Mark Wigglesworth triumphs with Lady Macbeth

30 Sep

I’ve been a fan of Shostakovitch’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk ever since I saw David Pountney’s ENO production in 1987 and I was immensely looking forward to the performance that I saw there on 29th September.  And it was very good but, for me, lost its way slightly in the second half.ENO are back at their old habits of buying in other people’s productions.

The good things first. And it starts with the conducting and orchestral playing which was as good as I’ve heard in this piece. The orchestra played outstandingly and Mark Wigglesworth, in his first outing as music director here, caught the passion, the colours and the sheer excitement of the music. The interludes were astonishingly played – brass in the boxes above the pit sounding thrilling. He made it sound as though every chord, every note had a purpose, the playing was characterful – bassoons, clarinets, horns in marvellous form – and precise.  I found myself listening to the orchestral details and carried awya by its sheer power.   And the singers could be heard – I don’t think I’ve heard so many words of this opera. This was a good thing: I couldn’t see the surtitles from where I was sitting and I simply didn’t need them. This performance struck me as taking over from where Gardner left off with the orchestra and building in a level of sophistication and precision in the playing that I don’t usually associate with this orchestra.  How do you improve on this?

The soloists were excellent too. We had Patricia Racette as Katerina. It’s a light voice and the interpretation here makes her slightly helpless – besotted by Sergei. Whatever one thinks of that (and I suspect that there is more strength to be found than she did), she sang with perfect diction and caught a simplicity and beauty about the character that I wasn’t sure was there. It’s a very different interpretation from Josephine Barstow’s but unquestionably compelling. John Daszak sang Sergei and caught the fecklessness of a character out for a few shags rather than anything lasting and was simply not interested enough in Katerina. His voice struck me as pretty much ideal for the role and, again, every word was clear.

I’m used to darker voices than Robert Hayward’s as Boris but he created a really nasty, bullying creature, doing the scene before he catches Sergei rivetingly. He caught the mixture of bully and sleaze brilliantly. Peter Hoare as Zinovy, the ghastly husband, caught the hopeless nature of the character and, again, sang it really well.

The smaller roles were cast from strength: Graham Danby and excellent priest, Adrian Thompson as the Shabby Peasant, Clare Presland as a vicious Sonyetka and Matthew Best as the Old Convict – excellent singing, strong clear acting. The chorus sounded pretty good too.

ENO is continuing to buy in productions rather than make their own.  This one, by Dmitri Tcherniakov, started off life in Dusseldorf and has been passed round a number of addresses before turning up here. I thought it started well enough but rather lost its way later. It’s updated to modern times.  Much of the action takes place in the offices where there are computers and typists for him to molest. There’s a separate space for Katerina. This works well enough for the scenes set on Boris’s land. It’s less good for police who appear to invade the place too early and simply aren’t funny enough. He doesn’t capture the nightmarish, zany quality that’s in the music. The last scene is in a prison cell, cramped in the centre of the stage, the chorus unseen. Sergei has sex with Sonyetka as Katerina watches in the same cell and Katerina kills her with a chair and is beaten to death by the prison officers. I really wasn’t sure that this worked. The chorus were singing something different (the Pountney translation, done for his own very different production, was used) and you had ceased to care, ceased to be carried along by the power of the piece.  There is a huge pause for the scene change before the last act, dissipating the tension that’s been built up before.  What happened onstage failed to match the scale, the epic satiric scale of a the piece – and it’s worth remembering that this is a young man’s opera and needs to have the slightly scatter-gun effects that you get with such pieces – effects that Pountney brilliantly understood almost thirty years ago.

So huge admiration for the music and commitment of the singers, slight disappointment at a production that left you enervated rather than excited at the end of the piece.  But if Wigglesworth can keep these standards up, we’re in for musical treats in the coming years.

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