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Staging Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth operas

John Tomlinson, Christopher Ventris, Roderick Earle, Maxim Mikhailov, Eva-Maria Westbroek, John Daszak, Christine Rice Royal Opera House Orchestra/Antonio Pappano
Richard Jones director John Macfarlane designs


Royal Opera House, London 28 September 2006 (dress rehearsal)


Richard Jones' staging of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is exciting - great theatre. Judging by – for example – the 15 piece off-stage brass band playing variously on stage in costumes or in stage boxes in the auditorium, evidently no expenses were spared.


But is the staging true to Leskov's story (on which the libretto is based) or, indeed, to the libretto?


My main concern is the character of Boris Ismailov, father-in-law of Katerina Ismailova (the Lady Macbeth of the title). He is not a pleasant chap by any means but he is not a lecherous thug as he is portrayed in this staging. Yes, he phantasises about daughter-in-law Katerina but he does not try to seduce his son's wife. In this production, however, he has a very good go at physical contact with Katerina though he does not get anywhere. As per the story (and libretto), Ismailov is a primitive and brute, but he functions within certain sets of rules. He demands obedience from Katerina towards her husband as well as towards himself but he also guards his son's property (which includes wife Katerina).


With such a staging Boris' death, one of the opera's climaxes, becomes a joke. We don't care that Katerina mixes the mushroom with rat poison and we find the old man's death cries funny. Yet Shostakovich's music implies the tragedy of the old man, however foolishly he might have behaved. This aspect was beautifully portrayed by Mariinsky's production of Katerina Ismailova (London Coliseum, 23 July 2006) and by their semi-staged concert performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Proms (20 August 2006).


The final great climax of the story/libretto – Katerina's suicide and her murder of love rival Sonyetka – literally disappears by Jones having the two women sliding down from stage on what looks like an elevator. There is no struggle at all though presumably Sonyetka is not going to her death willingly. In a very effective staging Jones makes Katerina visibly sick - and thus he creates an earlier climax - at the realisation that she lost Sergei. However; Leskov and Shostakovich intended the suicide and murder as the final climax.


Richard Jones does not shy away from semi-pornographic images. Aksinya's crowd rape (with a fire extinguisher pouring white powder on her) does not leave much to the imagination. Nevertheless, the audience's attention is captured for the whole performance.


Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky company are difficult to rival in Russian repertoire. Antonio Pappano and his Royal Opera House forces deliver a credible musical performance, though the orchestra at times is too loud for the singers. Eva–Maria Westbrook presents a fascinating Katerina; more so than the two Mariinsky Katerinas on 23 July and 20 August respectively.


If one compares the Mariinsky and Royal Opera House productions there are pluses and minuses both ways. But it is the Mariinsky who stay true to the original concept.


Agnes Kory