Sunday 21 April 2019

Shostakovich - Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Paris, 2019)

Dmitri Shostakovich - Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

L'Opéra National de Paris, 2019

Ingo Metzmacher, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Dmitry Ulyanov, John Daszak, Aušrinė Stundytė, Pavel Černoch, Sofija Petrovic, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Oksana Volkova, Andrei Popov, Krzysztof Baczyk, Marianne Croux, Alexander Tsymbalyuk

Paris Cinema Live - 16 April 2019

I love the way the Paris Opera site has a warning for this production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk advising that "Certain scenes may be inappropriate for the young and the easily offended". You could almost take it for granted that the conservative contingent of the audience at the Paris Opera are going to find much offensive in a Krzysztof Warlikowski production, and there is much indeed to find offense with. This time however it's not Warlikowski that brings controversy to a production but rather it's a case that this daring opera that Stalin ordered to be banned still has the potential to shock. Warlikowski merely helps realise its potential on stage for a modern audience.

Personally I think Warlikowski is less of a wild card than he typically used to be at La Monnaie in Brussels, the Bayerische Staatsoper in Berlin and the Teatro Real in Madrid where he really pushed buttons by twisting narratives - brilliantly and meaningfully - and imposing his own vision through extended scenes, movie references and even his own film inserts, throwing in glitter, dancers and all manner of bizzareness. Recently, particularly in Paris, he has actually toned down his interpretations a little, as in the recent Don Carlos and also with From The House of the Dead. With Lady Macbeth again the eccentricities are largely eliminated, the changes are still large but of minimal interference only to make the work even more powerful.

The reason for that is of course that Shostakovich's opera, banned in Russia after Stalin viewed it, is a force in itself. I don't think however that I've ever appreciated the full brilliance of the work as it's expressed here in the 2019 Paris Opera production. All the bold, daring satire of the corruption in Russian society and its treatment of women is given full vent in a rich musical arrangement that is dramatically attuned, expressive of sinister intent and murderous violence, but also warmly seductive and downright lewd. Conductor Ingo Metzmacher has a lot to do with that (and large shoes to fill when the current musical director Philippe Jordan leaves), but it's more a combination of efforts and, as it ought to be, a collaboration between composer, conductor and director. Not forgetting the performers, and we definitely won't forget the performers here.

I guess I'm not going to get tired of praising Aušrinė Stundytė for her singing and dramatic interpretations any time soon, but I might have to work on finding new adjectives if she keeps delivering at this level. This is another extraordinary performance, fearless in her complete absorption into difficult and challenging characters. Her choices to date have been good in that respect (most recently at Aix-en-Provence in Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel) and there are few female roles as superbly written from both character and singing viewpoint as Katerina Ismailova. It's a role Stundytė has impressed in before (Lyon) and she brings a great deal of thought, personality and subtle psychology to this performance, to an expression of complex human emotions pushed to extremes.

I would say that Krzysztof Warlikowski plays no small hand in directing and channeling that performance and in giving it an effective and credible context to work within. Of course, working in collaboration with his regular set and costume designer Małgorzata Szczęśniak, it's far from natural realism, but rather attuned to the undercurrents, to internal hopes and dreams, to fierce personal drive and disillusionment that comes when those ideals clash with reality, with the circumstances of life in rural Russia, with the attitudes of an oppressive patriarchal society, with institutions that are riddled with vice and corruption.

Warlikowski's interventions than are fairly expansive in assuming a very distinctive presence on the production design, but they do not interfere with where the real strengths of the work lie. Instead of a grain factory, this production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is situated in an abattoir. That might sound heavy handed, and yes, the handing of bloody sides of cattle is pretty disgusting, but it does capture something of Katerina's distaste for the world she is trapped in, as well as providing a humorous and ironic contrast between her belief that even cows have a purpose, while her life has none. The set where meat is handled also provides a chilling location for the near-rape of Aksinya. If viewers are easily offended by such scenes, they should be.

Rather than wallow in the degradation of society and how it clashes with individual liberties, Warlikowski and Szczęśniak move on and find other ways that illustrate what Shostakovich vividly depicts in his music. A large part of the drama takes place in a long trailer that represents Katerina's room, moved to a central position on the stage where it rotates and can viewed from a number of angles that permit the viewer to see the all sexual positions Katerina is able to perform with her lover Sergei, Warlikowski choreographing the sensual undercurrents and the outright raunchy actions to what is there explicitly in the music. The room later doubles as the trailer where Katarina and Sergei are held with the other prisoners in Act IV, underlining the impression that she has trapped herself.

Most brilliantly of all however is how Warlikowski depicts Katerina and Sergei's marriage as something of a blood wedding, with blood red curtains surrounding it and the bride and groom all in red. Instead of having the guests whisper rumours and asides about the bride and the mysterious disappearance of her husband, it's delivered by a stand-up comedian with a line in edgy humour, with circus acts also capturing brilliantly the absurdity and farce of the situation that is all there in Shostakovich's playful music for this scene. Similarly Shostakovich's music can't disguise the forced comedy of the police-chief and the institutional corruption of the authorities that even Stalin couldn't miss, and that blends superbly into the high farce that this Act descends into with the discovery of the body hung up with the other sides of beef.

Warlikowski also seeks to use a limited amount of projections, some of them barely noticeable as overlays of dripping blood down the red curtains, but always in an effort to get deeper into the psychology that underlies Katarina's behaviour, fears and dreams. Some 3-D computer graphics are created to capture a sense of floating and drowning underwater, and that also blends effectively into the wider considerations of the work.

I've always felt that Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is a compelling work but rarely have I felt so absorbed by its dramatic drive as I have here in its telling by the stunning collaboration of Warlikowski, Metzmacher and Stundytė. Stundytė obviously dominates with her tour-de-force singing and acting performance, but the ensemble action and singing all work together tremendously well, with strong performances also from Pavel Černoch as Sergei, an impressive working of Aksinya's role by Sofija Petrovic, with excellent work also from Dmitry Ulyanov as Boris Timofeyevich, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as the Village drunk/comedian and Oksana Volkova as Sonyetka.

Links: L'Opéra National de Paris