Stalin walked out of a performance of Shostakovich\s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, saying the music was a muddle. This shows only that he was a tyrant with a tin ear. Shostakovich’s masterpiece is ravishing and compelling.
In the week when the English National Opera announced that it is going to try to better its fortunes by giving more than 40 performances of Lord Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard, starring that well-known operatic diva, Glenn Close, Cressida Pollock, the newly appointed CEO, made the unfortunate (and probably meaningless) remark that “We have been looking at how we express the ENO brand, whether through the way that we look and the way that we write and speak, and also through our culture and the way we behave”. But the new Music Director, Mark Wigglesworth, has had a spectacular triumph conducting Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Before I write a single negative word about this production, it’s important to stress the superb performance the ENO chorus and brass-band-enhanced orchestra gave on the opening night. You haven’t heard loud until you’ve heard this; yet the title-role star of the evening, Patricia Racette, managed to project long passages pp in the mighty Coliseum.
There is, though, something ominous in Ms Pollock’s talk of the ENO “brand,” for what does it consist in, except the company’s cock-eyed, unreasoning, commitment to sing opera in English? I’m not saying that every opera should be performed in its original language, as I’ve relished, for example, many productions using the excellent singing-translations of the late Andrew Porter. But Lady Macbeth is a particularly egregious case of it being a mistake to sing it in English.
The heroine, Katerina Lvovna Ismailovna, is miserably married to Zinovy, the impotent son of Boris, the merchant boss of the business. She is abused by her father-in-law, by whose feudal code she is the property of her husband; and when Zinovy is called away on business, she can take no more, poisons Boris’s mushrooms, and takes a lover, Sergei. When Zinovy returns they murder him and hide the corpse in the cellar, where it is discovered on their wedding day. Both are sent on a forced-labour march. There Sergei pretends still to love Katerina, only to dupe her into giving him her warm stockings, which are the price demanded for her sexual favours by another prisoner, Sonyetka.
All five of these principal singers act to a standard not always seen on the London opera stage, and the solo singing is up to the benchmark set by Wigglesworth’s orchestra and chorus. Patricia Racette is almost sublime as Katerina. She begins with an upright posture, showing dignity despite her predicament of childlessness and being unloved. Robert Hayward is convincing as the bullying Boris, the father-in-law from Hell who could only exist in a society that gave him absolute power over his family and his serfs, and shows a touch of humanity only when confronting his own ageing; while Peter Hoare has got his nebbish son, Zinovy, spot-on. As the trouble-makers and vain lover, Sergei, John Daszak is perfect. The scene following his flogging by Boris, when Katerina bathes his wounds, and he stands bare-buttocked but unflinching, is moving and beautiful, because both singers have the presence of body and mind to be still and allow Shostakovich’s music to take over and do all the work. As Sonyetka, Clare Presland is sultry, sexy and in good voice.
Greatly though I admire David Pountney, who has made the translation of the libretto by Alexander Preis and the composer “after the novel-sketch by Nikolai Leskov,” it has two fatal problems in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s production seen at the ENO following its début at Düsseldorf in 2008. (Pountney’s own 2001 ENO production got around one of these problems, despite using his translation.)
The first is that some of the language is not just vulgar, but wince-makingly crude. During the attempted rape scene with the female worker the male chorus sings something like “shove it up her,” and “something-or-other inside her” (I couldn’t take a note at that point, but this conveys the tone). If this misogynistic nonsense was only in the surtitles, and what we were hearing was Russian, we’d give the translator the benefit of the doubt; as it is, we get the double whammy of simultaneously hearing and seeing this playground smut – which is perfectly acceptable in some contexts, but not here, where its adolescent idiocy makes it difficult to listen to the seriousness of the music.
The second objection is perhaps stronger. Tcherniakov’s sets and costumes place the action in contemporary Russia, in an up-to-date office complete with computer screens and fork-lift trolley. The libretto, however, sets the piece in pre-Revolutionary Russia, where feudal attitudes still prevail, and the master has the right to beat his serfs. So there is – worse than a tension – a contradiction between what we see and the translation. We see contemporary workers, looking for all the world like supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, accepting the absolute life-and-death authority of their brutish boss, Boris, Katerina Ismailova’s father-in-law. At this, what audience can help but experience cognitive dissonance. This isn’t Brechtian alienation, it’s the clumsiest sort of squandering the suspension of disbelief. If we were hearing Russian, I think we’d – only just – be able to make an allowance for the disparity of social attitudes caused by the updating of the sets and costumes.
Tcherniakov has made another, equally subversive change. In Pountney’s production the final scene on the march is heart-rending. You can feel the cold, filth and misery of the prisoners. But Tcherniakov has moved the scene to a prison cell, miniaturising the big vision shown in the music, and reducing the political and social issues to personal ones. His version does, it is true, emphasise the sado-masochism that underlies his whole production; but this is very much at the expense of the breadth of feeling and spaciousness of the score and of the ideology underlying the libretto. For Stalin the music was merely an excuse, and it wasn’t sexual perversity in Mtsensk that scandalized Stalin, but the resemblance of libretto’s provincial pre-Revolutionary Russia to his own Soviet Union.
English National Opera;
Katerina Lvovna Ismailova wife of Zinovy -Patricia Racette;
Boris Timofeyevich Ismailov – Robert Hayward;
Zinovy Borisovich Ismailov – Peter Hoare;
Mill-worker – Paul Sheehan;
Sergei – John Daszak;
Coachman – David Newman;
Aksinya – Rosie Aldridge;
Shabby Peasant – Adrian Thompson;
Porter – Paul Sheehan;
Steward – Paul Napier-Burrows;
First Foreman – Murray Kimmins;
Second Foreman – Anton Rich;
Third Foreman – Graeme Lauren;
Priest – Graeme Danby;
Chief of Police – Per Bach Nissen;
Policeman – Trevor Bowes;
Teacher – Richard Roberts;
Drunken Guest – Geraint Hylton;
Old Convict – Matthew Best;
Sentry – Ronald Nairne;
Sonyetka – Clare Presland;
Female Convict – Rosie Aldridge;
Officer – Per Bach Nissen;
Director, Dmitri Tcherniakov;
Conductor, Mark Wigglesworth;
Credit: © CLIVE BARDA/ ArenaPAL;