Fine Orchestral Playing under Wigglesworth in Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Shostakovich, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera / Mark Wigglesworth (conductor), London Coliseum, London. 26.9.2015 (JPr)

(c) Clive Barda
ENO’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk John Daszak and Patricia Racette
(c) Clive Barda

Cast included:

Katerina Ismailova: Patricia Racette
Sergei: John Daszak
Boris: Robert Hayward
Zinovy Ismailov: Peter Hoare
Sonyetka: Clare Presland
Old Convict: Matthew Best
Chief of Police/Officer: Per Bach Nissen
Shabby Peasant: Adrian Thompson
Aksinya/Female Convict: Rosie Aldridge
A Teacher: Richard Roberts


Director/Set Designer: Dmitri Tcherniakov
Associate Costume Designer: Elena Zaytseva
Lighting Designer: Gleb Filshtinsky
Translator: David Pountney

I am full of admiration for ENO’s programming that opened music director Mark Wigglesworth’s new regime with an opera that drew Stalin’s ire when it was first put on in 1934. Currently in ‘special measures’ this might also be ENO’s own comment on the interference of the state in art. Wigglesworth in the programme suggested as much when writing ‘Set in the nineteenth century, written in the twentieth, and performed in the twenty-first, Lady Macbeth allows us at English National Opera to argue the continued relevance of opera louder than ever.’ Not only that and because the story is one of ‘one women’s loneliness and oppression’ he linked this with what was currently happening in President Putin’s Russia where ‘Around 14,000 Russian women die each year as a result of domestic abuse’ and how evidence suggests that ‘The implication is that women are dangerous unless they are at home – a home that in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk  Katerina finds intolerably boring and suppressive. No wonder Stalin didn’t like it.’ This is all very worthy, and while this Lady Macbeth was a wonderful justification for ENO’s continuing existence without further cuts, I suspect they might need fewer political statements and more box office receipts. I am not certain this production of Shostakovich’s opera will provide the ‘must see’ groundswell they could do with.

It is worth dwelling on the upheaval caused to Shostakovich of the performance of Lady Macbeth on 26 January 1936 after more than 200 previous ones. Stalin was attending the performance and Shostakovich, instead of going off to perform his First Piano Concerto, was recalled to the theatre by the director of the Bolshoi. There is a commentary by the writer Mikhail Bulgakov which was based on eye-witness accounts that recalls the young composer arriving at the theatre ‘white with fear’. The conductor Alexander Melik-Pashayev begins the overture and ‘In anticipation of a medal, and feeling the eyes of the leaders on him … is in a frenzy, leaping about like an imp, chopping the air with his baton. After the overture, he sends a sidelong glance at the box, expecting applause – nothing. After the first act – the same thing, no impression at all.’

Shostakovich had still not calmed down as he headed for his concert tour where on a fateful day (28 January 1936) he bought a copy of Pravda and opening at the third page saw the infamous unsigned editorial headlined ‘Muddle Instead of Music’ (Sumbur vmesto muzyki) in which his opera came under attack. The article has been described as ‘a classic example of authoritarian cultural criticism’ and a couple of quotes will suffice for those not familiar with this story. 

‘From the very first minute the listener is shocked by a deliberately discordant, confused stream of sounds. Fragments of melody, embryonic phrases appear, only to disappear again in the din, the grinding and the screaming. To follow this “music” is difficult, to remember it impossible.’ ‘The music quacks, grunts, and growls, and suffocates itself in order to express the amatory scenes as naturalistically as possible. And “love” is smeared all over the opera in this vulgar manner.’

……And so it went on. It was clear that this was the opinion of the whole Communist party and that the real author of this ‘directive’ was Stalin himself. But what prompted the attack? Well, it is thought that at this time the government was planning to pass laws to ban abortion and demand a new code on family and marriage because, in the opinion of Stalin, the Soviet family had to be strengthened in every way. At this very time comes along an opera celebrating ‘free love’ (or as Stalin wrote ‘merchant lust’) and where any problem of divorce from a hated tyrannical husband was resolved straightforwardly by a brutal murder. So the composer could be accused on social issues since he had ‘missed the demands of Soviet culture to banish crudity and wildness from every corner of Soviet life’. From then on Shostakovich was probably never the same again; initially he feared the worse and lived in fear with a suitcase ready, often dressed in an overcoat, so the secret police could take him away without disturbing his children. In fact there is a suggestion that even many years later he wore under his shirt and around his neck a plastic bag with the words of ‘Muddle Instead of Music’ as a talisman!

Sung now in the vernacular it allowed everyone to fully concentrate on the words as well as the music and Shostakovich’s intentions can truly be revealed regardless of any staging. What the composer gives us is a morality tale where ‘A turn of event is possible in which murder is not a crime’. (This is very similar to much of Woody Allen’s oeuvre and indeed his recent interesting film Irrational Man deals in a contemporary way with the very same idea.) There is considerable Dostoevskian darkness and undoubtedly the final act does descend further into this in a chilling depiction of Stalinist repression made more evident in Dimitri Tcherniakov’s production, as you will read.

The opera is indeed a tragediya-satira – or at least should be. Tcherniakov played up the tragedy at the expense of the satire which made for a rather dull, over-long evening that was nonetheless very musically rewarding. I wondered what someone with a similar mindset to Woody Allen would have made of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Richard Jones in his compelling 2004 staging for Covent Garden included some of his typical absurdist humour but there was none of this in Tcherniakov’s production that was originally created for Deutsche Oper am Rhein. With his own crowded neon-lit sets it looked like something Richard Jones might very well have done but there were very few tension breaking laughs. Adrian Thompson gets a significant vignette as the ‘Shabby Peasant’ who discovers Katerina’s husband, Zinovy’s, body in a cellar. He is given some drunken antics such as throwing glasses of vodka around, putting half a melon on his head or falling into a table laden with food … but it was clear no one convinced him why he should be doing this and it was just too absurd. Worse was to follow when he had to face out to the audience and mime finding the body … what was that all about? Also Shostakovich – with a great experience of film music – undoubtedly meant every note of the ‘Keystone Cops’ chase music of his introductory interlude to the Policemen in Act III but this was also a missed opportunity.

