SHOSTAKOVICH: Lady Macbeth of Mtensk District (Kirov Opera)

Even unstaged, this powerful and disturbing work filled
with scenes of rape, humiliation, corruption, and murder felt almost too overwhelming to sit
through. Speculations of political pressure aside, it was not difficult to imagine, after being a
member of the audience, why the middle-aged composer would have felt compelled to rewrite
the work, curbing the raw violence of his X-rated early masterpiece down to at least a PG-13
rating (the new version, renamed Katerina Ismailova after the main character and premiered in
1963, was reportedly the composer’s favorite).

Conducted with savage intensity by maestro Gergiev, the Kirov Orchestra proved itself once
again one of the premiere ensembles in the world today, operatic or otherwise. Even the
premium-seat dwellers, well-schooled in the social etiquette that forbids applause until the end of
the piece (or in this case, until the intermission), erupted spontaneously into an ovation after the
breathtaking rendition of the 2nd tableau interlude. The conductor simply refused to hold his
orchestra back to accommodate the singers, and the power of volume alone was truly
earth-shattering – exactly the kind of effect Shostakovich’s uncompromising music demands. To
their credit, both the excellent chorus and most of the soloists withstood the competition
admirably. Unlike the previously reviewed Il Viaggio a Reims, which was a vehicle for the
relative novices at the Mariinsky Academy of Young Singers, this production involved the
premiere forces of the venerable Kirov stage. Larisa Gogolevskaya was spectacular as Katerina
the kupchikha (merchant’s wife), the only character in a cartoonish parade of degenerates for
whom, despite three murders in a space of four acts, the composer allows his listener to feel any
sympathy. Her gut-wrenching rendition of the Act 4 arioso is worth a special mention, as are her
confrontation scenes with her bully of a father-in-law Boris Timofeevich. Unfortunately, Alexei
Tanovitski in the latter role was not perhaps the best partner for Gogolevskaya: despite an
attractive sound and some good acting that won him approval of the audience, his voice lacked
the sheer strength necessary to match (and often overpower) Katerina and, in this particular case,
also to hold his own against the orchestra. Among secondary characters, Liubov Sokolova was a
gorgeously trashy Sonyetka, while an operatic veteran Gennady Bezzubenkov deserved his
applause as both a thoughtful Old Convict, and as a lecherous Priest whose profundo register
drew gasps from the hall.

Indeed, quite a few characters created by the singers made one long to see the opera staged, but
none more so than the two leading tenors of the production, Evgeny Akimov as Katerina’s
husband, Zinovy Borisovich, and Viktor Lutsiuk as her lover, Sergei. At the beginning, it made
little sense to me that Lutsiuk would be given the role of Sergei, who as a mock operatic lover
does a lot of powerful singing throughout the opera, while Akimov, an obviously stronger singer,
would be cast as Zinovy, a weakling who barely gets two scenes in before being dispatched into
the next world (and down into the cellar) by his wife. As the production progressed, however, I
came to appreciate this brilliant piece of operatic casting. Lutsiuk’s Sergei was deliciously
disgusting; his voice, figure, gestures, and facial expressions virtually oozed slime. Meanwhile,
having Akimov, a powerhouse tenor with a ringing metallic timbre, portray an insecure,
impotent, pathetic little man brought forth an equally delicious irony of all style and no

The performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District closed a rather unusual tour for the Kirov
this year: the company eschewed heavy Russian drama for two Italian comedies, Rossini’s Il
Viaggio a Reims
and Verdi’s Falstaff. While the Shostakovich provided a taste of the former, the
tour as a whole reminds us once again that the Kirov is capable of much more than the Philips
Russian opera recordings, great as they are. Indeed, Gergiev’s troupe seems determined lately to
defy any possibility of being viewed as an example of parochial exotica, and wants to be seen
instead as the first-class European opera theater that it is. Whether or not one loves their Italian
(or their German, for that matter – speaking of the Cardiff production of the Ring Cycle reviewed
recently on this site
), the Kirov is no longer just a “Russian theater.” As a new resident of the
Washington DC area, I look forward to whatever the next five years of the company’s residency
here bring. And of course, I will keep you posted!

Olga Haldey

image_description=Larissa Gogolevskaya
product_title=Dmitri Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District
product_by=Kirov Opera, Kennedy Center, Washington, DC, 4 February 2007