sat 13/07/2024

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Birmingham Opera Company review - searing music-theatre for all | reviews, news & interviews

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Birmingham Opera Company review - searing music-theatre for all

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Birmingham Opera Company review - searing music-theatre for all

Bloodied brides and rat-heads run amok in visceral ballroom Shostakovich

Chrystal E Williams as Katerina ('The Wife') in extremis, surrounded by spectatorsRichard Willacy; all images within the text by Adam Fradgley/Exposure

A rum cove sidles up pimping with a tatty business card offering the services of Sonyetka. Not for me, I say, pointing out that in any case she’ll be dead three hours later. "That's more than I know," he says and wanders off to hook other possible clients. Further on, rodent-headed creatures flit by. One seems to be in an altercation with a Rentokil officer. Odd, too, that there should be policemen parading the disco-lit, dilipidated Tower Ballroom on the edge of Edgbaston Reservoir.

If you've ever been totally immersed in the Birmingham Opera Company experience - I only had once previously, knocked for six by the full Musorgsky works as never before in the big-top Khovanskygate - you're already on the lookout, but still you can't tell audience from performers, even when the show's begun.

There is nothing quite like this for full-on impact in the operatic world, not at least at the superlative level regularly attained by Graham Vick's performers. They include a chorus of all abilities but with a professional backbone that allows for maximum impact – just you try keeping perfectly together in a complicated vocal fugue while dancing the conga - and the full City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by brilliant young Brum-born Alpesh Chauhan.

Rumour had it that the CBSO's principal conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla was keen to participate, but then had to make adjustments post-maternity leave. She must be delighted with the expressive beauties and the genuine pianissimos Chauhan wins from the CBSO. The big noises were always going to work; to minimise auditory damage, the main orchestra faces away from the main acting and promenading area, towards a conductor who can be seen on multiple screens (should you ever be lost with the words, Chauhan clearly mouths every single one in close-up). This venue may be BOC’s best yet in the company’s quest for the atmospheric, acoustically speaking; after all, it is the classic shoebox shape. Eric Greene and Chrystal E Williams in Lady Macbeth of MtsenskThe difference between Khovanshchina (to give the Musorgsky its Russian title) and Shostakovich's operatic masterpiece about a bored (and abused) housewife who resorts to one murder, then another, is that the 19th century work doesn't always pull together - it did in Birmingham - while you'd be unlikely not to be wowed by any opera-house performance of Lady Macbeth. Simply double or even quadruple the impact and that gives a vague idea of the BOC happening.

It looks like a Utopian dream of Opera for All, with diverse members of the community, student actors, singers and dancers, all mentored by various professionals to work for total music-theatre. Talk to the coaches and you realise it's not been as easy as it seems. Vick's production makes Shostakovich seem scabrous even today, with very few tweaks needed to the English-language translation and no changes of situation. It took Stalin two years to put a stop to the most visceral opera ever staged; now, with stylised sex and violence all licensed in the libretto and the score,  it's still likely to offend more conservative cultures in Birmingham - one group's visit had to be cancelled - as well as some young people, who apparently thought there should have been "trigger warnings".

Vick refuses to sentimentalise his heroine (Shostakovich goes almost too far in his feminist sympathy, and also cuts a third murder, of an innocent youngster, in the original Leskov novella). She's a tough modern woman who "married for money", according to the short synopsis in the programme, now trapped in a dire household with a predatory father-in-law, prone less to melancholy, as her earlier scenes are usually played, than to excess vitality and sexual yearning (“Fuck or Die” is discreetly backgrounded in the poster). That doesn't make the chauvinist violence of the men any the less shocking. Being able to experience her variousness at close quarters is a privilege when the soprano is as electrifying and engaged as Chrystal E Williams (pictured above with Eric Greene and below with Brenden Gunnell). Chrystal E Williams and Brendan Gunnell in Lady Macbeth of MtsenskEvery top note is a full flare, not easy in a role with a taxingly high tessitura, though she’ll need to work on anchoring the middle register for long-term survival. But what commitment. Every audience member's experence of each scene will be different depending on choice of location in the venue; I can only say that hearing and watching Katerina's desolate final monologues with Williams several yards in front of me and the lone cor anglais, then oboe, against bass drum rumbles behind – I was leaning against the back of the orchestral platform - was a very discombobulating experience indeed, in a good (harrowing) way. Williams also gets to wear a fabulous range of couture, including silks with rats and mushrooms printed on them.

Real human beings we all recognise are the keynote for Vick, even if he reduces them in the cast list to types (The Wife, The Father in Law, The Lover, The Pole-Dancer – that’s Sonyetka). You believe in oversexed labourer Sergey – American trailer trash, perhaps a Trump voter, in Brenden Gunnell’s powerful embodiment, though very clever with words - in weak-willed husband Zinovy (Joshua Stewart, pictured below meeting his end in the marital bed) and in the towering physical presence of his father, however old, resonanty voiced by bass Eric Greene, who also sings the Old Convict's solos in the final scene. Scene from Lady Macbeth of MtsenskYet Vick also finds brilliant, surreal ideas for the more outlandish satire. During the frantic lovemaking of Sergey and Katerina, a musical thrash well described by one critic in the 1930s as "pornophony", infiltrators blow up red balloons and release them at the climax - the fizzling is echoed by the post-coital droop of trombones. When the Seedy Lout (James Kryshak), horribly like the Millwall supporters who poured off the Birmingham to London train at 1am this morning, runs to tell the police about the body in the deep freeze, multiple bloodied Lucias in wedding dresses wielding weapons of destruction run amok to Shostakovich’s mad galop; even the extra brass are dolled up in bridal gear on stage. The bling of the Izmailov empire, belied by a shabby kitchen with a fridge full of packaged mushrooms, comes into its own in the creepy pomp for the funeral of "Daddy" in floral letters, a cortege in which Katerina, in widow's weeds, almost looks like an Eva Peron-style speechgiver, and spreading eeriness which fits the most powerful music in the opera so far, the great Passacaglia, like a glove.

There's an even more chilling echo of this in the last processional. Don't read on if you're still going to see the show, as the element of surprise is essential, but suffice it to say that the very recognisable drunken guests at Sergey and Katerina's wedding all get rounded up by the corrupt, if/and very British, police and shipped to "Siberia" still in their party best with ballroom-dancer numbers on their backs, eventually donning the heads of the rats for whom the poison in the kitchen was originally designed.

It's truly phantasmagorical, and not the spectacle you would expect for the journey to the eastern labour camp or for Katerina's watery end, to which she also commits Sergey's latest cheap fuck Sonyetka. Maybe the reservoir outside might have been an option, the action projected onto bigger screens, but the effect is singularly powerful in the bare central space, finally cleared of us spectators who stand around the margins. Standing for all that time isn't a problem, but you might feel a bit weak at the knees by the time of an ending which is as devastating as any, in an overall experience that's unsurpassable. And what if I got home at 2 in the morning? It wasn’t possible to sleep very much after all that

The bling of the Izmailov empire, belied by a shabby kitchen with a fridge full of packaged mushrooms, comes into its own in creepy pomp for the funeral of "Daddy"


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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Great review. Had to look up what a 'rum cove' was. Really enjoyed our little interaction in the pre-show. Regards Rum Cove

How funny! You see, you get to lead... I think I first came across the expression in Dickens. Hope you find another girl to pimp - though I guess that just as Sonyetka comes back to life each night, only to be drowned again, you can keep on using that card... Keep on needling your public, and well done.

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