Monday 28 September 2015

Intense drama, but where was the caustic scherzo - Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at ENO

ENO Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Rosie Aldridge, Patricia Racette, Peter Hoare (c) Clive Barda
Rosie Aldrige, Patricia Racette, Peter Hoare & ensemble
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at English National Opera, photo credit Clive Barda
Shostakovich Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; Patricia Racette, Robert Hayward, John Daszak, Peter Hoare, dir: Dmitri Tcherniakov, cond: Mark Wigglesworth; English National Opera at the London Coliseum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 26 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Intense modern take on Shostakovich's caustic, satiric and tragic opera

English National Opera opened its new season with the an eagerly anticipated new production of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in a production by the Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov (who also designed the sets), with Patricia Racette as Katerina, Robert Hayward as Boris, Peter Hoare as Zinovy, John Daszak as Sergei, Rosie Aldridge as Aksinya, Adrian Thompson as the shabby peasant, Per Bach Nissen as the chief of police and Clare Presland as Sonyetka. Mark Wigglesworth conducted, his first engagement with the company since becoming musical director. Thorsten Colle was assistant director, Ekaterina Mochenova was associate set designer, Elena Zaytseva was associate costume designer, Gleb Filshtinsky was lighting designer and Tatiana Baganova was the choreographer.

ENO Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Patricia Racette, (c) Clive Barda
Patricia Racette
photo credit Clive Barda
Two questions need asking, to qualify the information given in the previous paragraph; which Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and how new was the production?

Dmitri Tcherniakov's production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk originally debuted in 2008 at Deutche Oper am Rhein, this new version of the production is a co-production between Opera de Lyon and Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona but I am unclear how much Tcherniakov has changed though I understand it to have been re-worked from the original 2008 production.

Regarding Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the text of the opera seems to have undergone a continuous metamorphosis, there are changes between the various sources from the 1930's and of course the composer revised the work in the 1950's to make it acceptable to the Soviet authorities. The problem for anyone is working out what the composer's real intentions were. If the work is seen as a satire against the Soviet system (which some commentators argue for, and others against) then we have to prefer the earliest version, but we should also consider the composer's final thoughts too. ENO used the version based on the earliest sources.

But there is another question too, because Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is rather Janus-like and the music drama can be viewed in opposing ways. In the Guardian Ed Vulliamy warns against stereotyping the opera based on Simon Volkov's influential book Testimony, claiming to project Shostakovich's real thoughts about the opera; Vulliamy sees the work as coming from the Leningrad avant-garde, a scene inspired by surrealism, anarchism and Italian futurism. The movement comprised iconoclasm and constructivist rejection of the commercial contamination of culture; and featured poetry by Mandelshtam and Mayakovsky, Bakhtin, artwork by Malevich, Popova and Rodchenko, sculpture by Tatlin, plays by Meyerholt, films by Eisenstein.

But over in the Independent, conductor Mark Wigglesworth argues that the work is not only a savage critique of the Soviet system but of Russia today. And here he seems to agree with director Dmitri Tcherniakov whose production as been described as an indictment of the role of women in Russia today.

ENO Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, John Daszak, Patricia Racette, (c) Clive Barda
John Daszak, Patricia Racette
Photo credit Clive Barda
This was obvious from the moment the curtain went up, as the work was set in a contemporary factory and Aksinya (Rosie Aldridge), now a secretary not the cook, was subject to a violation by the male chorus which was depicted with real violence and from which all sense of grotesquerie was eradicated. Throughout the opera, Tcherniakov depicted the action with great attention to realistic detail and much graphic violence, though in fact the opera is neither naturalistic nor realistic. But Tcherniakov seems to have attempted to remove all sense of the satirical from the score, which meant that the odd scene, such as the priest (Graeme Danby) obsessing over Katerina's ankles during the wedding celebrations, or the chief of police (Per Bach Nissen) in scenes 7 and 8, came over as odd intrusions from the main thrust of the drama.

We first see Katerina (Patricia Racette) in her own domain, a space lined with lovely carpets and in great contrast to the rest of the factory going on around her. Katerina is almost catatonic and Racette sang with bleached beauty of tone but no sense of character. Racette's Katerina only came alive when interacting with Sergi (John Daszak). Racette sang the role on a thread of sound, and was excellent in the sexual liaisons and fevered imaginings, but she never brought a sense of the steel underneath. Katerina is a role which requires a soprano with steely reserves as well (Galina Vishnevskaya is a fine example and is the singer I most associate with the role), and this was something that Racette never gave us. This was all fitted in with Tcherniakov's concept, so that Katerina hardly ever took command she was a function of her role and her treatment by the men around her. I found this horribly reductive.

One of the things which Shostakovich's score does, is to use humour to grim purposes. The chief of police is that awful thing, a funny villain. And Boris, Katerina's father is similar. I remember both Willard White and John Tomlinson in the role, both finding humour, satire as well as nasty violence, but Robert Hayward was only violent. His Boris was a profoundly nasty person, the personification of the violence around him and there was no trace of humour or satire. That said, Hayward gave a very strong performance within these confines and was at times thrilling.

Peter Hoare's Zinovy was the usual weak man, and Hoare plays such men to perfection bringing a complexity to the portrayal and making us feel sorry even as we are despising him. Whilst John Daszak brought a lovely strength and swagger to Sergei, and also a complexity so that we were never quite sure how much of a shit he was until the end. Daszak sang with a fine, heroic tone which cut through the orchestration and had the sense of steel in his voice which was missing from Racette's.

Daszak stripped completely naked for the scene where Racette bathed his wounds after his whipping, the nudity allowing us to see the full adoration that the woman has for him. But this raised other issues, as I wondered whether all of Shostakovich's interludes needed staging at all, particularly the graphic way the Tcherniakov did. If the music is so vivid, and so brilliantly depicts what is going on then do we need to see it as well. There was a sense of being told everything twice, to reinforce the message, which I disliked.

The final scene was completely changed from Shostakovich and Alexander Preis' libretto, we saw only Katerina's tiny cell which she ended up sharing with Sonyetka (Claire Presland) with John Daszak's Sergei able to make 'visits'. At the end, after Katerina's death the three guards picked over her goods. The remaining cast from the last scene simply sang off stage, a disembodied commentary rather than a depiction of a grim world. A theatrical coup, granted, but it felt like a reduction rather than intensification.

The supporting cast were all strong, within the confines of the production concept, with Adrian Thompson robust as the shabby peasant, and a supporting cast including David Newman, Paul Sheehan, Paul Napier-Burrows, Murray Kimmins, Anton Rich, Graem Lauren, Trvor Bowes, Richard Roberts, Geraint Hylton, Matthew Best, and Ronald Nairne.

Chorus and orchestra were both on terrific form, and performed brilliantly for Mark Wigglesworth and it presaged great things ahead under his direction. That said, I found Wigglesworth's conception of the score too heavy and too symphonic. This was early Shostakovich seen very much through the lense of the later symphonies. The sound world was all heavy brass and driving textures, and on its own terms extremely thrilling especially when performed as well as it was by the ENO orchestra.The result was very loud at times and seemed just too heavy, gone was any sense of the brilliant young man and the grotesque scherzo and there was little feel of the fun and satire in the score.

The evening was a very particular view of Shostakovich's opera, and one that I frankly did not share. Whilst moments were brilliant, and individual performances too, I did not find that it added up to a coherent drama and there were times when, frankly, things seemed to drag (it was quite a long evening). I found that Tcherniakov's concept rather dragged the piece down, and Wigglesworth's symphonic approach to the music did not help. But I was clearly in a minority, as the performance received a rapturous welcome from the packed house.

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