At just 19 years old, Dmitri Shostakovich unveiled his First Symphony in Leningrad to widespread acclaim and was compared to such greats as Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Like those bastions of twentieth century Russian composition, he had a turbulent relationship with the Soviet State, failing swiftly out of favour when Stalin and the Politburo were seen ‘visibly shuddering’ at a performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1936. Two days later, an anonymous article in the official Communist Party Newspaper, Pravda, publicly denounced his work. Critics who had praised him beforehand suddenly recanted their reviews, commissions were mysteriously cancelled and the composer was left fearing for his life as The Great Terror began to sweep over the Soviet state.
It isn’t difficult to see why the Soviet regime, Stalin and indeed Pravda were not in favour of the opera. Lady Macbeth tells of Katerina Lvovna Ismailova (Patricia Racette), the unsatisfied wife of Zinovy Borisovich Ismailov (Peter Hoare). Katerina is married into a wealthy family; factory owners and employers of many of the townsfolk, Zinovy and his father Boris Timofeyevich Ismailov (Robert Hayward) run their business with an iron fist, demanding respect and generating fear. But Katerina is bored, unfulfilled and ultimately unloved and so begins to search for someone new to shower their affection upon her. It just so happens that new worker Sergei (John Daszak) is young, free and available. Her love for Sergei grows so strong that together they commit terrible sins (adultery and even murder) before they are uncovered and jailed for their treachery.
Despite the plot that eludes to Katerina as a vicious, conniving murderess, the opera turns the tables and encourages the audience to pity, sympathise and even applaud the protagonist. Trapped in an unwanted marriage, resolving to take her future into her own hands and then drawn to another man who sates her need to be desirable is in some ways an insight into early feminism. Stalin must have been livid; the scene that he would have most approved of was the ritualistic and carnal gang rape of worker Akinsya (Rosie Aldridge) by Sergei and others in the factory workforce. Applauding the ability of Katerina to stand up for herself; the sexually explicit scenes that unveil her adulterous behaviour with Sergei; even the score itself, which is deliberately fragmented, pulsating and in many ways not traditionally tuneful. These were not in keeping with the ideas pervading Russia at the time, searching for a “‘musical language accessible to all” as opposed to a “petty-bourgeois, formalist attempt to create originality” according to the damning article in question.
Director and set designer Dmitri Tcherniakov and conductor Mark Wigglesworth are obviously well aware of the history of this piece in their interpretation. Tcherniakov updates the setting in true English National Opera (ENO) style – a modern day factory with clean white walls and accompanying loading bay doors surround the ‘prison’ in which Katerina finds herself, clad in plush Persian rugs and sensual red colours. Whilst a perfect accompaniment to the majority of the story, some parts simply don’t feel right in this environment – the stage is decorated appropriately for a wedding sequence, but ultimately still feels as though it is being held in the factory. Perhaps this is meant to be jarring, but contrasting the overall tone of this opera with the jollity of a wedding set would be more effective.
Wigglesworth is widely renowned for his interpretations of Shostakovich’s work and it shows here – the orchestra capitalise beautifully on the pulsating score that ebbs and flows at all the right moments. The pieces are interspersed with melodic fragments, enough to give the audience a taste of ‘traditional tune’ before being shrouded in a cacophony of chromaticism. Even these fragments are coloured with Shostakovich’s progressive writing – a slightly off-key waltz in the wedding scene; a celebratory chorus with accented discordant notes; a legato clarinet melody that Sergei sings through flippantly and with staccato. This is not an opera that an audience will leave humming along to, but is much more visceral and atmospheric.
The performers also seem aware of this and they too don’t perform in a melodic fashion. Katerina (Racette) has the most difficult task here. On stage almost all of the time and with a very technical part, she is still able to draw out every colour in Katerina’s emotional rainbow throughout the production. At times there is too much vibrato in her top register but this is in keeping with the style of Shostakovich work. Zinovy (Hoare) has a very melodic and layered sound, but unfortunately doesn’t get to use it to full effect given his limited stage time. Boris (Hayward) is another great character, with the persona of a lecherous old man and the voice of a commanding business owner. At times his diction is lost in the quicker passages but his authority is undeniably commanding. Sergei (Daszak) is a suitable lover for the leading lady and indeed mimics her change in personality as the opera progresses. Initially a rough and arrogant factory worker, he shows a tender side when alone with the woman he eventually falls in love with, only to return to his overtly masculine tendencies upon imprisonment. The two seem vocally and theatrically compatible.
This critic in no way shares the opinions of Stalin or the oppressive Soviet state, rather the opinions of the public when the opera was initially unveiled two years beforehand. The ENO achieve their typically high standard of production here by putting a modern stamp on a classic piece of operatic history and effectively combining theatrical prowess with vocal professionalism, not to mention a powerful orchestra to boot.
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is playing The Coliseum until 20 October. For more information and tickets, see the English National Opera website.