Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Royal Opera House, London Anne Sofie von Otter/Bengt Forsberg, Wigmore Hall, London

Great theatre. Great opera. Great night out
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Since Antonio Pappano's appointment to the post of music director some 18 months ago, Covent Garden has begun to embrace the idea that opera is, above all, a theatrical medium. Thank goodness, say I. But for every Ariadne or Wozzeck, there are still a dozen static showcases for starry voices. Do the core clientele of the Royal Opera House actively prefer a tedious evening of tonsil gazing to the kind of show that makes an indelible mark on one's consciousness? Apparently so. Top ticket for the recent revival of Samson et Dalila? £170, sir. Same for Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk? A snip at £75, madam. Which is just as well. Because Richard Jones's new production of the original 1934 version of Lady Macbeth demands a second, if not a third, viewing. This is, without a doubt, the company's finest work for many years: a definitive statement of what makes opera unique and vital, a benchmark alchemy of music and theatre, and a more persuasive argument for continued public subsidy than any preening primo

Since Antonio Pappano's appointment to the post of music director some 18 months ago, Covent Garden has begun to embrace the idea that opera is, above all, a theatrical medium. Thank goodness, say I. But for every Ariadne or Wozzeck, there are still a dozen static showcases for starry voices. Do the core clientele of the Royal Opera House actively prefer a tedious evening of tonsil gazing to the kind of show that makes an indelible mark on one's consciousness? Apparently so. Top ticket for the recent revival of Samson et Dalila? £170, sir. Same for Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk? A snip at £75, madam. Which is just as well. Because Richard Jones's new production of the original 1934 version of Lady Macbeth demands a second, if not a third, viewing. This is, without a doubt, the company's finest work for many years: a definitive statement of what makes opera unique and vital, a benchmark alchemy of music and theatre, and a more persuasive argument for continued public subsidy than any preening primo uomo.

In many respects, Lady Macbeth is the opera that Jones has been waiting for. Familiar Jonesisms - distortion of size, expressionist choreography, tweaks of absurdist humour - work with Shostakovich's chameleon aesthetic as decisively as they fought against that of Berlioz in Jones's confusing production of The Trojans. By turning a grim, squat, proto-noir plot of lust, greed and murder into a rich black comedy, he disarms his audience; all the better to shock, move, and eventually dismay them. From the grand guignol slapstick with plastic shopping bags and rat poison to the televised apparition of Boris's ghost and the random masked figures in Mtsensk's half-wit workforce every detail sparkles. The disposal of Zinovy Ismailov's body - with plastic sheeting and an axe at the ready - is the funniest, saddest, messiest gore-fest I've seen outside of The Sopranos. At no point are we allowed to forget that this is theatre - artificial, flamboyant, absurd, and exaggerated - but Jones has caught the elusive balance between showmanship and seriousness and affords each character the space to establish their own sorrow.

Central to this seam of personal - and social - deprivation is Swedish soprano Katarina Dalayman's extraordinary impersonation of the murderous housewife, Katerina Ismailova: an incomparable portrayal of suppressed rage, erotic obsession, boredom, naivety, primness and vulnerability. Even as she stands silent with her back to the audience as Sonyetka mocks her by throwing peanuts at her head - a final humiliation of careless genius - Dalayman commands the stage. But this is an impeccable cast of singer-actors; from John Tomlinson's sleazy, vaudevillean Boris, Christine Rice's slutty, pugilistic Sonyetka, Stefan Margita's neutered Zinovy, Susan Bickley's conniving Aksinya, Maxim Mikhailov's waltzing Priest, and Roderick Earle's lugubriously funny Police Inspector to Christopher Ventris's indolent, bulky, sulkily glamorous, self-styled "sensitive" small-town gigolo, Sergey - a performance that brings to mind the early work of Brando and Newman and promises much for Ventris's career.

John Macfarlance's sets are, like the singing of the cast, quite stunning. But the most surprising aspect of this production is the way in which Jones, Macfarlane and Pappano suggest smell: the urinous odour of loneliness, frustration and resentment in Act I, the rank fug of post-coital bed-linen in Act II, the chaotic reek of cheap cologne and cheaper booze in Act III's wedding party, the stink of a small squad-room, and the sweat of the hopeless. In part, this quirk of synaesthesia is achieved through colour - and Mimi Jordan Sherin's lighting is virtuosic in its sensitivity to mood - in part through orchestral colours and textures of a subtlety, complexity and depth I have not heard in this score before.

Jones and Macfarlance having shouldered the burden of representing the bourgeoisification of Katerina with a handsome selection of oddball ironies and audacious coups de théâtre - the Interlude of Act II sees Katerina's bedroom transformed by scaffolded decorators as Boris's corpse is dragged around the room willy-nilly to make space for new furniture - Pappano is free to explore her loneliness and vulnerability: that desperate need to find some balm for the warring itches of her body and soul, which, in Dalayman's smart reversal of the expected progress of Katerina's character and manner, are indeed in conflict. "Kiss me. Kiss me so hard that the icons fall from the walls!" she cries to Sergey twixt murders one and two. But the more she kills, the softer Katerina becomes: open and needy and childlike, newly blonde, skinless and somehow innocent. And though the scarlet sarcasm of the dancing brass is arresting and the slick sweep of pastiche from the woodwind quite dazzling, it is the still, smoky, yearning threads of lyricism that Pappano draws from the strings that stay with you after the curtain has closed - those and the naked legs and pregnant belly of a woman who killed for a kiss. I left Lady Macbeth thinking about complicity, co-dependency and casual violence: about the scores of women for whom sexual connection is more compelling than the rule of law, the bottle-blonde murderesses and blank-faced brunette accomplices. But this is what great theatre can do. And what is great opera if it isn't great theatre?

More Swedish brilliance at the Wigmore Hall last weekend, in Anne Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg's sublime recital to launch "From-Sweden": a 14-month-long festival of Swedish music pegged, rather curiously, to a 350 year-old trade agreement. Could a festival sound more uninspiring? Probably not. But, as von Otter and Forsberg showed, some of this music is absolutely delicious. Even allowing for von Otter's remarkable versatility, her inimitably relaxed delivery, astute characterisation and supple, seductive, oxygenated voice, the songs of Wilhelm Stenhammer, Lars Ulrik Larsson, Tor Aulin, Ture Rangström and, in particular, Laci Boldemann - whose Copland-esque Four Epitaphs from Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology would grace any dramatically gifted singer's repertoire - deserve a far wider audience. A superb, surprising and tenderly subversive programme from what must be the only duo with sufficient chutzpah to pull off a rock'n'roll encore written by ABBA's Benny Andersson in this most hallowed temple to classical music.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk': Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), to 20 April

Exit Poll

'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,' ROH, London

Mark White

It was excellent. The interpretation was extraordinary, the staging exquisite and the singing first class.

Jane Ellis

It was a production with a real sense of humour. The singing and the orchestral playing were superb.

Jeremy Dixon

Everything about it was fantastic. It was visually stunning and well directed. Antonio Pappano was magical.

Comments