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31 Jan 2016

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Lyon

This nasty little opera evening in Lyon lived up to the opera’s initial reputation as pure pornophony. This is the erotic Shostakovich of the D minor cello sonata, it is the sarcastic and complicated Shostakovich of The Nose . . .

Lady Macbeth of Mzensk de Chostakovitch

A review by Michael Milenski

Photo: Ausrine Stundyte as Lady Macbeth [all photos courtesy of the Opéra de Lyon, copyright Jean-Pierre Maurin


It is the brash, devil-may-care young Shostakovich (24 years old) who explodes in facile, brilliant music that sometimes may crash into the obvious but usually soars magnificently into the shimmering ethos of animal youth. Shostakovich’s music did indeed shine absolutely unfiltered through this sordid tale of desire in an ugly world.

At least this is the way director Dmitri Tcherniakov tells the story, making the Shostakovich score and conductor Kazushi Ono’s orchestra the protagonist of his staging, laying bare in 14 tableaux (the nine of the libretto plus the five musical interludes he staged as well) striking metaphors of this musical world, the mere facts of the libretto summarily sacrificed to the more powerful musical meanings of each of the scenes.

Tcherniakov boxed the nineteenth century world of an 1865 novel (à la Turgenev) of the libretto into the confines of a modern mechanized warehouse. Within the warehouse there was a love den box à l’orientale, and finally a grim, prison cell box. The action was not a narrative. It was fourteen boxes exploding in sexual acts and in brutal violence (think strong lights flashing, blinding you to what you knew was going on). This when the scenes were not sarcastic comments on the czarist Russian past, and surely the Soviet present as well.

LadyMacbeth_Lyon3.pngTableau 8, the wedding

The bright acoustic of the Opéra de Lyon favored its splendid resident orchestral resources for this piece, unabashedly unleashed by conductor Kazushi Ono in a precise reading of the score, of particular note the huge role of Shostakovich’s clarinets not to mention the shattering, unimaginably loud orchestral and percussion climaxes that made Stalin wince leading to the first official denunciation of Shostakovich.

It was three and one half hours of blatant musical eroticism and brutality laid bare by Tcherniakov. The missing atmospheres of the natural world and the human narrative of its book however made the evening seem very long and sometimes even painful.

Katerina Ismailova (aka Lady Macbeth) was Lithuanian soprano Ausrine Stundyte who has performed this huge role in the Calixto Bieito production at the Berlin Volksoper (the mind boggles imagining what this may have been). There had been whispers that San Francisco Opera was going to mount a Christopher Alden production — a project evidently sacrificed to SFO’s anti-opera business model. Ms. Stundyte gave a total performance, moving from the obvious frigidity imposed on her life to the heated passions of her murder of her rival in the riveting penultimate scene. Three police thugs then attacked and killed her in the maximally violent (think loud) final scene.

LadyMacbeth_Lyon2.pngAusrine Stundyte as Katerina, John Daszak as Sergei

The brutal tone of the production was established summarily by Katerina’s lover, Sergei, performed by the hulking body, shaved head and cutting voice of British tenor John Daszak (recently Loge in Bayreuth, and the Drum Major in Berlin). Sharply and urgently voiced Mr. Daszak was animal force and human cupidity personified. His too was a total performance, awarded by-the-way with less than appropriate applause at the curtain calls (at least it was not the outright hostility offered Tcherniakov’s equally unattractive Lady Macbeth [the Verdi soprano] at the Bastille a few years ago).

Russian bass Vladimir Ognovenko as the merchant and father Boris once again proved that there can be no Western substitute for a Russian bass. British tenor Peter Hoare convincingly portrayed Katerina’s impotent husband Zinoviy. All the supporting roles were cast with appropriately colored voices and personalities. This Lady Macbeth well sustains the Opéra de Lyon’s reputation as one of Europe's leading opera theaters.

Michael Milenski

Casts and production information:

Katerina Ismaïlova: Ausrine Stundyte; Boris Timoféiévitch Ismaïlov: Vladimir Ognovenko; Zinovy Boorisovitch Ismaïlov: Peter Hoare; Sergei: John Daszak;
Le Pope / Un Vieux bagnard: Gennady Bezzubenkov; Le Chef de la police: Almas Svilpa; Le Balourd miteux, un ouvrier dépravé: Jeff Martin; Sonietka: Michaela Selinger;
Aksinya: Clare Presland. Orchestre et Choeurs de l'Opéra de Lyon. Conductor: Kazushi Ono; Mise en scène et décors: Dmitri Tcherniakov; Costumes: Elena Zaitseva; Lumières: Gleb Filshtinsky. Opéra de Lyon, France, January 29, 2016.

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