Deeply Touching and Intensely Dramatic Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

FinlandFinland Shostakovich, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: Soloists. Finnish National Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Oleg Caetani (conductor). Finnish National Opera, Helsinki, 27.1.2017. (GF)

Boris Ismailov, a merchant – Alexander Teliga
Zinovy Ismailov, his son – Mika Pohjonen
Katerina Ismailova, wife of Zinovy – Svetlana Sozdateleva
Sergei, Clerk at the Ismailovs’ – Alexey Kosarev
Aksinya, cook – Pauliina Linnosaari
A shabby peasant – Roland Liiv
A Priest – Koit Soasepp
Chief of Police – Heikki Aalto
Sonyetka, a convict – Niina Keitel
An old convict – Esa Ruuttunen
Woman convict – Anna-Kristiina Kaappola
The Dog – Koda

Director – Ole Anders Tandberg
Sets – Erlend Birkeland
Costumes – Maria Geber
Lighting design – Ellen Ruge
Choreography – Jeanette Langert

When Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was premiered in Leningrad on 22 January 1934, it was a great success. The 28-year-old composer was hailed as a hero and the opera had 36 performances within five months and was quickly produced abroad as well. But two years later, Pravda published an editorial entitled ‘Muddle instead of music’, which condemned the work in strong terms. It was assumed that it was written by Stalin and the work disappeared from the repertoire and wasn’t staged again until almost thirty years later, and then in a revised version entitled ‘Katerina Ismailova’. After Shostakovich’s death the original version was resurrected and this version of the work has become part of the standard repertoire.

The Helsinki production was originally produced for Operaen (The Norwegian National Opera) in Oslo and the action is moved from the Russian steppes and a rural setting to a fish factory on a windy island of the Norwegian coast. Instead of heavy flour-sacks the workers carry huge codfish, weighing 25 kg a piece. The various settings are mounted on a turntable, which allows us to see the action from different angles. The story, based on a novel by Nikolai Leskov, is cruel and violent with explicit sex scenes, mobbing, murders and torture (the whipping of Sergei in Act II is hard to watch), but there are also more tender feelings and a generous portion of humour and satire. The drinking habits in old Russia – maybe also today – are illustrated during the wedding scene in Act III, where the guests drink their vodka from big plastic cans, and the corrupt police illustrated in the Chief of Police’s solo in Act III.

The music is filled with contrasts. There are lyrical moments of great beauty, there is intense drama with heavy dissonances, there are hilariously burlesque scenes – the tipsy priest’s advances on the bride in the wedding scene is a brilliant example, some graphically comic commentaries on the sexual escapades is another. In his notes in the programme booklet, director Ole Anders Tandberg explains another interesting detail. Every time sex or death is in focus on stage, Shostakovich accompanies this with brass music – a Freudian connection – and Tandberg highlights this further by having a school wind band in red uniforms enter the stage on every such occasion. Sometimes this creates a rather grotesque or ironical effect, but at times it is in fact quite touching.

The Swiss-born conductor Oleg Caetani, who also conducted the work in Oslo, is a superb choice for the task in several ways, not least since he had much of his early training in Moscow and St Petersburg and among other things has recorded the complete symphonies by Shostakovich. He leads a performance that takes a bit over three hours, including one interval of 30 minutes, where the intensity never slackens and he is well assisted by the admirable chorus and orchestra of the National Opera.

The many roles – there are 24 roles plus the dog Koda in the final act (which is a mute role) listed in the programme – are mainly taken by members of the ensemble of the National Opera, and very good they are. It may be unfair to single out some, but of course there are both larger and smaller roles. The versatile Mika Pohjonen is a good Zinovi, Katerina’s husband who is cruelly murdered in act II. Roland Liiv makes the most of the shabby peasant, constantly on the hunt for more vodka. Koit Soasepp adds another significant portrait to his impressive list of memorable characters with his lecherous priest, Heikki Aalto’s Chief of Police is strong-voiced and dangerous and Niina Keitel is a scheming Sonyetka in the final act. In that act we also meet an old friend, Esa Ruuttunen, as the old convict. He has retained his imposing voice in excellent shape.

For the three central roles, Tandberg has opted for native Russian speakers. Alexander Teliga’s Boris is a frightening portrait in his brutality, but he is also deeply human in his long monologue that opens act II and his death scene, when the rat-poison Katerina has mixed into his creamed mushrooms, begins to work, is touching. Alexey Kosarev’s Sergey impresses both through his dashing stage appearance and intensive singing and acting. He and soprano Svetlana Sozdateleva in the title role, both sang their roles in the Oslo production and her deeply involved and gloriously sung Katerina is a reading that will stay in my memory for a long time

This production is a triumph for all involved and should be seen by everyone with even the slightest interest in 20th century music drama.

Göran Forsling

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