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ROH Covent Garden

If ever one doubts the destructive power of a bad review, then Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk provides the sharpest reminder. Shostakovich’s second opera was initially a great success after its 1934 Leningrad premiere. Yet two years later, as Soviet cultural politics moved in a more conservative direction, the Moscow touring performances were dismissed in Pravda as ‘muddle instead of music’, in a review almost certainly submitted by Joseph Stalin himself, who had walked out of a performance two nights before. As a result the composer’s career life was blighted for decades, and his compositional career veered decisively away from drama and the stage towards the safer abstract territory of symphonic and chamber repertory. The fact that this opera is a masterpiece underlines the scale and scope of the probable loss.

This work’s place in the history of censorship has, however, served to disguise the fact that it is and always was an unsettling and puzzling work, and deliberately so. Shostakovich called it a ‘tragedy-satire’, and that hints at the instability of tone that lies at its core, and which is brilliantly caught in this revival of Richard Jones’ original 2004 production set in the Soviet 1950s. There is brutality, violence and corruption in abundance, and a few points of gentler repose. But the work never settles for long before the emotional mood is shifted towards grim humour, grand guignol exaggeration, and self-conscious bathetic parody. The emotional switchback ride is matched both stylistically, with a cornucopia of styles from symphonic to jazz or soft-shoe shuffle, and historically, with the mash-up between Leskov’s original story from the 1860s and the clear sense that it is the modern era rather than the excesses of Tsarist Russia that are under scrutiny. No wonder it got under Stalin’s moustache…

Katerina Ismailova, a desperate housewife of the Steppes, is trapped in a loveless marriage with a wealthy merchant, and humiliated regularly by her boorish and lascivious father-in-law. She finds escape, though there is little notion of consent, in an affair with one of the workers, and preservation of their relationship and lives necessitates the messy murders of both the husband and his father. A rambunctious wedding ceremony leads to the discovery of their crimes, and exile to Siberia, depicted in a grim final act, very different in its sustained grave, crystalline tone from the previous three, and where an unredeemed end awaits. None of the characters compels admiration or sympathy except, to a limited degree, the heroine, for her undimmed spirit and crafty invention, rather like Mother Courage.

In fact the orchestra is in many ways the lead character of the whole, just as in Wagner. Four substantial virtuosic interludes provide incisive commentary on the action as well as time for elaborate scene changes. A brass contingent of fourteen players are made a powerful part of the stage action, and the massed forces spill over into the Stalls Circle boxes in percussive profusion. Antonio Pappano and his players have a superb, if strenuous, night, and rightly earned the most explosive final ovation.

There are no weak links in the cast or chorus. All the minor character roles are delivered with full personality and deft handling of the composer’s demanding vocal writing; and the chorus sing with both the zeal of a fired-up crowd of workers and wedding guests and gracious sensitivity as convicts on the road. In the title role, Eva-Maria Westbroek reprises a part she made her own ten years ago. It is a huge emotional and vocal journey from down-trodden drudge, through gore-soaked murderess, to wan and vulnerable prisoner; but she carries full conviction. Her scenes in the first two acts with John Tomlinson’s boorish, brutal but also droll Boris are especially compelling and alarmingly well-acted by both of them. His reappearance as a ghost is delicately sketched in by contrast, and represents the point in the action when we get closest to Shakespeare’s haunted heroine. John Daszak has less to do as the ineffectual husband, but he takes his moments well. As Sergei, the worker who beds the mistress of the house, Brandon Jovanovich is well inside a taxing role, full of swagger, uninhibited testosterone and unlovely, self-centred guile.

Like Wozzeck in so many ways, this is a young composer’s bravura work, bursting with energy, creative invention and disconcertingly clever effects that never outstays its generous length. But, similarly, it is not a work whose raw bludgeoning power you would want to embrace that often.

  • Opera
  • Libretto by Dimitri Shostakovich & Alexander Preys (after Nikolai Leskov)
  • Directed by Richard Jones; Revival Directed by Elaine Kidd
  • Conducted by Antonio Pappano
  • Composed by Dimitri Shostakovich
  • Cast includes: John Daszak, Brandon Jovanovich, John Tomlinson, Eva-Maria Westbroek
  • ROH Covent Garden
  • Until 27 April 2018
  • Time: 19:00 Tues & Fri

About The Author

Editor & Reviewer (UK)

Tim Hochstrasser is a historian teaching early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to the visual, musical and dramatic arts, and opera above all, as a unifying and inspiring vehicle for all of them.

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