OPERA - OTHER COMPOSERS - LADY MACBETH
“If ever an opera deserved to be banned, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is the one”. So wrote US musicologist Richard Taruskin in 1997. Stalin had done just that in 1936. Far from endorsing Soviet abuse, Taruskin sees the work as the embodiment of Soviet inhumanity - perhaps “ the most pernicious use to which music has ever been put”.
In the early 1930s, Dimitri Shostakovich was in the flood tide of his powers, creating a score with endless surprises, a declaration that, like Picasso, he could do anything.
The boy-wonder used this genius to strip all the characters, except the heroine, Katarina, of their right to exist. To service her lust, she is justified in killing first her father-in-law, then her impotent husband and finally her rival for her low-life toy boy, just as the Soviets saw themselves as entitled to slaughter class enemies who stood in the way of utopian bliss.
Taruskin’s judgement is not the conventional wisdom about Shostakovich, which portrays him as the victim of Soviet oppression against which he became an ironising dissident. Yet Taruskin’s argument carries us deeper into the heart of this stunning creation than the errors and cliches that abound in the essays in the programme for Opera Australia’s new production.
The orchestration denies any sympathy to all but the protagonist by exposing their venality and mendacity, for instance, when a pious declamation is set in waltztime. By contrast, the she-devil gets all the beautiful music.
When Katarina kills, is she an innocent turning on her male oppressors? That is how the US director of the current production, Francesca Zambello, has portrayed her, a view licensed by Shostakovich’s comments at the time.
Zambello’s direction fails to follow the lead of the music. In short, it is humourless. For instance, showing the copulation scene destroys the comic effect of its enactment by the brass section. Instead of the trombones sliding into our imagination, the grappling is reduced to the literalism that Pravada condemned as “croaks and hoots and snorts and pants”.
For the first three acts, the sets, by Hildegard Bechtler, are ponderous naturalism, devoid of the experiments for which Pravda had condemned the opera as left deviationism.
In the final act, everything changes. We are back with Mussorgsky. The music is almost freed from its parodying and Bechtler’s trundling toilet block gives way to the symbolism of orange burdens against a grey world for the prisoners as they trudge to Siberia. The choreography is finally given a purpose.
Would Stalin have changed his mind had he stayed after Act Three? The answer has to be “No” if the official party had arrived with the intention of teaching all artists a lesson by singling out for attack their hitherto pampered Dimitri Dimetrievich.
The matching of Russian sounds to the instrumentation is lost by singing in English was more than compensated for by the articulation; every soloist was so exact that the sur-titles were superfluous.
Elizabeth Whitehouse in the title role of Katarina is worth the price of an A-Reserve ticket. Across the demands of a high tessitura, compounded by octave leaps, which the world’s greatest divas have considered impossible on first sight, she sustained a purity and preciseness which amounted to perfection, vocal glories kept aloft by her dramatic intelligence.
Bruce Martin (replacing an indisposed Donald Shanks) as the father-in-law was in splendid voice, fluid yet firm. The nobility of his stage presence, however, gets in the way of the hypocrisy required from him just as it saps the sarcasm.
Gregory Tomlinson convinced as the cuckold. Among the other men only John Pringle, the provincial police superintendent, conveyed the degree of vaudeville and circus required by the score, though Zambello never brought his squad close to the Keystone Kops reported from the early performances.
Margaret Haggart, as the household cook, displayed more than her fulsome voice in the early scene where the farmhands pack rape her. Deborah Humble brought the earthiness of a lower register to warm her account of Katarina’s young rival while looking every inch the selfish and simple wench that Shostakovich envisaged.
The orchestra under Richard Hickox has not performed so effectively in years. The pace never slackened, catching each mood and parody with equal aptness, while maintaining clarity. Directed by Michael Black, the chorus has achieved a standard of attack and chromaticism which seemed impossible hardly over a year ago.
If you see no other opera this year, make that one Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.