Dmitri Shostakovich - Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District
Bayerische Staatsoper, 2016
Kirill Petrenko, Harry Kupfer, Anatoli Kotscherga, Sergey Skorokhodov, Anja Kampe, Misha Didyk, Heike Grötzinger, Kevin Conners, Christian Rieger, Sean Michael Plumb, Milan Siljanov, Goran Jurić, Alexander Tsymbalyuk, Kristof Klorek, Dean Power, Peter Lobert, Igor Tsarkov, Alexander Tsymbalyuk, Selene Zanetti
Staatsoper.TV - 4th December 2016
There was a time when Harry Kupfer's productions could be quite radical and not be too concerned with holding slavishly to the directions stipulated in the libretto, but while he is still capable of some striking stage pieces, there's more of a 'classical' look and feel to his productions now. That at least was the case with his elegant but unexceptional Der Rosenkavalier for Salzburg in 2014, and there's a similar aesthetic applied to this production of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The bigger surprise however is that this is a very 'straight' production for the Bavarian State Opera, a house that in the recent past has been inclined towards rather more challenging interpretations.
Kupfer's production however doesn't stick entirely to the book. Rather than being set in the middle of the 19th century of the time of it was written by Nikolai Leskov, the Munich production is set at the beginning of the 20th century, closer to the time of Shostakovich's composition in 1934. Perhaps more significantly this setting is just before the time of the Russian Revolution, highlighting perhaps distasteful aspects of Russian society in a way that Shostakovich might not have been able to do so openly in the Soviet Union. On the other hand, it's not as if Shostakovich was anything less than scathing about the social order and the behaviour of the authorities, the merchant class and working class - the work meeting with Stalin's disapproval and eventually being banned - so it's not clear that there is anything gained from this updating.
If it's set in the 20th century, it's perhaps just to make the work feel a little more contemporary and less about any specific political regime. Kupfer's production doesn't particularly dwell on the political or social aspects of the work, or even its essential Russian character. If there is any aspect of the work that is given more emphasis, it's perhaps the more universal treatment of the relationships between men and women. On this front, Shostakovich's musical treatment of the story was and still is a fearsome piece of work; a no-nonsense and quite daring depiction of the most base impulses that drive women and men, and what happens when they meet in two particularly driven people.
It's Kirill Petrenko's musical direction from the pit that makes the strongest case for the murderous havoc that this encounter generates, so if Kupfer's stage direction doesn't particularly inspire, the production as a whole at least pulls no dramatic punches. Musically, I don't think I've ever heard this work sound so vibrant and punchy, the unbridled musical underscoring matching every excess of the unbridled passions described in the drama; rape, adultery, murder, drunkenness, beatings, police corruption and brutality are all vividly described. Sensitivity, tenderness, love, some kind of sympathy for the position of Katarina Ismailov, the Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk? Not so much.
...or at least not in this production anyway. Despite the bombastic approach of Shostakovich to undesirable human behaviours and actions, there is room for nuance and sensitivity, but there's little of it in evidence here. It's interesting to contrast the musical treatment here with Petrenko's direction of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in October. The conductor and orchestra unquestionably bring out all the dramatic qualities of the music and the passions expressed, but there's less light and shade to work with in Shostakovich's score. Nonetheless, there is an ebb and flow to the rhythm of the dramatic action, and when you follow that the impact is explosive. You certainly get a sense of that here.
If there is room to work with the balance and weight of a more sensitive reading, it's perhaps in the hands of the singers, but the approach here tends to match the same explosive delivery of the score. On that level alone, the performances are impressive. Anja Kampe is on wonderful form here and it's thrilling to behold. Her Katarina is very much a woman driven by huge passions that aren't satisfied being the wife of the inadequate son of a wealthy grain merchant, and she's prepared to go to whatever lengths necessary to resist her fate, even if that is far beyond what a woman in her position can expect to be permitted. It's unfortunate that it's only through someone as self-serving as Sergey that she is able to find a way out.
Misha Didyk, from my experience, tends to border on hysterical in his delivery, but with the strong direction of someone like Stefan Herheim (in the recent DNO Queen of Spades), his anguished tone can be put to good use. Here, as Sergey he leans towards the shrill and histrionic, but there is at least a good place for it in Sergey's arrogant, wheedling, self-serving character, and it adds an edge to that unquestionably passionate relationship that develops between Sergey and Katarina. Anatoli Kotscherga sings a powerful Boris and successfully avoids letting the character slip into caricature. There are no weak points in any of the other roles, with Sergey Skorokhodov's Zinovy, Goran Jurić's chief of police and whoever plays the Shabby Drunk all in particular standing out.
Unfortunately, the rather indifferent production design and direction doesn't give the work the boost or the necessary edge it might have had. All the locations are rather sanitised and prettified, with Kupfer using again similar dramatic black-and-white cloud and landscape projections to those in his production of Der Rosenkavalier. If there is a trend towards a softening of the wilder Regie excesses on the part of Kupfer and the Bayerische Staatsoper that feels less adventurous, on the musical front at least the Munich house are going from strength to strength under their new music director Kirill Petrenko, and I'll happily settle for that.
The Bayerische Staatsoper's line-up for the rest of the live broadcast season next year is staggeringly good. On 26 Feb it's Rossini's SEMIRAMIDE, conducted by Michele Mariotti and directed by David Alden with an impressive cast that includes Joyce DiDonato, Alex Esposito, Daniela Barcellona and Lawrence Brownlee. We then have to wait until 1 July for Franz Schreker's DIE GEZNEICHNETEN, conducted by Ingo Metzmacher and directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski. Kirill Petrenko returns to conduct Wagner's TANNHÄUSER on 9th July in a new production directed by Romeo Castellucci.
Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV