sat 23/06/2018

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Royal Opera review - bleak rigour and black comedy still cast a spell | reviews, news & interviews

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Royal Opera review - bleak rigour and black comedy still cast a spell

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Royal Opera review - bleak rigour and black comedy still cast a spell

Eva-Maria Westbroek returns on top form as Shostakovich's lethally bored housewife

Eva-Maria Westbroek as Katerina Izmailova after the second murderAll images by Clive Barda for the Royal Opera

Anyone who's seen Richard Jones's rigorous production before will remember the makeover – Katerina Izmailova, bored and brutalised housewife released by sex and murder from her shackles, having her drab bedroom expanded and redecorated in deliberate incongruity with Shostakovich's most shattering orchestral music – and its polar opposite, the near-black horror of convicts in trucks by the river on their way to Siberia. The overall focus and ironic symmetries are still there, if not some of the fine tuning, an amazing 14 years on from the first airing, and even though Eva-Maria Westbroek's was never a pretty sound – no need for that here – this committed singer-actor has survived the soprano-wrecking propensities of the title role unscathed.

If Jones had been there this time round – he's in Paris rehearsing his first Parsifal, leaving the Covent Garden revival to Elaine Kidd – one or two of the performances might have been a bit tighter. Delighted as we are that John Tomlinson celebrates his 40th year performing with the Royal Opera, his repulsive father-in-law seemed surprisingly approximate this time round; Jones would have disciplined him, surely (pictured below, Tomlinson's Boris makes a surprise appearance from beyond the grave at Katerina's wedding). Scene from Royal Opera Lady Macbeth of MtsenskOtherwise, the tics, manners and frozen postures keep every scene alive to match the chameleonic music, from the way that Katerina's left leg, heel off the ground, lags behind the right to represent her ennui, through the virtuoso choral groupings of the police station and party scenes – what other director would have the chorus reflect so meticulously a purely orchestral upside-down fugue before the voices come in? – to Katya's silent scream against blaring extra brass and the deadly stillness of her going lower than she ever thought possible in the denouement.

It's all connected, of course – the containers for the convicts mirror the battered metal cabinets out of which strapping worker Sergey crawls to seduce the merchant's wife, and in which the unfortunate teacher suspected of being an anarchist is trapped. In the Izmailov household there are no windows, only doors at which people are constantly listening; the split stage of the drabbest interior allows for enlargement of one of the rooms in the makeover and eventually morphs into a full party scene, a joyless affair somewhere behind the iron curtain in the 1970s, with nowhere for Katya to run, and finally a near-lightless open space for the last act. Designs by the true artist John Macfarlane, costumes and lighting by Jones regulars Nicky Gillibrand and Mimi Jordan Sherin, all play their part in a perfectly-fused whole.

Westbroek and Jovanovich in Lady Macbeth of MtsenskThe visual endgame is as daringly bleak and frozen an equivalent to Shostakovich's hopeless music as you'll ever see on the operatic stage (though Dmitri Tcherniakov's daring negation of the open-steppes choruses in a single grubby prison cell at English National Opera was also striking). Even the blue stockings of Katerina's dowdy first incarnation make a telling reappearance.

Westbroek (pictured right with Brandon Jovanovich's Sergey) totally inhabits the frustration, later the stillness and a more desperate kind of isolation, moving chillingly against her new wallpaper as she realises that her new husband is never going to be really with her, leaving her alone with the ghost of the old man she murdered, and absolutely at one with Antonio Pappano's quiet intensity in the final monologues. The Royal Opera's hard-working Music Director doesn't go for quite the deep sound achieved by Mark Wigglesworth, the supreme interpreter of this music, at ENO, but the shadings are subtle, the woodwind in caricature appropriately shrill and the blasts of the brass band, very involved in the action in a way that Shostakovich would surely have loved, spine-tingling.

Chief newcomer here is tall and handsome American tenor Brandon Jovanovich; even though Shostakovich never writes lovely music for him, you can tell the sound is rock-solid and gleaming bright as befits the new Siegmund of choice. John Daszak, asked to play husband Zinovy as straight as possible, heads effectively towards a Tarantinoesque fate. There are laughs for his despatch, but they're stilled by the end of the act; would that Jones's Verdi Macbeth, with similar strip-cartoon antics involving a severed head, had been running in tandem with the Shostakovich at the Royal Opera rather than the relatively anodyne production which keeps coming round (kudos to Pappano, though, for conducting the two operas back to back). Scene from Royal Opera Lady Macbeth of MtsenskPeter Bronder's horrid Shabby Peasant works brilliantly alongside Rosie Aldridge's Aksinya in retrieving Zinovy's body (the two, pictured above showing their find to Mikhail Svetlov's Police Inspector) – another of Jones's bright ideas – while Svetlov's vengeful official, a bass in good form as, sadly, Paata Burchuladze no longer is as the Old Convict, and Aigul Akhmetshina as Katya's more seductive rival on the road to Siberia execute their quirky routines very well. The chorus needed to work more closely with Pappano on the first night, but should tighten up over the run. If you haven't seen the production, go and be constantly surprised or shocked; if you have, you'll probably be amazed by the sharp and creepy detail you missed first time round.

Tics, manners and frozen postures keep every scene alive to match the chameleonic music

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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