The realism of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk district is expressed with raw energy in both the drama and the music, and the rendering of this caustic work in this latest production at Salzburg festival is no less abrasive than the original material.
Alexander Preis and Dmitry Shostakovich originally intended their adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s short story to denounce the injustices and social backwardness of Imperial Russia. But it is quite obvious to glimpse in their work an overt satire of Soviet Russia by the way they mock the characters that should represent authority. It’s equally easy to understand why it was later censored by the Communist Party and even upset Stalin himself. The police, the priest, and also a socialist characters are mere caricatures and balance this otherwise dark story with their comical lines.
Director Andreas Kriegenburg has staged the opera in an oppressive, rundown, overpopulated block of flats where there is no privacy and no intimacy. There, Katerina Izmailova lives in a sort of cage a life of boredom and frustration under the oppression of her authoritarian father-in-law. As a woman she has no place in this society. Elsewhere in the opera women are treated aggressively and merely as objects of pleasure by packs of men. Katerina wants to assert her right to live and love, however, here we are far away from stories of romanticised love à la Eugene Onegin. In this opera love coincides with having sex: the music is explicitly sexual; all characters reach a sexual frenzy at some point, from Katarina, to her neighbours, to her lover Sergei, even to her father-in-law, who hints at taking over from the son in accomplishing his marital duties.
As the action flows it is Katerina’s interior drama that develops and captures our attention, accompanied by music that starts softly and then relentlessly grows in intensity and rhythm, giving no time for the audience to breathe. In order to assert her right to live and love as she wishes she doesn’t hesitate to deceive, to kill, and in the end to keep her fickle lover Sergei by any means necessary.
The Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, who was supposed to interpret the main role, was unfortunately indisposed. Luckily enough for the public, her substitute Evgenia Muraveva gave an outstanding performance, together with Brandon Jovanovich in the role of her lover. The interpretation of Dmitry Ulyanov in the role of her father-in law was apt too, as were the minor characters such as the priest and the chief of the police.
If the staging and direction were effective in highlighting the rawness and seediness of the composer’s work, overall the production seemed to me pretty monotone in its effects and impact. We saw the same block of flats the whole time, including in the last act during the deportation to Siberia. And the finale, staged with two puppets hanging from the balcony instead of drowning in the lake, appeared to me to be in quite poor taste.
The singers and the orchestra rescued the evening. The Wiener Philarmoniker orchestra under the baton of Mariss Jansons made a tremendous physical effort in maintaining a tight and intense pace, effectively delivering Shostakovich’s musical genius and his original and contemporary reinterpretation of the great Russian musical tradition to a very gratified audience.