Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, April 2018

Lady Macbethis an opera that needs to be seen in the theatre, and its powerful dramatic impact is beautifully illuminated by this 2004 production by Richard Jones — the first at the Royal Opera House.

Katerina and Zinovy, all images ROH/ Clive Barda

Based on an 1865 novella by Nikolai Leskov the opera, but omitting the third murder, committed for purely mercenary reasons, it makes Katerina a far more sympathetic character. Writing for Soviet society in the early 1930s, Shostakovich’s turned Leskov’s cruel woman, driven crazy by idleness, into the victim of a cruel and greedy milieu. Bored by her husband Zinovy, who is pushed around by his father Boris Ismailov, she falls for the petty rascal Sergey, recently hired by the Ismailov enterprise, but in the fourth and final act his emotional detachment and cruelty leads to her death, while he lives on in penal servitude.

Katerina and Boris

Despite Shostakovich’s desire to display the unthinking tyranny of Tsarist times, Stalin didn’t approve and the opera only reappeared in a significantly revised version thirty years later. This is the original, non-sanitised version with its gloriously naturalistic musical effects. Some of the brass are located in boxes to the side of the stage, or even on the stage itself, and in the musical seduction scene of Act I we see the wardrobe moving jerkily forwards as the lovers consummate their union behind it, while the orchestra produces ever increasing excitement until the trombones in the pit sound a loud de-tumescence.

Pornophony as one American critic called it in 1935, but Shostakovich was a master of musically theatrical craft, only deflected from a future as one of the great opera composers by Soviet repression. Yet this opera lives on, and with supplemental musical forces and over twenty soloists under the superb baton of Antonio Pappano this production is a highlight of the season.

Katerina and Sergey

As Katerina herself, Eva-Maria Westbroek delivered a dramatic and vocally secure performance, receiving a huge ovation at the end, while tenor John Daszak was excellent as her weak husband Zinovy. As his father Boris, John Tomlinson’s earthy performance exhibited a power that Katerina could only control by killing him, and this opening night was a richly deserved celebration of his forty years with the Royal Opera.

Wedding, as Katerina sees the ghost of Boris

Making his ROH debut as Sergey, Brandon Jovanovich gave a well-nuanced portrayal of this attractive scoundrel, and the many solo roles were all extremely well sung, notably the sonorous bass of Wojtek Gierlach as the priest, Mikhail Svetlov as the police inspector, Paata Burchuladze as the Old Convict, and young artist Aigul Akhmetshina gave a very fine portrayal of the nasty little Sonyetka who goes to her death with Katerina in a cold lake. For dark dramatic tales Russia is the perfect source. Too bad they stopped Shostakovich from further works of genius like this, so brilliantly conducted by Antonio Pappano.

Four further performances are scheduled until April 27 — for details click here.

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