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Shostakovich Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk (2)

Eva-Maria Westbroek, John Tomlinson, Christopher Ventris, Roderick Earle, Maxim Mikhailov, John Daszak, Christine Rice

Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus/Antonio Pappano
Richard Jones director
John Macfarlane designs

Royal Opera House Covent Garden, 6 October 2006

I am one of those music lovers who remains convinced that operas, unlike children, should preferably be heard and not seen.


Operas live on account of the power of the music, and for me, little else matters. Things such as production, direction, costume and scenery are best left to one's own personal imagination. *


I don't watch DVDs and, even at my advanced age, I can still visualise beauty in the opposite sex and acknowledge just what a handsome hero is, and it isn't the likes of an ageing Italian such as Pavarotti!


So why do I occasionally go to the opera? Well, the storyline needs to be strong; the music needs to be powerful (not necessarily noise-wise) and the singers? Ah, singers –when their voices come from within and can make your spine tingle and your blood boil – then they are worth everything that is showered upon them.


Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk for me has all of the desired elements: extremely powerful music and a very strong storyline; also there is a Shostakovichian sense of black humour, the contest of terror and fun curiously linking arms. A Flaubertian sense of boredom – this time for Katerina Ismailova, a tragic heroine who cannot read or write, confined within the very closed borders of a loveless marriage and surrounded by bullies.


Enter the hero, Sergei. Exit two bullies – Boris (father-in-law) and his awful son – Zinovy Ismailov. However, it is not our hero who is the first killer, but our heroine – Katerina. Poisoned mushrooms see the old man off (illustrated), but later on it takes the swinging of an axe by Sergei to take Zinovy's head off his shoulders (for transfer to a plastic carrier bag).


At the wedding in the opening scene of Act III, the guests all get very drunk and lie on the floor. The arch-drunk discovers the body and head stowed away in the storeroom as he continues his quest for even more booze. He dashes off to the police station with the household cook.


Meanwhile, the police sergeant and his bored men are bemoaning their lot, regretting not having been invited to the wedding and seeking a reason to be at Katerina's house. Corruption is presently out of fashion so they really need a good reason. Their luck suddenly turns when the shabby guest rushes in complete with head in carrier bag. This is just what they need to gain entry to the party, arriving just after the priest has finished marrying the star-crossed lovers by which time all the guests are horizontal.


Caught red-handed with the swag-bag full of money and with Katerina's immediate confession, one could have forgiven the composer had he ended the piece here.


The epilogue takes place near a big, deep lake somewhere in Siberia where we are back to boredom once more. Here, Katerina is so desperate to get back in with her lover/husband, Sergei that she even gives him her warm stockings to ease her lover's sore and swollen legs. However, he wants them for his new belle, Sonyetka (the lovely Christine Rice) and Sergei and Sonyetka proceed to taunt Katerina both before and after the new couple have made love (or ‘had sex' might be more appropriate). That is far too much for Katerina and, as the columns of prisoners get ready to set off on yet another day across the Steppes of Central Asia, Katerina grabs hold of Sonyetka and pulls them both into the lake to drown (q.v. Agnes Kory's article about the stagings of the two versions of Shostakovich's opera).


It took me time to come to terms with the sets and post-dating of the opera – but that is the way with modern opera production. Lavish costume affairs are out – cheapskate (doubtless costing the earth anyway) scaffolding and minimalistic props and (virtually) modern dress for clothes are in. Composers are seldom given what they envisaged – producers and directors resorting to symbolic ways rather than authenticism.


As the opera wore on, I concentrated on the musical side of things and they were absolutely superb. I have only just finished my review of all the Shostakovich symphonies (Caetani) and here we have another Italian conductor showing how marvellously good he is with this most perceptive of Russian composers. This really was an occasion to remember - I was thrilled to be there.


Ah – the singers; every solo voice was splendid and I would not hesitate to go and hear them again. In fact, I may yet do so.


As I sat thrilling to the voice of Eva-Maria Westbroek (a fine Dutch soprano) I thought what a wonderful Brunnhilde she would make, and was delighted to read afterwards that she is, in fact, scheduled to sing Sieglinde in next year's Covent Garden Ring.

All the men were splendid but it was Jon Tomlinson as old Boris who deservedly stole the largest applause excepting Katerina's own. John Daszak was in fine voice as Zinovy. Christopher Ventris as Sergei came across as a heldentenor - a good voice for Siegmund…?


The entire cast sang brilliantly and as for the orchestra – well they simply are one of the best around. The conductor Antonio Pappano – fabulous! Everything at his finger tips; my only regret is that from the back stalls, where sound and balance were perfect, we never see him or the orchestra, except for the fifteen superb brass players who made a tremendous impact on-stage.


Dennis Day (Founder of Hitchin Music Matters - pictured)


* Serena Fenwick comments: Dennis Day's review makes a good read – though I would disagree strongly with his opening standpoint.   I love opera because it is theatre as well as music.   Sure, the sets and costumes may be drab and singers lacking in physical glamour, but never in my wildest imagination could I move characters and chorus around my fantasy stage with the consummate skill of a director such as Richard Jones.

And when it all comes together and is nigh on perfect, as was Jenufa seen in dress rehearsal at ENO today, nothing can beat it.

Mushrooms for supper
(Eva-Maria Westbroek & John Tomlinson) Photo credit: Clive Barda