2nd August 2017, by Opera Views
Photos: © Salzburger Festspiele / Thomas Aurin
Poignant staging and a musical triumph of Mariss Jansons at the “Lady Macbeth von Mzensk” premiere in Salzburg.
The second premiere of Markus Hinterhäuser´s first season as an artistic director of the Salzburg Festival was presented with opera “Lady Macbeth von Mzensk” by Dmitri Shostakovich on August 2nd, 2017. Markus Hinterhäuser deserves a praise for his fine artistic sense and manager´s ability in bringing together artistically highly creative team that delivered an extraordinary theatrical and musical experience.
The Libretto by Alexander Preis is based on the same-named novel by Nikolai Leskow. The opera had its world premiere on January 22nd, 1934 at the Small Theater in Leningrad, now Sankt Petersburg. Directed by Nikolay Smolich and conducted by Samuil Samossud this performance became an enormous success. But, in 1936 after Stalin attended one of the performances at the Bolshoi Theater on January 26th, an unsigned article in communists’ newspaper “Pravda“ (The Truth) branded the opera as “Chaos instead of music” with all further performances immediately suspended. Regardless of his international success, communist party officials forced Shostakovich to rewrite a watered-down version of the opera which had its premiere at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater in Moscow on 8. January 1963.
The story revolves around a triple murder and a woman’s struggle for the right to self-determination and love. The boundlessly unhappy Katerina Ismailova is married to a wealthy, but depressed and impotent merchant Sinowi Izmajlow. She lives in a golden cage and longs for love and sexual fulfilment. As a new worker, Sergey shows up, and she falls for him taking her chance for love and passion and gradually killing everyone, who dared to stand in her way.
The turtle doves enjoy their happiness and even marry. But the murders are soon to be discovered, and the whole affair ends unspectacularly in a prison camp in Siberia. Instead of the golden cage, there is now a dreary prison cell, and the unfaithful lover is fooling around with other women. Desperate Katerina, plagued by guilt and repentance, sees no longer hope for herself and commits suicide.
The staging by Andreas Kriegnburg, dominated by blood, violence, despair, longing, and sex scenes is frighteningly a realistic one. Supported by the set made by Harald B. Tork, naturalistic costumes by Tanja Hofmann, and artful lighting by Stefan Bolliger, Kriegnburg shifts the action in the Russian provincial town of Mzensk from 1865 to 1950th of the 20th century. In the first act, we are confronted with a desolate market square surrounded by the downturned, concrete-grey panel build labyrinth of stairs and balconies.
On both sides, large room modules are pulled in and out, one representing the bedroom of Katerina and Zinowi and the other the office of Katerina’s father-in-law. Harrowing scenes of partying, drinking, dancing, copulating, rape, murder and marriage are taking place here. The residents of the city appear as a grey, dirty, drunken, zombie-like horde of losers, Vodka-drinkers, prostitutes and thugs.
After the break, the stage is transformed into a gruesome prison camp full of despair and fight for survival. The over-drawn, grotesque representation of authorities’ violence and religious absurdity reinforce the cruelty of Katerina’s reality.
Unfortunately, this convincing staging got a pitiful crack when, at the end of the opera, Katerina’s poorly made doll double hang comically suspended from one of the balconies.
Shostakovich’s score is intimately connected to the libretto and vividly shows an absurd reality of the everyday life in the Soviet province. The language of his striking, bold, longing and sometimes suffocating music mirror the dark, but at the same time irrationally hopeful side of the mysterious Russian soul with its almost superstitious orthodox yearning for guilt and sin. To musically reproduce Shostakovich’s score, you not only need a conductor who knows it but a great interpreter as well.
Mariss Jansons, who made his Salzburg debut as an opera conductor on this evening, was a hundred percent target hitting. From the first minute on, it was evident: here we experience a master, a real magician of the sound and dynamics intensity. With a never-ceasing energy, concentration and lightness, the 74-year-old conductor pulled out a rushing, ecstatic, martial, powerful, wild, furious, harsh, intimate, caricature and parodist orchestral sound. The players of Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra followed him with admiration and presented a homogeneous, full of finesse sound complemented by brilliant woodwinds and violin solos.
The singer’s ensemble convinced throughout with good voices and a high acting commitment. The debut of the soprano Nina Stemme as Katerina did not entirely succeed. With her thick, dark-timbered soprano she sounded more like Isolde and had some difficulties at the top. It was not until after the break that she regained her usual form and managed to deliver a touching performance. Brandon Jovanovich as Sergei was remarkably convincing in its authentic acting as a prick-driven womaniser. His Russian diction is remarkable, and his voice sounds powerful without exaggerating. Dmitry Ulyanov in the role of Katerina´s father-in-law succeeded in depicting a power-obsessed tyrant who has a hygiene phobia and an unhealthy affection for her. Ulyanov sings this demanding, high-pitched part with substantial endurance and has a strong stage presence. Maxim Paster as Zinowi had his most powerful moment during his murder scene, which he sang and acted exceptionally convincing. Stanislav Trofimov as Pope sang with full-sounding, velvety bass and brought some laughter into this woeful story. Ksenia Dudnikova as Sonetka and Evgeniya Muraveva in the double role of Aksinja and slave labourer were for me vocally and form acting side a discovery of the night.
In the end, the impressed audience gave a long-lasting applause for all member of the cast, but especially for Mariss Jansons, orchestra and the excellent choir (Ernst Raffelsberger). The performance bestowed us with a sense of gratitude and humbleness for being able to experience an outstanding performance and to have an enriching emotional encounter with the music of one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century.