Opera is almost never dull. The word ‘operatic’ implies a high level of dramatic excitement, often involving tragic love, murder and revenge. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk has all these element but it is also very very funny. This is definitely not usual in opera.
Richard Jones’s production, now revived at the ROH after more than a decade, brilliantly dramatises the story of Katerina, married to a rich merchant’s son who falls in love with the peasant who rapes her and, in pursuit of a life with him, murders her father-in-law, her husband, and her rival. Not, obviously, subject of comedy, except of the blackest sort. And that is exactly what is presented to us: a black comedy, on occasions verging into almost knock-about pantomime.
Despite this, Shostakovitch is determined to present Katerina Ismailova as a conventional tragic heroine who wins our sympathy before meeting a conventionally tragic end. The successful binding of these two aims, comedy and high tragedy, makes watching Lady Macbeth a dazzling experience.
Probably the most important part of achieving this feat - Shostakovitch certainly thought so - is having an orchestra and conductor capable of entering into the game. Antonio Pappano, unsurprisingly, rises magnificently to this challenge, as does the orchestra, particularly the brass who appear visibly in a box as well as on stage, but not forgetting the two harpists (also in a box) the corps anglais and flute who all play a dramatic and sometimes comic role in the story. Shostakovitch who was only twenty four when he wrote the opera, demanded the musicians carried the story almost as much as the singers.
On the other hand, the roles for the singer are superb and in this production superbly acted as well as sung. Eva-Maria Westbroek, a Dutch soprano, sang Katerina for the ROH in 2006 and her command of the character, a frustrated, childless woman, trapped into a dull marriage with an impotent husband, has echoes through the centuries. Her horror as, like Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, her victims come back to haunt her - in this case on a television screen - prepare us for the downward slide. A truly evil women (one might argue) would not allow mere ghosts to destroy her. Westbroek, her voice in wonderful form, rivets attention throughout.
John Tomlinson is equally commanding as the unpleasant Kulak Boris Ismailov, an old lecher who longs to make up for his son’s failings with Katerina if he was just a few years younger, and guards her with a gun at the ready.
Tomlinson has also sung the role for the ROH before and, despite this marking his fortieth role for them, his strong bass seems set for many more.
When Katerina’s husband, Zinovy Ismailov, sung by John Daszak, is called away to inspect a broken dam, the scene is set for tragic drama, then burlesque as the peasants sexually torment the female cook, followed by Katerina’s first murder when Ismailov returns. A performance of the opera in Moscow in 1936 was attended by Stalin who famously, and for Shotakovitz threateningly, walked out halfway through. One explanation is that it was not the political incorrectness that offended him but the sexually explicit scenes, heavily underlined by the music. As a critic wrote in Pravda, the sex between Katerina’s seducer Sergey, sung and acted very convincingly by Brandon Jovanovich, involved musical ‘quacks, hoots, growls and gasps.’ A New York critic dubbed it ‘pornophony’. Which only goes to show how successfully Shostakowitz wrote a drama about sexual obsession.
As Katerina’s life spirals out of control and father in law Boris is poisoned with mushrooms, the black humour continues, with the doing police doing a number which would not be out of place in Gilbert and Sullivan and the priest brought to pray over the dying Boris, performs a jolly pantomime routine instead of the solemnity expected.
Nevertheless Katerina is inexorably on the road to Siberia. The final act, set on the great Russian steppe, two transportation lorries on stage, is where the opera changes tone. This is the end of Katerina’s dreams of not just sex but love with Sergei as he picks up a convict girlfriend, Sonyetka. By now Katerina knows only one way of dealing with impediments to her wishes. Poor, cruel Sonyetka, sung with panache by Aigul Akhmetshina, has no idea about her adversary. Murder follows but this time Katerina ends her own life too. The exquisite beauty of her last aria ‘In the wood, in a grove, there is a lake/ Almost round, and very deep/And the water is it is black/ Black like my conscience…’ is still resonating as the curtain comes down.
For me, this production of Lady Macbeth of Mitsensk could not be bettered.
By Dimitri Shostakovich
Director: Richard Jones
Conductor: Antonio Pappano
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