Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

OPERA AUSTRALIA present LADY MACBETH of MTSENSK. Opera in four acts by Dmitry Shostakovich. Libretto by Alexander Preis and the composer after the short story by Nickolai Leskov (1865) at the Sydney Opera House.

This production of LADY MACBETH of MTSENSK is a revival production for Opera Australia. It was first seen in June, 2002. Directed by Francesca Zambello; now Conducted by Sir Richard Armstrong; Set design by Hildegard Bechtler; Costume design by Tess Schofield; Lighting design by Jean Kalder. It is amusing to travel artistically from the ridiculous musicalities of MUSICAL OF MUSICALS: THE MUSICAL! to the sublime composition of Dmitry Shostakovich all in one week. This is a truly wonderous night in the theatre.

The source for the opera’s story comes from “Nikolai Leskov’s1864 story, LADY MACBETH of the MTSENSK DISTRICT, (it) is a lurid tale about Katerina Ismailova, a merchant’s young wife. Bored, sexually unfulfilled, and frustrated by her provincial life, Katerina is overwhelmed by passion conceived for a brash, handsome employee of her husband. (She is also bullied by her father-in-law about her inability to produce an heir for the family.) To sustain her liaison, she is impelled to commit a series of murders with the lover, which lead eventually to their exposure, capture, and exile to Siberia. Spurned by her lover, the still obsessed Katerina hurls herself into the deadly waters of the Volga River, dragging a rival with her.” ( A typical operatic scenario.)

The opera opened almost simultaneously at the Maly Opera House, Lenigrad on 22 January 1934 and two days later at The Bolshoy in Moscow. ”Expectations For Shostakovich’s new opera ran high (He had written one other, THE NOSE It had premiered in November 1928). Well before LADY MACBETH’s premiere, extensive coverage in the press promoted the significance of the event for Soviet opera. Even the most skeptical of critics, concerned chiefly with issues clarifying the proper ramifications of the drama or lamenting its lack of a moral force for good (and not, incidentally, bristling with puritanical indignation at the carnal excesses that later became an issue), were swayed by the undeniable originality and power of Shostakovitch’s music. Myaskovsky, never one of Shostakovitch’s most active boosters, pronounced the opera “stunningly wonderful”. Another composer of the time, Gavriil Popov, wrote in his diary “(Lady) Macbeth is a remarkable, deep, and brilliantly orchestrated composition.” Samosud proclaimed Shostakovitch’s opera a masterpiece, the best in the operatic literature of the past half century.”

“The reception of Shostakovitch’s opera, critical and especially popular did nothing to confute the anticipation. It left no doubt that LADY MACBETH of the MTSENSK DISTRICT represented a proud milestone in the history of Soviet music. The day after the premiere, the press blazoned its exceptional success; the creators, and most notably the composer, had been summoned on stage not just at the end of acts but in between individual scenes as well. The Maly Opera Theatre’s show was instantaneously predicted to become 'one of the most beloved of the masses.'” Shostakovich was not even thirty.

“This does not mean that more circumspect views were not voiced…. The rhetoric (became) quite heated amongst conservative speakers, chiefly political functionaries from the Union of Composers….” In Leningrad “the performances were selling out and the audiences were enthusiastic in their demand for curtain calls.… In the two-plus years of the Opera’s run, The Maly Theatre tallied eighty-three performances of LADY MACBETH; for the forty-nine performances through the end of 1934 the average attendance was calculated at an impressive 92.8 percent of the capacity, and the show reaped an enormous profit. Within five months of its premiere, the opera had already been broadcast on the radio five times…. Word about the sensational new Soviet opera quickly spread abroad. Within two years of its unveiling, staged or concert versions of LADY MACBETH had been performed in the United States, Argentina, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Switzerland, and England.”

Then disaster struck the opera’s history. Early in 1936, Josef Stalin walked out of a performance of LADY MACBETH in Moscow. On 28 January 1936, while away on tour the composer bought a copy of PRAVDA, where he read an article entitled ‘Muddle instead of Music.’ The article complains of “a deliberately discordant confused stream of sounds…. All this is coarse, primitive and vulgar. The music quacks, grunts and growls, and suffocates itself to express the amatory scenes as naturalistically as possible. (It’s an international success) by the fact that it tickles the perverted tastes of the bourgeoisie with its fidgety, screaming, neurotic music.” Shostakovitch’s crime was an ideological one. He was accused of being a "formalist". The review was a public condemnation, a direct attack upon the composer and it originated with Stalin. The Great Terror, which had been triggered by the murder of Sergei Kirov in 1934 had reached Shostakovitch’s doorstep. Millions disappeared during the Great Terror. They were shot or sent to Siberia – to the endless Gulag. Shostakovitch was never arrested, but for years he lived with the constant fear that he would be.”

A ban was put on LADY MACBETH of MTSENSK in Russia and it remained unperformed there until 1963 when the composer produced a revised edition and was called KATERINA IZMAILOVA. Opera Australia’s performances are of the original version of the work.

So, to the present production at the Sydney Opera House. For those of us who love the work of Verdi, Puccini, and in the terrifying bloody murders and rapes that often happen off stage but are usually sung about with beautiful music in the blood soaked aftermaths (The Masked Ball or Lucia de Lammermoor for example), it can be a shock to attend LADY MACBETH of MTSENSK. In scene two there is, on stage, a pack rape; in scene three a most graphic sexual coupling, of some musical extension, and then we witness, on stage, a violent whipping, three murders and a suicide through the course of the story-telling. This is not your “chocolate –box” presentation of the usual opera melodrama, but rather a realist, even brutalist actualisation of the human appetites and tragedies of fellow human beings. I remember as an audience member at my first experience of this opera to being shocked and stunned by the production and the lyrics (via sur-titles) although it was sung in English, and yet exhilarated that I was witnessing what I had often seen on stage in so-called straight theatre, a re-production of real life but in an opera. The tragedy of Katerina Izmailova recalls the ugliness of the great classic novel of MADAME BOVARY. The sexual reality or sordidness of the story combined with sensitive "poetry" of sounds reminds of Tennessee William’s A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (!947). Dmitry Shostakovitch regarded his LADY MACBETH as a Tragedy-Satire. A conception of art way ahead of its time.