The composer reserved his most lyrical music for Katerina and it is apt that the other characters (indeed caricatures) have mostly plodding or running ostinatos. This seems to put Katerina (for the first three acts at least) at the centre of a carousel with all these satirized figures galloping around her. Tcherniakov’s basic set for those acts is in a modern factory but Katerina is alienated in her own claustrophobic rug-lined room and dressed more traditionally. This illuminates what Mark Wigglesworth wants us to get from our evening at the opera – whilst everything might be high-tech now in Russia many women are treated just as they were in the nineteenth century. Katerina wants to escape this life and seeks release in the arms of a lover, Sergei. At one point during the passacaglia after she kills her abusive father-in-law, Boris, Katerina is shown washing a naked Sergei’s bruised and battered body in complete veneration … or it seemed to me as if he was the child she has been unable to conceive with her husband Zinovy.

Tcherniakov empathises the vulgarity and brutality of a patriarchal society and once introduced to the main characters they are set on a spiral of self-destruction. Perfectly fitting therefore is the last scene shown within the confines of filthy cell as an Old Convict (the unseen yet wonderfully resonant Matthew Best) plaintively sings of the long slog to Siberia. However what should have provided here a punctuation mark of high tragedy to all the cynical satire that preceded it was lost in all the cumulative bleakness of what we had seen

I can never recall a finer orchestral performance at the London Coliseum and I go very far back as my readers may know. Mark Wigglesworth – who had previously conducted the opera there in 2001 – knew exactly what to accentuate in the music from the lowbrow grunts, moans and screams (Stalin wasn’t entirely wrong here), the operetta and marching band interruptions to the graphic Scene Three lovemaking and the torridly painful Act IV denouement. He was supported by an orchestra – including 12 extra brass in side-stage boxes – who were totally at one with him and on stunning form. That the orchestral sound occasionally overpowered the voices added to the impact music-making of this quality can achieve. Occasionally my mind wandered to how powerful a version of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk might be without the words – or a distracting production – as there is such a filmic quality to much of the score. It was performed in Shostakovich’s original 1933 version and in David Pountney’s translation commissioned for ENO’s first staged performances of the opera in 1987. I wonder whether indeed it was ‘as close and vivid a rendering of that libretto as is possible’ when ‘bitch’ was heard frequently and there were lines like ‘Now we’re really in the shit’ and ‘That’s it we’re done for’ which seemed too modern.

The chorus (labourers, policemen, wedding guests and convicts) were on top form and matched the splendour of the orchestra but unfortunately the ENO does not have at its disposal the strength in the depth of its genuine ‘company’ days and vocally things were rather uneven. Much work had obviously gone into the orchestral playing and the chorus but sometimes some of the singers seemed under pressure which could have been the result of too little – or possibly tiredness from too much – preparation. Whatever the cause I suspect things will improve as the run progresses. Robert Hayward, Peter Hoare and John Daszak sang well as the three men who bring about Katerina’s downfall. I remember awarding Robert a Bayreuth Bursary in 1985 and it was a pleasure to see him continue to prove I can spot ‘a good ‘un’. His character deserved all he got even though his singing, fine as it was, could not quite dispel memories of John Tomlinson as Boris at Covent Garden. John Daszak making a welcome return to ENO is made perhaps a little too likeable by Tcherniakov but had all that was needed for the love ‘em and leave ‘em cad he must portray and Sergei was a great showcase for his superb dramatic tenor voice. Elsewhere I was struck by Per Bach Nissen’s rich bass as the Chief of Police and Clare Presland’s mezzo made much of her few moments as Sonyetka who the fickle Sergei lusts over in the opera’s final moments. Along with Matthew Best’s wonderful Old Convict they nearly stole the last scene. I was left a little bit more ambivalent about Patricia Racette’s Katerina. Maybe it was Dmitri Tcherniakov’s direction or those sound-absorbing rugs of her cloistered existence that made her seem to sleepwalk (Lady Macbeth-like?) through the early acts and sound under-powered. I have admired this fine singer from her Met broadcasts and was relieved that when she got to the front of the stage she sounded so much better, none more so, than in her Act IV reflection ‘In the wood … there is a lake’ (is one translation I believe) prior to her undoubtedly Wozzeck-inspired suicide together with the murder of Sonyetka who with Sergei’s connivance has humiliated her over some stockings. Here (spoilers alert) there was no drowning but multiple beatings.

The very end of Dmitri Tcherniakov’s production underlined the true greatness of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and despite all the agitprop its moral is simply that if passions cannot be denied their demands can lead to tragedy. Shostakovich devoted much of his life to understanding the potentially tragic meaning of nature and culture and dedicated Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk to his new bride, a sign of the complexity he saw in human relations. This production with it fatal (a good choice of words given the plot!) flaws is, I suspect, rather more nihilistic than Shostakovich intended but deserves to be heard – if not seen – for Mark Wigglesworth’s wonderful work with his new orchestra that bodes well for their forthcoming The Force of Destiny. 

Finally, for a performance that was advertised at 2 hours and 45 minutes it went on for a further 30 minutes and really should have begun at 7pm and not 7.30pm.

Jim Pritchard

For information about future English National Opera performances visit

You can read Jim Pritchard’s 2011 interview with Mark Wigglesworth and his 2013 interview with John Daszak.

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