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Larissa Gogolevskaya
06 Feb 2007

SHOSTAKOVICH: Lady Macbeth of Mtensk District (Kirov Opera)

The Kirov Opera and Orchestra concluded their annual residency at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC last week with a Sunday matinee concert performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1932 Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District.

Dmitri Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District

Kirov Opera, Kennedy Center, Washington, DC, 4 February 2007


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 substance.

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

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