Rehabilitating Katerina: Graham Vick’s Lady Macbeth in Gothenburg

10/04/2012

 Shostakovich, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District: Gothenburg Opera, Finn Rosengren (conductor),Gothenburg, 24.3.2012 (NS)

Production:
Director: Graham Vick
Set and costume design: Paul Brown
Light design: Giuseppe di Lorio
Choreography: Ron Howell

Cast:

Boris Izmailov: Mats Almgren
Zinoviy Izmailov: Joachim Ottosson
Katerina Izmailova: Gitta-Maria Sjöberg
Sergei: Pär Lindskog
Aksinya: Carolina Sandgren
Drunkard: Iwar Bergkwist
Steward: Thomas Jönsson
Porter: Henrik Andersson
Three workers: Olof Söderberg, Charlie T Borg, Tore Sverredal
Miller: Mikael Simlund
Driver: Nikolaj Giljov
Priest: Andreas Lundmark
Police Inspector: Marco Stella
Policeman: Herbjörn Thordarson
Teacher: Marcus Liljedahl
Drunk guest: Nikolaj Giljov
Sergeant: Thomas Sonefors
Sentry: Sven Thörnell
Sonyetka: Erika Sax
Old convict: Andreas Lundmark
Female convict: Carolina Sandgren

 

Katerina (Gitta-Maria Sjöberg) Photo Credit Gothenburg Opera

 

The Gothenburg Opera’s new production of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District gripped the audience from the moment the curtain went up. Graham Vick, in his first production in Sweden, updated the setting from the mid-nineteenth century to a modern Russian upper-middle class home: Katerina stood alone in an IKEA kitchen, an icon hanging by the front door and a Volvo in the garage. A combination of excellent casting with Mr Vick’s thoughtful direction made this a production to remember.

Gitta-Maria Sjöberg comes from western Sweden but is now attached to the Royal Danish Opera; Katerina is her first role at the Gothenburg Opera. From her first notes it was clear she was the perfect fit for the role both vocally and dramatically. She expressed Katerina’s numbing boredom and unfulfilled longings vividly. All the trappings of wealth mean little to someone who is emotionally starved. Shostakovich’s explicit aim with his opera was to “rehabilitate Katerina Izmailova”, as he wrote in a letter (reproduced in the particularly interesting programme) to the Royal Opera in Stockholm when they produced the opera in 1936. She may be a murderer but it is the “bourgeois society” she is trapped in that is sick, not Katerina herself. (An impeccably Marxist-Leninist interpretation of the original novel, which is less sympathetic to Katerina.)

One of the tragedies of the opera is that Katerina makes such a poor choice of lover and would-be soulmate. Sergei is frankly a cad: he catches Katerina’s attention when he viciously rapes Aksinya to the roaring approval of his fellow workers, and despite describing himself to Katerina as a “rather sensitive man” who can’t find a woman who meets his intellectual needs in his class, he doesn’t provide any genuine emotional depth to his relationship with Katerina. One of the touches of inspiration in the production characterises Sergei perfectly: when Katerina is lying in bed with him in post-coital bliss he pulls out his mobile and starts writing a text message, as if bored. Pär Lindskog’s warts-and-all acting was terrific and his slightly brassy tenor is an excellent voice for such a character.

The supporting cast was also very strong. Gothenburg Opera veteran Mats Almgren was a superb Boris, the father of the family and a self-made man who wears rough clothes, uses rough language and retains a love of mushrooms despite his wealth. His scenes with Katerina crackled with mutual loathing. Joachim Ottosson’s Zinoviy was well-portrayed despite his limited time on stage (being murdered by your wife and her lover does that to you). Andreas Lundmark’s Priest was a delightful caricature, making his entrance literally descending from the heavens and quoting Gogol. Iwar Bergkwist was a wonderful Drunkard and Marco Stella’s Police Inspector deserves a special mention for his commanding stage presence and Stalin moustache.

Graham Vick’s direction was inspired, and barely put a foot wrong. It was an interesting touch to have people wear what they were arrested in during the final act – in Katerina’s case her wedding dress – thus making for a slightly odd and un-Siberian atmosphere.) Finn Rosengren (who replaced Thomas Sanderling as conductor at short notice after the first few performances) caught the shifting atmospheres of Shostakovich’s score perfectly: the orchestra was rhythmic and boisterous in the comic scenes but tender and contemplative when the drama called for it. The balance between the different facets of the score was finely judged and the musical flow was never interrupted. In short, this production was a treat from start to finish.

Niklas Smith

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