Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, September 2015

A woman trapped in comfortable domestic surroundings, while her husband’s busy world goes on all around, takes a lover. Her actions and emotions spiral out of control, her once luxurious bedroom vanishes and she ends up in a prison cell — such is the setting well realised by director Dmitri Tcherniakov … apart from the sub-machine guns. These dangerously lethal weapons, in a somewhat keystone cops episode, appeared unnecessary, but otherwise Tcherniakov’s production of this twentieth century opera on a nineteenth century story in a twenty-first century setting worked well, and the conducting by Shostakovich expert Mark Wigglesworth, in his first performance as ENO’s music director, was superb.

Katerina, husband and factory workers, all images ENO/ Clive Barda

Katerina, husband and factory workers, all images ENO/ Clive Barda

At the first staging of this opera its composer was a brilliantly imaginative 27-year-old with a strong theatrical streak. Two years later Stalin’s pen inspired a new review in Pravda that quashed the work, and Shostakovich never wrote another opera despite plans for three further ones on related topics. The music, sensitive, bold, and rambunctious, lends its sympathies to Katerina (Lady Macbeth), with dramatic moments such as the love making between Katerina and Sergei (lover and later new husband) emphasised by extra brass in the two lower stage boxes. The crescendo at the end is superbly rendered, yet there is also calm and introspection, particularly in the wonderful orchestral interludes, prefiguring those in Britten’s Peter Grimes, and making this a gloriously musical experience.

New worker Sergei

New worker Sergei

The drama itself is harrowing. First Katerina poisons her obnoxious father-in-law Boris, after he orders her lover Sergei to be badly beaten, then she kills her husband when he returns, and finally murders Sonya, her rival for Sergei’s affections. Heady stuff with great musical punch, led by Patricia Racette’s sympathetic and attractively strong Katerina, and the powerfully hedonistic Sergei of John Daszak. Her restrained movements at the start become more fluid and dramatic as she emerges from her cocoon, and his swagger and natural stage presence personify an opportunist who can’t resist her, and then can’t resist the gorgeously sexy Sonyetka of Clare Presland.

When Shostakovich, with librettist Alexander Preys, turned Nikolai Leskov’s novella into an opera he made space for a chorus, very well sung and performed here, along with numerous solo roles in which Adrian Thompson as the Shabby Peasant and Paul Sheehan as Mill-worker and Porter were particularly notable. Peter Hoare and Robert Hayward gave fine portrayals of husband Zinovy and father-in-law Boris, whose high-handed, intrusive and brutal actions might have delighted Soviet authorities as an example of what they so wanted to rid society of, but Stalin was having none of it, and in one of many illuminating programme essays, Mark Wigglesworth explains why.

Poisoned mushrooms for father-in-law Boris

Poisoned mushrooms for father-in-law Boris

That a high-handed dictator could so affect the course of Russian music, making it no longer possible for a great composer to produce the operas of which he was so obviously capable, is a tragedy. We must make do with this relatively early work, to which this production does admirable justice in its empathetic portrayal of the main character. That is how the composer wrote it and that is how Dmitri Tcherniakov produced it for the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, where it originally appeared with excellent lighting design by Gleb Filshtinsky contrasting warmth and cold. Congratulations to the ENO and Mark Wigglesworth for bringing it to London for this Season’s hugely successful opening.

Performances continue on various dates until October 20 — for details click here.

One Response to “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, September 2015”

  1. Nicholas Watkinson says:

    I really liked the staging, in which Katerina’s private space, richly carpeted in red, was encased by the a-septic office. The final prison scene was visually effective, with so much of the stage concealed, but awkwardly at odds with the text, which plainly implies that the prisoners are marching in open country. Katerina sings about a black river because it is there in front of them, not in some strange abstracted state of mind. I’m not quite convinced that the discrepancy between what we saw and what we heard was justified.

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