Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk — Opera Australia

simultaneous premieres in Leningrad and Moscow followed, at one point, by
simultaneous productions in three Moscow theatres alone foreign productions
followed. After the American premiere the sensational opera became topical
enough to be mentioned in the Rodgers and Hart musical On Your Toes
and in London, where it was performed in concert in 1936 followed by BBC
broadcast, the young Benjamin Britten heard it and was impressed by its
powerful interludes (and also by one of the singers, Peter Pears, who had a
minor role). The came Stalin’s visit to a performance in Moscow and the
subsequent attacks in Pravda on the opera, the ballet The Limpid
and the composer himself. The opera was withdrawn immediately.
There was difficulty obtaining the music for that London concert in 1936 and
after then it disappeared from every stage until 1959 when the Dusseldorf Opera
managed to wrangle the orchestral music from the Soviet authorities. By then
Shostakovich was testing the waters: Stalin had died and Kruschev had made
public the extent of Stalin’s terror: by issuing a revised version of the
opera. Only slowly, and not until after Shostakovich’s death, did the
original version regain its fame.

For Opera Australia’s production, director Francesca Zambello updates
the story to the Soviet era where overbearing male sexuality is just another
form of oppression. The bored and sexually unfulfilled Katerina (Susan Bullock)
is married to an impotent weakling Zinovy (David Corcoran) while all around her
there is an environment of rampaging male sexuality. Even her lecherous
father-in-law Boris (Daniel Sumegi) constantly prowls around her bedroom
fantasising about doing Zinovy’s matrimonial duty for him.

After seventy years Shostakovich’s music is still exuberant and
irreverent but with astonishing power in places, like those cathartic
interludes that so impressed Britten. The first two acts, leading up Katerina
and her lover Sergei (Richard Berkeley-Steele) murdering her husband seethe
with threatening or raucous music that explode in the scenes of sex or violence
that are still very confronting. In the opening scene trombones blurt slyly as
Boris insinuates that she is looking for a lover and again in a later scene
when he predicts her infidelity. Finally, alone in her room with Sergei the
notorious on-stage sex scene, those trombones now grunt wildly along with every
thrust in music that reaches a literal climax and aftermath that has to be
heard to be believed! Zambello has their lovemaking as frenzied and confronting
as the frenzied music and in the other notorious scene where the cook Aksinya
(Jacqueline Dark) is attacked by the workmen is turned into a near mass rape,
the near naked workmen groping her and themselves in a scene that begins during
the linking interlude where the sleazy music accompanies Sergei signalling the
workmen to gather in the wash house and making it obvious the attack is well
planned and that Sergei is the ringleader. The coarseness of the male sexuality
as played here sets Katerina’s ecstatic sexual awakening in sharp relief.
Even though it is very confrontingly depicted it looks positively virtuous in
comparison with the Boris and his worker’s lechery.

LadyMacbethofMtsensk-Bulloc.gifSusan Bullock as Katerina Ismailova [Photo by Jeff Busby]

Bullock is astounding in this most difficult role. A notable Elektra, her
voice rides the huge orchestra in the dramatic scenes with a cut and edge that
remains clean and steady at all times. Her recent success in the Chandos
recording of Salome, where she scales down her tone to an insinuating whisper
is no studio trick either. In the opening scene and later, in the plaintive
about animals mating happily but not her, she can spin her voice into a
mournful whisper. In the same way she projects the aria in the last act about
the black lake out into the auditorium while draining her voice of colour to
suggest Katerina numb from both cold and Sergei’s rejection. She acts the
highly charged scenes with the same conviction she invests in every other scene
right down to weary resignation with which she drowns herself and
Sergei’s new mistress. I suspect now that the lulling, romantic and
otherwise polite repertoire she chose for her recital was to show her vocal
nice side.

Berkeley-Steele copes magnificently the short, jabbing vocal lines
Shostakovich gives Sergei, as though he were — appropriately: a cock
crowing. Sumegi, looking like Stalin and groping himself as often as his vodka
bottle is an unashamedly disgusting Boris. All thee have excellent diction and
project the text well.

Sung in English the translation is by the opera producer David Pountney for
his English National Opera production which is coy in places other translations
are not and forthright in places others are tamer. Katerina’s aria about
animals mating, for instance, uses more sexualised language than the
translations accompanying either of the two commercial CD recordings of the

The smaller but necessary roles have been cast from strength. Shostakovich
drives his buffo tenors hard it seems; the tenor singing the Police Captain in
his earlier opera The Nose is required to sing in alt and reach an E
above top C. As the shabby peasant Kanen Breen is taxed by the orchestral
tsunami Shostakovich sets against the scene in which he discovers
Zinovy’s body. As a result he is barely audible against the wild mazurka
played forte by the full orchestra and resorts to a frenzied semaphore for the

Deputising for the late Richard Hickox, who was to conduct the Sydney and
Melbourne seasons this year, Richard Armstrong had apparently not conducted the
work before. With the same authority he brings to Richard Strauss, he scored
point after point of the music’s Janus nature, colouring the lyrical
passages for Katerina, the quirky but sinister little violin passage as Boris
eats the fatal mushrooms and, most importantly, exploding the interludes with
shattering force. The orchestra responded superbly to the full barrage of the
young and uncensored Shostakovich.

Zambello’s update appears to be roughly the same time that the opera
was written. Like Patrice Chereau, who set a trend (most famously in his 1976
Ring cycle at Bayreuth) for setting an opera in the time it was
written rather the time it is set, this simple action often contextualises a
work in rewarding ways, even without imposing many social or political
references from the time. As the Marxist overtones pervaded Chereau’s
interpretation of Wagner, the ruthlessness of the purges and oppressions that
were beginning in the Soviet Union underpin the story, giving some idea of what
was really disturbing to Stalin and his committee. The sudden sighting of a
portable television, however, spoiled the otherwise compelling concept. The
poverty of regional Russia under Soviet collectivisation was superbly conveyed
and gives the Ismailova’s a level of desperation not in Leskov’s
original story of comfortable bourgeoisie. Here the sordid environment is both
physical and metaphorical.

Michael Magnusson

image_description=Susan Bullock as Katerina Ismailova [Photo courtesy of Opera Australia]
product_title=Dmitri Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Op. 29
product_by=Katerina Ismailova: Susan Bullock; Sergei: Richard Berkeley-Steele; Zinovy Ismailov: David Corcoran; Boris Ismailov: Daniel Sumegi; Sonyetka: Dominica Matthews; Aksinya / Woman Convict: Jacqueline Dark; Teacher / Shabby Peasant: Kanen Breen; Steward / Sentry: Richard Anderson; Sergeant / Chief of Police: Richard Alexander; Foreman 1 / Coachman: Stephen Smith; Foreman 2: Graeme Macfarlane; Foreman 3 / Mill-Hand: David Thelander; Porter: Charlie Kedmenec; Priest: Gennadi Dubinsky; Policeman: Shane Lowrencev; Drunk Guest: David Lewis; Old Convict: Jud Arthur. Opera Australia Chorus. Orchestra Victoria. Conductor: Richard Armstrong. Director: Francesca Zambello. Set Designer: Hildegard Bechtler. Costume Designer: Tess Schofield. State Theatre, The Arts Centre 24, 29 April, 2 & 5 May 2009.
product_id=Above: Susan Bullock as Katerina Ismailova [Photo courtesy of Opera Australia]