, with splendid period details in both sets (John Macfarlane) and costumes (Nicky Gillibrand). The result is explosive, bloody and very exciting.
The music is dramatic enough in itself but the positioning of the brass section of the orchestra – often on stage (I always come home with a brass band in tow, don’t you?) or in the stage boxes – makes the blast of sound even more effective. Anthony Pappano conducts with great gusto and I have never heard this score sound better.
Swedish soprano Katarina Dalayman makes her debut in the role of Katerina Ismailova, and she is superb. Her voice is warm, sure and beautiful. The fact that she’s no sylph makes her all the more believable as the bored, frustrated wife of wimpish Zinovy Ismailov, threatened by her boorish father-in-law Boris and led astray by the good-for-nothing Sergey. Certainly through the first two acts one has nothing but sympathy for Katerina. Her life is awful, and even though she really should know better than to put her trust in Sergey – she actually witnesses him taking part in the molestation of Aksinya, the cook – it’s (almost) understandable.
Murdering the abominable Boris is completely understandable, even when played by marvellous, stalwart bass John Tomlinson who can’t help but look faintly noble even while playing the baddie to the hilt. Our compassion wavers only slightly when she arranges a Changing Rooms remodelling of her apartment (a splendid coup-de-theatre) to include acres of pink satin and dyes her hair blonde – but hell, she’s worth it.
The brutal murder of her husband however does make us flinch, especially when his head is casually put in a supermarket carrier bag and his body unceremoniously dumped in the wardrobe. Her Sergey, played by British tenor Christopher Ventris, is looking pretty dodgy at this stage too – there’s blood everywhere and though his voice is perfectly adequate it doesn’t thrill.
After the only really light-hearted episode in the opera – the Police Inspector (Roderick Earle, a lovely cameo) is miffed that he hasn’t been invited to Katerina’s wedding to Sergey, so is delighted when the discovery of Zinovy’s body gives him the excuse the gatecrash the festivities – we come to the grim ending.
Katerina and Sergey are en route to Siberia (in trucks rather than on foot, this being the ’50s, but the scene is still harrowing – echoes of both holocaust trucks and illegal immigrants). Katerina reaches rock bottom when, pregnant and betrayed by Sergey in the most brutal fashion, she drowns herself and Sonyetka, the female convict who has caught his eye (convincingly played by Christine Rice).
Her bewilderment and despair are infinitely moving, all the more so because the direction has her absolutely still as the terrible realisation hits her. Hopelessness has never been portrayed better.
This is hardly an evening of light entertainment, but it will be difficult to match this season for drama.