Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Royal Opera House
This four act opera by Dmitry Shostakovich was premiered in 1934 in St Petersburg and two days later in Moscow. It is the story of a lonely woman in 19th century Russia, who falls in love with one of her husband’s workers and is driven to murder. It was condemned in 1936 and banned in the Soviet Union for almost 30 years.
The piece is written for over 20 principal parts, namely basses, tenors and sopranos, but surprisingly only has one baritone role. A first recording of this work was made in 1979 with Rostropovich as Conductor and Nicolai Gedda in the title role of Sergey. More recently the Opera Bastille production was recorded, with Chung as Conductor and a cast including Maria Ewing, Philip Langridge, Aage Haugland, Sergie Larin and Kurt Moll - which is probably the most famous. In 2006, Opus Arte recorded the performance with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under the baton of Mariss Jansons, where Eva-Maria Westbroek took the title role of Katerina. She sings this role again in this latest Royal Opera House performance, this time under the baton of Antonio Pappano.
It was an extraordinary evening and in this production – first seen in 2004 – Richard Jones seems to have really understood the trauma of the dark times that was Soviet Russia in the 1930s. The whole production works wonderfully, constantly moving between humour and terrifying death and has been beautifully revived by Elaine Kidd, together with the set designer, John Macfarlane.
The cast is top quality. Eva-Maria Westbroek probably hasn’t sung any better, with her substantial voice bringing us a submissive, but occasionally calculating role as the murderess, with whom, unbelievably, we sympathise. John Tomlinson sings her father-in-law Boris and whilst his incredible bass voice might be slightly dry in the upper register, he is a colossus on stage, a horrible old letch, constantly violent and aggressive. Katerina’s husband Zinovy is sung by the British tenor, John Daszak, who has a heidel tenor quality about his sound, but the real cad is the Sergey of the substantial sounding American tenor, Brandon Jovanovich, making his British debut.
Some great singing elsewhere amongst the substantial cast, all beautifully controlled by Antonio Pappano in the pit. He extracts every ounce of beauty from the score and ensures that the singers, the wonderful chorus and orchestra all produce a night to remember.