Posts Tagged ‘Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’

Krzysztof Warlikowski’s new production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk for he Opéra de Paris has all his hallmark features – the labo chic sets, curtains, video projections, a cowboy costume, glittery party dresses. It has more to do with Warlikowski than with Nikolai Leskov. First, it looks too glamorous for the circumstances. Second, the approach is too detached for a story about human passions at their rawest. Third, act 3 – visually attractive as it is – makes no sense in terms of the plot. The whole affair with the discovery of the corpse and the appearance of the police simply did not match what was shown on stage. In Mr. Warlikowski’s favor, one must recognize that his Personenregie was effective and his intent of portraying the main character’s sexual obsession was right on the mark.

The combination of this staging and Ingo Metzmacher’s extremely cerebral approach to the score (unaided by an orchestra not exactly adept in tonal variety) made the characters’ predicaments even more distant to the audience. This does not mean that the conductor did not serve the music well. There were many moments of unusual transparence and finish – and it is hardly his fault that I’ll be forever spoilt by what Mariss Jansons did with the Vienna Philharmonic in Salzburg.

I am no sure if I find the idea of using Rudolf Barshai’s orchestral adaptation of the first movement of Shostakovich’s eighth string quartet as an interlude between the last two acts was effectively. The way the composer devised this transition seemed more coherent for me in its unbroken impact.

The extreme demands in terms of acting made on the soprano explains the casting of Aurine Stundyte as Katerina Izmailova. She gave herself entirely to the task and shone in all intensity whenever she was on stage. In terms of singing, I am less enthusiastic. Ms. Stundyte’s throaty, greyish voice does not suggest sensuousness and comes close to stridence in exposed high notes. Pavel Cernoch’s tenor has developed a lot since I last saw him. The tightness is gone and now he can all right produce heroic top notes. However, the tonal quality is not truly ingratiating and there is no smile in his voice. I have written that, once you’ve heard Nicolai Gedda in Rostropovich’s recording, it is difficult to hear the role otherwise. In the legendary Swedish tenor’s interpretation, you can always hear what is really going in Sergey’s mind while he speaks about how sensitive a man he is. In that sense, the comparison is too hard with every other tenor, Mr. Cernoch included. His effort to portray a role distant to his personality is praiseworthy , and he has done a very good job in terms of acting. Minor roles were all brilliantly taken – Dmitry Ulyanov again is a firm-toned and characterful Boris Timofeevich, John Daszak’s bright-toned Zinovy Borisovich had the right touch of nervousness and Alexander Tsymbalyuk was a rich-voiced police officer.


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Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk used to be a “for a change” item in the repertoires of big theatres in the world and you would expect to see the B-team creative team working on a low budget. It has, however, increasingly tempted adventurous first-rate sopranos (especially those who sing Wagner) willing to try a role challenging both in terms of music and theatre. Although this is a groundbreaker in Russian opera, the discography and videography practically feature no recordings made in Russia. For instance, Galina Vishnevskaya is the only Russian soprano whose performance in the title role has been officially released. As it is, this work’s performance tradition has been built rather in the “20th century opera” than in the “Russian opera” shelf of one’s library. This evening in the Großes Festspielhaus, in one hand, confirms this trend: it has the Vienna Philharmonic (there already is a live recording with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra) conducted by Mariss Jansons (who had already recorded it with Eva-Maria Westbroek, Christopher Ventris and the Concertgebouw) and was supposed to feature Nina Stemme’s Katarina Izmailova. With her cancellation due to illness, this finally ended up being one of the most “Russian” casts ever to appear in an important theatre in the West. The leading tenor is American – and there are two Ukrainians.

In any case, the most important element of this performance is Mariss Jansons’s conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. Maestro Jansons has developed the reputation of a specialist in Shostakovich’s music and proves to be immune to all clichés and shortcuts in this score. He resists the temptation of having an angle and lets the score speak in its wide-raging possibilities. Under his baton, this is grand-scale drama. The Latvian conductor paints, with deluxe orchestral sound, the kaleidoscopic atmosphere of this wide-ranging story without any parti pris. Every scene is given what its text and music demands, as a seasoned Lieder singer would do in a Schubert song. Mr. Janssons does not make light of Katarina’s predicament – he does convey the composer’s cynicism, but he takes it seriously too. And this only makes everything more poignant and more cruel. The fact that he has the Vienna Phiharmonic with him can be described by my neighbor’s reaction, which was letting go a “Wahnsinn!” every time he heard vortices of perfectly blended woodwind, brass and strings spin out in absolute precision. And this was often.

Originally cast as a prisioner in the last act, Evgenia Muraveva was promoted to the title role (it is not clear to me if she had already sung it or if she was scheduled to sing it for the first time in the Mariinsky in the near future) as Ms. Stemme fell ill. Hers is a vibrant and slightly metallic soprano one typycally calls “Slavic”, with a mezzo-ish low register and yet surprisingly ductile in floated mezza voce and keen on legato whenever lyricism is demanded. Being Russian herself, the text is delivered with crispness and purpose. Although I was curious to hear Nina Stemme’s unique vocal colors in it, I was fully satisfied by Ms. Muraveva’s freshness of approach and authencity. By the enthusiastic applause she received, I believe that everyone else in the theatre agrees with me. Her Sergey was American tenor Brandon Jovanovich, whose warm tenor has the necessary smile to make the character truly believable. For someone who sings Wagner, his high notes did not ring heroically in the auditorium, but that only added a welcome soft-spoken quality to his character. Dmitry Uliyanov was a resonant, firm-toned Boris Timofeyevich and all minor roles were aptly cast.

Andreas Kriegenburg stages this in the decayed courtyard of a suburban residential building and, even if it might seem contemporary, this is actually secondary to the sensation of isolation, confinement and social desintegration. Although Harald B. Thor’s sets are impressive and atmospheric, the director’s focus is on the Personenregie, which tries to depict the moods and feelings of the character rather than make them symbolic or metaphoric.  As a result, the audience couldn’t help being drawn into the dramatic action and empathize with those people whose stories are being told on stage.

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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.

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