Stalin couldn’t stand Shostakovich’s second opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: when the dictator heard it performed in 1936 it was promptly banned. Shostakovich was never to write another opera again, despite its enormous popularity with audiences. Yet the work is now firmly established as a 20th century masterpiece (testified by its inclusion within the V&A’s recent Opera: Passion, Power and Politics exhibition).
Last staged at the Opera House in 2004, Richard Jones’s production of the opera makes a long overdue return, under the direction of Elaine Kidd – with an exceptional cast and an orchestra on top form.
Katerina Ismailova is a frustrated Soviet merchant’s wife, stifled by her overbearing father-in-law Boris, and trapped in a sterile relationship with her largely absent husband Zinovy. Her boredom and misery lead her to fall for a dashing young clerk Sergey, resulting in a tumultuous disintegration of family circumstances, and, ultimately, a poisoning (in the days before novichok, it was mushrooms à la rat poison), followed swiftly by a beheading.
So far, so operatic. But the intricacies of Katerina’s character and condition – her basic human desire for companionship, her initial moral fortitude and the manner in which she is cowed into humiliating submission by the men around her – leave the audience with a conflicting sense of her innate nature. We are left feeling something close to sympathy for a double murderer. It was this nuanced portrayal of Katerina, combined with the mockery of the Soviet police force, which Stalin so detested.
Eva-Maria Westbroek as Katerina is outstanding, displaying a dazzling richness of tone that suits the lyrical pathos of her melodies. Making his Covent Garden debut as her capricious lover Sergey is Brandon Jovanovich, who brings essential vigour to the character, while Royal Opera House veteran John Tomlinson is masterful as Katerina’s bombastic and domineering father-in-law.
While a far cry from the surreal absurdity of the composer’s operatic debut The Nose – which Barrie Kosky directed with considerable flair at the ROH in 2016 – Lady Macbeth is peppered with satirical gestures and musical conceits that are Shostakovichian through-and-through. Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House attack the blistering score with panache. The percussion, harps and brass overflow into the side-boxes creating a sound that surrounds the audience in a sonically claustrophobic manner that enhances the oppressive atmosphere on stage.
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Moments of operatic passion are undermined by farcical trombone glissandi, angular, neo-classical flute melodies and screeching Eb clarinet solos. Yet some of Katerina’s impassioned declarations of love are clothed in Wagnerian splendour, and there is a touch of Tristan and Isolde symbolism about the moment when the lovers lament the fact that they can only be together at night. Is this tongue-in-cheek Shostakovich? Given how magnificent these musical moments are, I’m not sure it matters.
The composer’s ingenious instrumentation and orchestral treatment are magnified by the movement onstage: the fugue which begins Act Four in the strings is hilariously mimicked by sections of the chorus drunkenly swigging vodka in time with each fugal entry. In this wedding scene, phallicly-arranged balloons and limp paper chains suggest a warped children’s party. Scenic touches, combined with clever chorus choreography compliment the lashings of musical irony, and the effect is frequently one of subversive humour.
But overall John Macfarlane’s austere set designs, updated to the 1960s, capture the stifling realities of Soviet life. The drab décor of muted browns and purples coating the box-like interiors conjure a sense of airlessness – like an endless P&O ferry journey from which there is no escape. There is a powerful echo of this crushing environment in the final Act, in which Katerina and Sergey, now prisoners, appear from the dark belly of a lorry on its way to the depths of Siberia.
This devastating denouement occasions some of the most formidable music in the entire opera, stripped of its earlier rambunctious energy. There is no consolation at the end: we are left to meditate on the societal conditions that drive us to evil. If only Shostakovich’s own circumstances had been different, he might have fulfilled his intention of producing a trilogy of mighty operas about feisty Soviet women. The darkly comic nightmare that is Lady Macbeth proves how perfectly suited he was to the genre – and subject matter.
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk runs at the Royal Opera House until April 27