My first encounter with Shostakovich’s operatic bête noire (in Petr Weigl’s film) was not love at first sight (there was a time when I would have written “has it ever been the case?”, but I have actually seen it work its charm on peple who are not particularly fond of opera, for instance). Now that I think about the reason why I had a problem with it, I see that it was the impression that the composer was not taking his characters’ predicament seriously. I would eventually realize that this is not true. Probably, the idea that their predicament should be taken seriously in the sense of “intended to awaken sympathy” seemed not serious enough to Shostakovich… In any case, the fact that the opera – both the music and the libretto – has an unsparing “angle” on Katarina Izmailova’s story usually has the effect of inspiring directors to stage it in a grotesque, caricatural way, such as Andreas Homoki has done in his 2013 production for the Opernhaus Zürich, which seems staged in the Bizarro world version of Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory with the chorus acting like oopaloompas dressed as if they would go trick-or-treating in Halloween. The single set too did not seem designed to create any atmosphere in its geometrical shapes rather sloppily assembled (on purpose?). If there was something on stage for the audience to relate with, this was the leading soprano and tenor’s acting the honesty of which jarred against the backdrop of pantomime.
Conductor Vasily Petrenko seemed committed to make it all of Shostakovich’s kaleidoscopic score. This meant that the house orchestra was often taken to its limits in terms of clarity of articulation (particularly in the wedding scene), but at least the audience was kept on the edge of their seats during the whole performance. Gun-Brit Barkmin has an interesting voice for the role – it is bright in a way in keeping with what one would expect from a soprano in this repertoire, but warm enough in its middle and lower registers. Although there is more than a splash of vinegary tonal quality, ungainliness and sharpness in her singing, it is still a voice that can soften and produce a legato line when this is necessary. Above all, it is a role in which she clearly believes and this makes it easy for the audience to connect with. It is hardly Misha Didyk’s fault that his tenor does not have the irresistible charm of Nicolai Gedda’s in Rostropovich’s recording or the sheer beauty of tone of Sergei Larin’s in Chung’s CDs, but the rough edges (and the heroic possibilities in his high notes) made him more believably rustic, as he should be. His stage presence – not really leading-man-ish in the cinematographic sense – matched his singing and made the whole package convincing. He was well contrasted to Oleskiy Palchykov’s forceful and steely Sinowy, more menacing than one would expect. As for Pavel Daniluk (Boris), I am not able to tell if the wayward intonation, breathlessness and parlando effects are what one is supposed to do in this role. I have often heard singers in old-man roles in Slavic operas sing that way and, to be honest, I do not see the point of it, but I am not a specialist in this repertoire and cannot really say anything other than my personal impression. As a matter of fact, I have to confess this secret phantasy of hearing this opera in deluxe conditions, with no extra layer of roughness related to the shortcomings of the forces avilable. I.e., I like to imagine how it would have been if Abbado had recorded it with, say, Karita Mattila, Piotr Beczala, Ferruccio Furlanetto and the Vienna Philharmonic. It would have been interesting to see if the score would sound less or more powerful in these conditions.