The story is tragic and the music is satire. The scoring of the music was for me and still is the crowning glory of the opera. The music is a major character. The clever, detailed and wickedly comic scoring is what gives the work a uniqueness in my opera going. When I first heard it, I was startled to find myself moved to laughter by the sounds coming from the orchestra and accompanying many scenes (in breathtaking counterpoint to the actual events on stage.) The sounds coming from the pit (and in this case the upper balcony of the auditorium in a thrilling stereo effect) were pricelessly outrageous and audacious in their rightness, in the scoring for the post-coital comment after a most athletic coupling of the heroine Katerina and Sergei, her lover, for instance. It was truly exciting and I was in a naive state of amazement that this was a score from 1934 and I wondered why the wit of the musical writing had not being more imitated in other modern works. (Maybe it has, and I have yet to hear it.). For no other reason, the hearing of this music is worth the ticket cost.

However the production by Francesca Zambello (which she has re-staged for this season ) is magnificent. The Design choices are powerful and wonderfully thought through in their conception and execution. The Set design (Hildegard Bechtler) is of a curved wall from stage left, sweeping upstage and then across the stage to the upper right wing space. It is grey with a painted re-production of what looks like a photograph of the mountainous, monotonous horizon of outer Russia in black to other grey tones spreading along the central area. It is subtle in its sense of depression, sensorially it is a daring stroke, and it encases the tragedy and the colourless circumstances that these people live in. The time of the design for this production, as there is a television set in the police station, is the nineteen-sixties. On a black raked stage, an ingenious set of three modules are arranged and re-arranged to build the many locations of the action of the story; a bedroom, a kitchen, a communal work change room, a police station etc. The look is of decaying and neglected white tiles. Chipped, scuffed and covered in detritus of thorough neglect. Bleeding dirt trails down the walls. The furniture, cheap and assembly factory made. The bed an old dilapidated convertible couch in a filthy rust brown covering. For the last act a wonderfully painted cloth of a long and endless road cutting through the wastes of the endless steppes of Russia masked the setting up of a work camp in the Gulags of Siberia. Grey is the dominant colour.

The Costume design (Tess Schofield) is accurately and artistically redolent of the grinding poverty and dullness of the life style of the inhabitants of this demanding world. It helps us to empathise with the restlessness of Katerina, and may, depending on your experiential life journeys, comprehend with horrific recognition the desperateness of her situation.

Shostakovitch was intent on placing the Soviet woman and her plight at the centre of his work (an act of feminism) and had intended to write two other works with the Soviet woman as heroine, as the central figure. He never did. The opera libretto emphasises the social hypocrisy of the permitted sexual machismo of the male of the species with remarkable frankness and savagery. (Orlando Figes book NATASHA’S DANCE and Anthony Beevor’s BERLIN, give some credence to the level of possible cruelty.) It contrasts it by using the Katerina character who adopts, unconsciously, a male appetite for the same freedom and traces the personal descent of this woman into a life of sexual ambition and hunger that posses and consumes her and leads her to a place of obsessive sexual “stupidity”. This Lady Macbeth is not ambitious, rather she simply wants sexual satisfaction. The consequences of her pursuing this is the tragedy.As it is for Madame Bovary and Blanche Dubois. The male figure lives on and treks off to what is probably more condoned sexual freedoms.

The acting and the singing is outstanding. Susan Bullock as Katerina is impressive. The boredom, the sensual longing and the duped and despairing woman are all captured convincingly in this cruelling role. Simon O’Neill, assisted by the convincing costuming of Ms Schofield, is also persuasive as the louche and sex hungry “Don Juan“ of the fields town and gulag. He convincingly gives the appearance of being in love and then we watch his growing tiredness of the relationship and his insouciant manipulation of Katerina (and her stockings) and the casual bluntness of his pursuit of “Sonyetka of the gulag”. The trio is completed by the insidious and malevolent sexuality of Boris Ismailovna, the father-in law. It is potent in its attractiveness, physically, and in the vocal demands that the composer gives John Wegner. Frighteningly thrilling. All three sing gloriously and powerfully.

The Chorus work is truly terrific, (and I mean that in the Elizabethan sense: terrifying.) They also are in great vocal form and accuracy. The acting is pretty good as well. The choreographic detail of the pack rape scene is devastatingly handled by all. I also enjoyed, especially, the work of Kanen Breen as a Shabby Peasant, Warwick Fyfe (in a wicked ”Keystones” satire of the chief of Police), Jud Arthur as the Convict (a moving rendition of the song of despair to introduce the final act ) and Dominica Matthews as Sonyetka. There was really no weak element to any of the casting right the way through that was at all discernible by me.

This is great theatre. (The only disappointment was the dramatic solving of the last moments: the final murder and suicide. It is staged in a place that lacked the dramatic power of the rest of the work.)

The Opera Australia Company is in great form. The conductor Sir Richard Armstrong has created an impressive performance. This should not be missed if you love great music theatre and just great dramatic theatre. Like the work of the company and Neil Armfield, last year, BILLY BUDD and THE MAKROPULOS SECRET, a palpable victory for the Performing Arts from the most notoriously difficult form: OPERA.

Playing now until 25 March. Book online or call 02 9318 8200.

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