Shostakovich - Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

ONP Bastille, Wednesday Janary 28 2009

Conductor: Hartmut Haenchen. Production: Martin Kušej. Sets: Martin Zehetgruber. Costumes Heide Kastler: Lighting: Reinhard Traub. Boris Timofeyevich Ismailov: Vladimir Vaneev. Zinoviy Borisovich Ismailov: Ludovit Ludha. Katerina Lvovna Ismailova: Eva-Maria Westbroek. Sergei: Michael König. Aksinya; the female convict: Carole Wilson. The shabby oaf: Alexander Kravets. Sonietka: Lani Poulson. A schoolmaster: Valentin Jar. A priest: Alexander Vassiliev. The chief of police Nikita Storojev. Opéra national de Paris Orchestra and Chorus.

It's remarkable, a friend said to me as we left the Bastille the other evening, how in the last 20 years Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, previously little-known here, has become a popular smash hit. The ticket touts were out at the metro exits and the house was full, though unfortunately of merciless coughers. This is the ONP's second production. The first, André Engel's, is most often remembered for its field of cabbages and the spectacular appearance, through the floor, of the police station. I had seen part of Martin Kušej's Amsterdam staging on television and found it promising (it is also out on DVD) so I was quite happy to see it coming to Paris in this year's schedules. In the event, though practically all the press reviews raved, to me it was a bit of a let-down.

The sets are simple and handsomely made. The claustrophobic wooden walls are there from start to finish, with invisible doors at the rear. The voluptuous, blonde Katerina lives in a glass-house, bedded in dark soil, with concertina doors, a flat roof and a skylight, in full view of everyone and surounded, Imelda-like, by rows of fancy shoes symbolising prosperous boredom. Guard dogs are chained at either side. Sergei enters and leaves via the skylight. Once Boris is buried, the workers shed their blue overalls and wellington boots and invade the glasshouse, pillaging the shoes. After the interval, the set changes at last: the police are revealed taking a shower (with their Y-fronts still on) under fluorescent lights, the wedding feast takes place around a vast square table, big enough to dance on, and the final act opens with leather-clad policemen patrolling an expanse of steel-grid flooring with dogs and pocket lamps.

The production is a stage-direction tour-de force. Every gesture of every character, however minor, is rehearsed to a tee, and
Kušej gives us some memorable images: the famous sex scene is lit stroboscopically; when Katerina hears Boris's ghost, corpses lying around in the earth crawl to the walls and walk slowly up them (suspended on invisible cables); the police arrive at the wedding by crashing through the giant table from underneath, scattering the guests; for act four, that steel-grid flooring rises (unintentionally reminding us of the police station in the previous production), the full width of the stage, to reveal a bleakly-lit prison-cum-asylum with the inmates paddling around (the floor is flooded) zombie-like in their underwear; and when Katerina realises she's been betrayed, she hunches over in a horrific, long, silent scream while the orchestra roars.

So with all this going for it, why did this production remain, for me, one step short of fantastic? Well, for three reasons.

First, as anyone who has seen the show on TV or DVD knows,
Kušej's vision is (apart from the police scenes) uniformly bleak, playing up the libretto's sordid potential. Aksinya is stripped right down to her knickers, mercilessly manhandled, bare breasts and all, smeared with dirt and raped from behind. There's more copulation than the libretto asks for. The "shabby oaf," as the Bastille's website lists him, pees towards the audience (presumably by the use of some hidden gadget rather than actually) and unearths the corpse with his trousers round his ankles. The wedding guests are blind drunk, staggering round with empty bottles and falling off chairs. So the production was, to me, out of synch with the music, steadfastly ignoring the humour (albeit sardonic or sarcastic) in the score. This is Lady Macbeth, not the eighth symphony. "The sense of humour bypass syndrome in so many directors deserves a thesis," as a friend put it when I raised this with him.

In addition, though this is a minor irritation, while Kušej puts great and admirable effort into developing his concept down to the last graphic detail, he grandly ignores other details explicit in libretto and score: while the percussion knocks at Katerina's window, Sergei doesn't lift a finger, though he could quite easily have rapped at the skylight; it would make more sense when he asks Katerina to open up if the skylight were shut; sheer black silk stockings wouldn't be much use on the road to Siberia... Oh, well.

The second "décalage," as the French say, or mis-match for me was between the deliberate grim sordidness of the staging and Hartmut Haenchen's conducting. If ever a production required savagery from Shostakovich's score, this was it, but Haenchen remained well-behaved throughout, as if playing Mendelssohn. At various times during the evening a full dozen extra brass players were brought in at the sides - trumpets to the left, tubas to the right - to puzzlingly litle effect.

And finally, though Eva-Maria Westbroek was superb, "elle n'avait personne en face," said my neighbour: she had no-one opposite. Michael König has a powerful voice, but not a seductive one (and as a number of critics did point out, he is no sex symbol). As Boris, Vladimir Vaneev was underpowered and that, at the Bastille, means inaudible. However, if, as press reviews imply, he was also the old convict (the ONP website omits the role altogether) he made up for it at the end. Some of the shorter roles were better cast: Zinoviy, Aksinya, the schoolmaster. Others not: the police chief and Sonietka. I admit that overall I found myself thinking "surely they could have found better in Russia than this."

But Eva-Maria Westbroek was, as I said, superb. So was the chorus. So in the end, the evening was theirs.


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