Just like old times. Or to be more specific, that memorable night ten years ago when the Powerhouse (as English National Opera became known) blew its fuses. David Pountney's wickedly knowing production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is up there with David Alden's "chainsaw" Mazeppa among evenings when the Coliseum experienced a kind of dramatic meltdown; when the right producers locked into the central nervous systems of the right pieces and intensity levels went into the red.
Shostakovich's youthful polemic was made for Pountney. The cartoonish character of his work teetering, as it so often does, on the edge of vulgarity, his sense of brinkmanship between pathos and bathos these are the qualities which repeatedly wind you in a good performance/production of Lady Macbeth, and last Friday's first night of this long-awaited revival was a corker. The Powerhouse was once again an abattoir, all steel doors, gantries, and ladders, a giant driving wheel and meat shute. Stefanos Lazaridis's revolving set remains a kind of sculpture to Stalin's Soviet Industrial Revolution. Within its confines the workforce move and behave much as they do in those "Happy Proletariat" propaganda posters in strict unison like the corps of some military ballet, clenched-fist salutes punctuating every action. Or you could look at it another way: animal farm after the cull.
It's a great image of Pountney's, this meat. Symbol of death, decay, brutality. There are bloody carcasses everywhere and it's hard to separate the dead from the living. In the midst of it all is Katerina Ismailova, the soul of resistance in Soviet womanhood for whom self-preservation is self-destruction.
Visually, physically, it's a show which perfectly complements the maliciousness of the uncompromising score, which subverts and parodies everything it touches. Again it's the dangerous brinkmanship between pathos and bathos. The Red Army Brass Ensemble line up above Katerina's bed of adultery (and take a bow for their pains), drunken bassoons and rude trombones do more than suggest certain bodily functions; and yet within the blink of an eye Shostakovich will unleash music of despairing seriousness and profundity like the great passacaglia with which Pountney underscores a grotesque parody of the funeral for Katerina's brutal father-in-law. There's even a quasi "Gilbert and Sullivan" number for the chief of police and his cronies, and a "Busby Berkeley" moment for the Red Army as Lazaridis's revolve turns to one of Shostakovich's wildest Keystone Cop galops, perhaps most sensational of all.
All this is dispatched with an ear-splitting panache under Mark Wigglesworth's unerring baton. It would be hard to imagine fielding a stronger team of principals. Pavlo Hunka's brutish Hagen-like Boris, Robert Brubaker's virile, tireless Sergei, and Vivian Tierney's courageous Katerina remarkable above all for the sheer range of her vocal colour and the many haunting refinements she managed to find in a role notorious for its relentlessness.
But this is a huge and uniformly fine cast, an ENO company special as red in tooth and claw as the very best of their work. The chorus work is fabulously good, particularly in the great ensembles of the final scene music as noble in its tragic import as anything in Mussorgsky. In fact, almost certainly a homage to Mussorgsky.
One overwhelming moment has stayed with me in the 10 years since I last saw Lady Macbeth. Katerina on the road to Siberia, stripped of her wedding dress, isolated, humiliated, alone, caught, as it were, in the spotlight of history as Shostakovich's enormous orchestra, topped with a raft of high-stopped trumpets, vents its last remaining anguish. Do not on any account miss this. It could be another 10 years.
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