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Susan Bullock as Katerina Ismailova [Photo courtesy of Opera Australia]
12 May 2009

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk — Opera Australia

For two years following its premiere Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsesnk was one of the most often performed contemporary operas.

Dmitri Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Op. 29

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.

Above: Susan Bullock as Katerina Ismailova [Photo courtesy of Opera Australia]


With 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 Stream 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 The opera was withdrawn immediately.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 opera.

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 scene.

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

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