Eva-Maria Westbroek of Mtsensk: Haenchen & Kušej Delight in Madrid

SpainSpain Dmitri Shostakovich, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District: Soloists, Madrid Symphony Orchestra, Coro Intermezzo, Hartmut Haenchen (conductor), Teatro Real de Madrid, 9.12.2011 (JMI)

Production Nederlandse Opera

Direction: Martin Kušej
Sets: Martin Zehetgruber
Costumes: Heide Kastler
Lighting: Reinhard Traub

Katerina Ismailova: Eva-Maria Westbroek
Sergei: Michael König
Boris/Old Convict: Vladimir Vaneev
Zinovi: Ludovit Ludha
Sonietka: Lani Poulson
Priest/Sentry: Alexander Vassiliev
Police Sergeant: Scott Wilde
Aksinya/Female convict: Carole Wilson
Peasant: John Easterlin

Photo courtesy Teatro Real, © Javier del Real

After a successful run 12 years ago, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk returns to Teatro Real. I remember fondly the performances under Mstislav Rostropovich, but with Hartmut Haenchen the opera wasn’t any less of a triumph.

Martin Kušej’s production premiered in Amsterdam in June 2006 (where it was filmed) and earned unanimous acclaim. Three years later Gerard Mortier took it to Paris, where the production was a success, too, with a slightly different cast. Why mess with what works: It’s only natural then, that Gerard Mortier should un-dust the same production yet another time, now that he works at the Teatro Real.

If you had to summarize Shostakovich’s work with two words, they’d be: violence and sex, and Martin Kušej makes them the protagonists of the opera. Katerina Ismailova’s house is essentially a large cage; most appropriate to depict the isolation of the protagonist… but since the scenery doesn’t change during the first two acts (nearly two hours), there is the danger of matters becoming a bit monotonous, lest excellent acting save it. The last scene—en route to Siberia—takes place in an extended, watery dungeon, with the convicts in their underwear. It’s not so much Soviet Russia we think of looking at these scenes, but a Central America dictatorship. The lighting is excellent, particularly in the love scene.

available at Amazon
DSCH, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,
M.Jansons / Royal Concertgebouw, De Nederlandse Opera Chorus /
Westbroek, Ventris, Wilson, Veneev et al.
Opus Arte Blu-ray

Chorus and extras do a splendid job on stage, and the spectacular protagonist—Eva-Maria Westbroek—knows the excellent production inside out, having been the its Katerina Ismailova since inception. Veering unstably between tragedy and satire, Mr. Kusek sticks close to Shostakovich’s instructions, except for a relatively minor change  at the end of the opera, where Katerina is lynched by her fellow prisoners after strangling Sonietka with her stockings… rather than jumping into the lake.

But for all of Westbroek’s doing, this Lady Macbeth couldn’t have succeeded without Hartmut Haenchen, who delivered an outstanding reading of the opera, achieving truly spectacular results from all the musical forces at his command. Both orchestra and chorus were at their very best. Despite how the passing years and the sense of occasion then have kindly etched into memory my rosy-tinted recollection of the Rostropovich-led performance, I have to say that with Haenchen at the helm I was still more moved than on the previous occasion.

The females in the cast had the better of their male colleagues, who were excellent actors but less gifted vocally. Eva-Maria Westbroek is Katerina Ismailova, which really says all about her supreme performance. She is an outstanding singing actress with a powerful, attractive, and very expressive voice: Reason alone to go to the opera house.

Her lover Sergei was Michael König, whose performance, at least vocally, was not particularly convincing. I missed Christopher Ventris, who was the Sergei in Madrid 12 years ago and who also starred vis-à-vis Westbroek in the Amsterdam premiere. König seems to be a favorite of Gerard Mortier’s, having been his Sergei in Paris, and having shown up at Teatro Real in Mahagony and St. François d’ Assise.

Vladimir Vaneev has been one of the most important Russian bass-baritones for 20 years, but is no longer the singer he was. His Boris was good on stage, but insufficient in vocal terms, inaudible more than once. Ludovit Ludha, a character tenor, was well suited for the character of Zinovi, Katerina’s husband. Good performances, too, from Lani Poulson as an attractive Sonietka, and all the secondary characters How fortunate, on a splendid occasion such as this, that Teatro Real was sold out!

José Mª Irurzun