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Saturday, 28 April 2018

Thrilling revival: Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at Covent Garden

Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk - Brandon Jovanovich, Eva-Maria Westbroek © ROH, 2018. Photographed by Clive Barda
Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk - Brandon Jovanovich, Eva-Maria Westbroek
© ROH, 2018. Photographed by Clive Barda
Shostakovich Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; Eva-Maria Westbroek, John Daszak, Brandon Jovanovich, John Tomlinson, dir: Richard Jones/Elaine Kidd, cond: Antonio Pappano; Royal Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 April 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
It is a relief to find a production which does full justice to the mercurial variety and caustic scherzo which is Shostakovich's opera

Richard Jones' production of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk has returned to the Royal Opera House (seen Friday 27 April 2018) after a gap of a dozen years, with the production in fine form indeed, and with Eva-Maria Westbroek and John Tomlinson returning to the roles of Katerina Ismailova and Boris Ismailov with John Daszak as Zinovy Ismailov, Brandon Jovanovich as Sergey, Rosie Aldridge as Aksinya and Peter  Bronder as the shabby peasant. Jones' production was revived by Elaine Kidd, and Antonio Pappano conducted.

The opera is a tricky one to bring off, Shostakovich's score is full of cartoonish elements juxtaposing serious ones, there is a huge orchestra (with lots of extra brass) yet the music has a satirical element too and overall needs a lightness of touch.  Jones' production brought this off brilliantly, undercutting seriousness with comedy alongside some brilliant stagecraft with a finely idiomatic performance from Pappano and the orchestra.

Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk - Brandon Jovanovich, Eva-Maria Westbroek © ROH, 2018. Photographed by Clive Barda
Brandon Jovanovich, Eva-Maria Westbroek
© ROH, 2018. Photographed by Clive Barda
There was a strong narrative thread through the whole performance, but Jones was confident enough to allow different scenes to play out in different way and to introdue touches of comedy in the serious moments. I loved the way that Katerina and Sergey's initial compulsive sex has them disappear behind the wardrobe which then moves compulsively. This was another striking feature of the production, the sex, violence and sexual violence was not shied away from, but was frequently stylised (spraying Aksinya with foam from a fire extinguisher) which made things disturbing without being too graphic.

The whole had been very finely revived indeed so that despite the production's age (it debuted in 2002 and returned in 2006) everything had a tightness and elasticity to it which meant that Shostakovich's complex drama came off the page brilliantly.

It was a very non-judgemental production, allowing us to see the good and the bad. Eva-Maria Westbroek seems destined to play this role and I have rarely heard her singing so well. Initially depressed and subjugated, the first frisson with Brandon Jovanovich's Sergey gives her a taste of her potential power. The possible poisoning of John Tomlinson's awful Boris was signalled early on, in a cartoon like manner, but the matter of fact way it was done that the act had a profound effect. As she traced Katerina's act downwards, we could not help but sympathise despite the bad choices and the way she blossomed briefly in the period between Boris' death and Zinovy's return was finely done. The ending, with the intense, dark solo was superbly done yet felt all of a piece. The brilliance of both Jones' staging and Westbroek's performance was that this move into pure darkness did not feel tacked on, but part of the whole drama.

Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk - Eva-Maria Westbroek, John Tomlinson © ROH, 2018. Photographed by Clive Barda
Eva-Maria Westbroek, John Tomlinson
© ROH, 2018. Photographed by Clive Barda
Westbroek was finely partnered by the Sergey of Brandon Jovanovich (whose debut performances at the Royal Opera these are). Jovanovich managed to combine the necessary seductiveness with an underlying nastiness. We could see what Katerina admired, whilst not admiring ourselves, and throughout Jovanovich emphasised the character's self-regarding attitude. The scenes with Westbroek fairly crackled, and the final scene was heart-breaking as he denied ever having any care for her.

John Tomlinson still makes a superb Boris, bringing a nasty edge to the comedy so that the character is really threating but rather funny too, in a disturbing way. John Daszak made the much put-upon Zinovy Isamilov a sad and lonely figure, clearly dominated by his father and unable to achieve any sort of contact with his wife.

The strength of the production was partly the way these fine characters were surrounded by a welter of smaller ones, all strongly and characterfully etched, so that the whole told very well. Mikhail Svetlov made a disturbingly comic yet serious police inspector, his solo one of the highlights of the evening. Rose Aldridge's Aksinsya was here given a larger, non-speaking role in the discovery of the body by Peter Bronder's lively peasant. Wojteck Gierlach managed to make quite striking moments of the priests two small appearances, and brought some interestingly suggestive hints to his interpretation.

 Other soloists included Jon Bernays as the Workman from the Mill, Hubert Francis as the Coachman, SImon Shibambu as the steward and sentry, Jonathan Fisher as the porter, Luke Price, Hubert Francis and Donaldson Bell as workmen, Jonathan Fisher as a policemen, Thomas Atkins as a teacher, Lee Hickenbottom as the drunken guest. A final note must be made of Paata Burchuladze's moving solo as the old convict.

Despite the addition of the 14-piece brass band (rather strikingly, and hilariously) incorporated by Jones into the action so that the police arrive at the Ismailov's party complete with a band, Antonio Pappano emphasised the mercurial nature of the score, bringing out variety and crisply satirical elements as the atmosphere turned on a pin. The serious was intensenly moving, but set off by the comic and all with tightness of gesture which brought out Shostakovich's score.

This was one of those revivals which show that age does not always dim, and in the light of Dmitri Tcherniakov's somewhat disappointing 2015 production at ENO [see my review] it is a relief to find a production which does full justice to the mercurial variety and caustic scherzo which is Shostakovich's opera.

Update: My apologies, by some daft oversight I managed to not mention the chorus, they were on terrific form and combined some fine singing with crisp implementation of Richard Jones' production

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