Left - Richard Berkeley-Steele & Susan Bullock. Cover - Susan Bullock. Photos - Jeff Busby
The Opera Australia performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Dmitry Shostakovich is a feast for the ears and fertile ground for the deepest philosophical reflections. The company should be commended on the choice and execution of this masterpiece, and specifically on the way this controversial Russian opera is being introduced to the Australian audience. Several photographs and two essays in the program inform the reader about the Stalinist regime and discuss the motives both Nikolai Leskov, the author of the novel on which the story is based, and Dmitry Shostakovich pursued when working on the material. The choice of an English translation solves the problems of language barriers both for performers and audiences, and justifies the restraint with which the lead solo performers probe into the inexhaustible anguish of the Slavic soul.
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is violent, dark, pessimistic and sexually explicit. The cruelty tops any opera plot. There are three murders and one suicide, one group rape and several beatings. There is one private sex scene, where the orchestra leaves nothing to the imagination, and one public episode. Animalisms rule most of the main characters and splatter wildly in libretto and score. This atrocious surface frames the central conflict in the opera. A strong and beautiful merchant wife, Katerina Lvovna Ismailova, finds herself suffocating in the grip of a greedy well-to-do family and a corrupt patriarchal society through a loveless marriage, lack of intimacy, childlessness, boredom and constant humiliation. Fighting for her survival, she falls in love with a charismatic selfish labourer and kills in the defence of her physical existence, desire for happiness and dignity.
The opera is rooted in Russian culture and history. It is a bold and severe critique of the communist regime at a time when millions of people disappeared without trace. It would be, however, a mistake to see the opera only in this light, since it deals with universal themes which ring true today as they did in1934 when it was first performed. Circumstantial dead-lock and the boredom of meaningless living, greed and fear, and finally, repression of the female and, therefore, creativity underscore the narrative of the opera. Amongst the chaos of viciousness, the question “Does man have a soul?” is raised twice in the opera. Shostakovich’s realistic declamatory writing and organic satirical-tragic language combines the grotesque and the grief-stricken in a format of epic proportions.
The ingenious set of Hildegar Bechler creates the suffocating atmosphere of the first two acts by the manipulation of a few cubicles, featuring worn out tiles on the walls. They encage the spatial perimeters within which the main heroine moves on stage and create a Brechtian focal point of observation for the audience. The shabby interior and authentic costumes add to the desolation of the place. In contrast, at the beginning of the fourth act the vastness of the Russian steppes comes to reality via a striking effect. A transparent curtain, displaying a dirt road landscape, references the never-ending road to Siberia, which the people of Russia have walked as convicts since the beginning of their history. The aria of an old convict, truthfully performed by Jud Arthur, tells this tragic story. At the end of the scene, the chorus appears behind the curtain, snowed upon and shivering, and augments the import by giving it a collective voice. The magical combination of set, lighting, stage effects and costumes, enhances the majestic brushstroke with which the composer masterfully paints this recurring motif in Russian history.
Francesca Zambello’s direction, rehearsed by Matthew Barclay, features vibrant mass scenes performed with vigour by a male-dominated chorus and cast. The young professional cast enchanted the audience with their beautiful voices and energetic effort to bring to life their characters. English soprano Susan Bullock sang with impeccable diction, realistic declamation and beautiful legato lines. Most remarkable was her last aria, in which she was able to convey Katerina’s dejection before her suicide in the cold waters of Volga. Susan Bullock has still not found the core of her character in the first two acts both vocally and histrionically. It is challenging to push beyond personal boundaries and experience in order to delve into primal instincts and brutality of such massive proportions. Moderation instead of aggressive physical contact marked the sex scene at the end of the second act with Richard Berkeley-Steele (Sergei). The orchestra is so descriptive in this scene that one needs to pose the question whether Shostakovich intended the orchestra to take over the display of sex. Perhaps it was a wrong decision to put the singers in this impossible situation.
Daniel Sumegi (Boris Ismailov) portrayed the archetypal dominant rich male, who has power and status but is suspicious and fearful behind closed doors. Sumegi’s vehement vocal power sent chills down the spine of the listeners and thrilled them by its ability to carry over the full orchestra with such ringing might. Yet, more strength was needed in his physical presence when travelling on stage, more contrast in body posture during Boris’ private moments and more skill with handling the bottle prop. Kanen Breen created the most believable character of the drunken shabby peasant in this performance and earned a well-deserved applause.
The baton of Sir Richard Armstrong crafted opulent rhythms and textures of vibrant precision with a richness of sonority which is rarely heard from Orchestra Victoria. Assisted by Christopher van Tuinen, the orchestra pit was backed up by an additional corpus of musicians, strategically positioned on the upper balcony to great acoustic effect. This orchestral sound was a breathtaking experience, since the most important character in this opera is the orchestra. It is the main perpetrator, satyr and witness, which re-sounds the potency of objective consciousness and dispels the mockery of any illusionary projection. Then, identifying with its ironic voice, the audience is able to stand apart form their own cubicles of made-up life, dispassionately observing their predicament. This is a rare achievement in music theatre, although it is its premier objective.
Opera Australia presents
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
by Dmitry Shostakovich
Directed by Francesca Zambello
Venue: the Arts Centre, State Theatre | 100 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Dates: Fri 24 Apr, Wed 29 Apr, Sat 2 May, Tue 5 May 2009