English National Opera’s new season at the London Coliseum got off to a ripping start with Dmitri Tcherniakov’s gripping new production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – based on Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District – conducted by ENO’s new music director, Mark Wigglesworth, who couldn’t have wished for a better start to his tenure as ENO’s new music director.
The opera’s cloaked in political controversy when Stalin attended a performance at the Bolshoi in 1936, two years after it was first seen in Moscow. He didn’t approve at all – and that was it. The young composer, who was in the audience on the night of his visit, was snubbed beyond belief as Stalin and his entourage left before the final scene.
A few days’ later Pravda – the official organ of the Communist Party – published the article ‘Muddle Instead of Music’ condemning the work, whose scenario surrounds a bored and lonely merchant’s wife seeking solace and excitement in an affair that eventually leads to her downfall while the opera also highlights the lowly and downtrodden status of Russian women.
The American lyric soprano, Patricia Racette, rules as far as this production is concerned. She put in a stellar performance in the title-role of Katerina Lvovna Ismailova capturing and portraying the mood of the boring and unimaginative life that she’s living caught up in a marriage of little or no consequence with Zinovy Ismailov (sung by Peter Hoare), weak and impotent son of the factory-owner, Boris Ismailov, the source of the family wealth. Zinovy’s often away on business is counterbalanced by her ‘stay-at-home’ dominating and bulling father-in-law, sung by Robert Hayward whose deep rich bass-baritone voice fitted the role perfectly. He showers her with constant abuse punctuated by sexual overtones.
But when Sergei, the brash, cocksure factory-worker turns up, played mischievously by John Daszak, her life is turned upside down.
The scene in which the father-in-law consumes poisonous mushrooms the balance of power tilts. Here she comes over as being cool, calm and collected and not one for bargaining especially when the incapacitated old bully turns to her for help in his time of need. And when her husband arrives back early unannounced surprising the lovers, it’s not a question of Last Night but Last Rites!
But in the end, with Sergei basking in unfaithfulness and Katerina holed up in prison as a murderess, one felt so passionately for her. Cynically, he uses her to gain sexual favours with her cellmate, Sonyetka, a role admirably sung and acted by former ENO Opera Works singer, Clare Presland.
Before this final episode Katerina reminiscences about her life reminding me of Ellen Orford’s heartfelt plea for Peter in Britten’s Peter Grimes. Britten, in fact, was greatly influenced by Shostakovich especially in the interludes that Shostakovich employed in Lady Macbeth which gave Britten to some extent the idea of the interludes for Grimes.
This production was a production of class from start to finish not least by blistering orchestral playing with the brass players spreading out to the boxes either side of the stage but also by ENO’s splendid chorus who were on top form. Bravo!