Wrestling with Demons
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; opera in four acts, music by Dmitry Shostakovich, libretto by Shostakovich and Alexander Preys after the novella by Nikolai Leskov, conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano, revival of the 2004 production directed by Richard Jones; Royal Opera, 12th April 2018, reviewed by LESLIE JONES
All is evidently not well at the Ismailovs’. “I’m so bored I could kill myself”, Katerina, played by Eva-Maria Westbroek, confides. Her life seems meaningless and she lives as a virtual prisoner cum drudge, with little intellectual or sexual stimulation. There are echoes here of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and also of the film The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Katerina’s lecherous and cynical father-in-law, the merchant Boris Ismailov (played with aplomb by John Tomlinson) is a larger than life character reminiscent of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov. He pointedly reminds his daughter-in-law that after five years of marriage she is still not pregnant. Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, as Melanie Marshall points out in “Quacks, hoots, growls and gasps…” (Official Programme) is famous for being childless. Both in Shakespeare’s play and in Shostakovich’s opera, the failure to re-produce arguably leads the heroine to focus on “empty goals – prestige, power, base sexual gratification”.
John Macfarlane’s memorable set in scene 1, split into two sections, accentuates the dreary, claustrophobic quality of the heroine’s domestic life with her husband Zinovy. On the one side, we have a fridge, a gas cooker, a TV and some drab furniture evocative of the 1950’s. On the other side is Zinovy Ismailov’s office. Subsequently, in scene 3, the office gives way to Katerina’s bedroom, where at night she is locked in by Boris but seduced in due course by Sergey, a worker hired by the Ismailovs.
Richard Jones’ production is a satire on consumerism. The stage curtain, accordingly, is decorated with images of abandoned fridges and other cast off items. As Katerina ruthlessly ascends the ladder of power and status, a bigger TV set and lavish wall coverings are installed in her living room. Prosaic white sheets, unkempt hair and nondescript clothing give way to purple bed linen, peroxide and power dressing.
“You certainly know how to prepare mushrooms”, Boris Ismailov informs his daughter-in-law. There are elements of farce and dark humour, even of pantomime, in Richard Jones’ production, as when Katerina laces the aforementioned mushrooms with rat poison. In scene 3, likewise, Sergey talks his way into Katerina’s boudoir on the pretext of borrowing a book. Again, in scene 4, Boris beats Sergey with a birch rod, and in scene 5, Sergey hides in a cupboard when Zinovy unexpectedly returns from attending to repairs at the mill. Katerina then throttles her husband with her lover’s belt and Zinovy finishes him off with an axe.
In Lady Macbeth, as a perceptive colleague informs me, Shostakovich quotes from other composers, notably Mahler, Mussorgsky and Richard Strauss. As elsewhere in his oeuvre, tender, lyrical moments of music are interspersed with powerful, bombastic passages. Maestro Pappano clearly revelled in this score and all of the leading parts were sung with authority. Soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek has a suitably mournful voice and a big stage presence.
In a totalitarian order, it is inadvisable to consider issues of individual freedom and oppression (including female oppression) or to satirise society. Addressing the subject of love, too, can be readily condemned as bourgeois and decadent. Conforming to the party line, as István Szabó maintains in his magnificent film Mephisto, is the safest option. Shostakovich discovered all this to his personal cost. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was his last opera.
Dr Leslie Jones is the Editor of QR
I wonder if Shostakovich would recognise the (metropolitan – at least) Britain of 2018, with its own totalitarianism – its obession with all the “isms”; its inability to discuss anything without first having to consider, very carefully, a form of words which avoid any kind of “offence” or “stereotyping”; the need to sound as though you don’t deviate from the liberal-left agenda of the media, nearly every public body, and now, most businesses (the “free market” having now succumbed to the mantra of political correctness).