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Thread: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District on BBC4 from the Royal Opera House Covent Garden

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District on BBC4 from the Royal Opera House Covent Garden

    BBC4 live broadcast on October 20, 2006 of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden Richard Jones production revival (originally from April 2004) of Shostakovich's masterpiece Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, opera in four acts, sung in Russian, premiered on January 24, 1934 at the Leningrad Maly Operny, with music by Dmitri Shostakovich, libretto by the composer and Alexandre Preis, based on the novel of the same name by Nikolai Leskov (available for free reading online by clicking [here]).

    Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House conducted by Antonio Pappano
    Stage direction: Richard Jones
    Set Design: John Macfarlane
    Costume Design: Nicky Gillibrand
    Lighting: Mimi Jordan Sherin
    Choreography: Linda Dobell

    Katerina Lvovna Izmailova: Eva-Maria Westbroek
    Sergey: Christopher Ventris
    Boris Timofeyevich Ismailov: John Tomlinson
    Zinovy Borisovich Ismailov: John Daszak
    Aksinya: Carole Wilson
    Shabby Peasant: Peter Bronder
    Police Inspector: Roderick Earle
    Policeman: Thomas Barnard
    Priest: Maxim Mikhailov
    Teacher: Nikola Matišić
    Sonyetka: Christine Rice
    Steward/Sentry: Krzysztof Szumanski
    Porter: Jonathan Fisher
    First Workman: Andrew H. Sinclair
    Second Workman/Coachman: Andrew Sritheran
    Third Workman: Donaldson Bell
    Workman from Mill: Christopher Lackner
    Drunken Guest: Andrew Macnair
    Old Convict: Gwynne Howell
    Female Convict: Miriam Murphy
    Sergeant: John Bernays


    As part of my preparation for Opera Lively's second in-person interview with Eva-Maria Westbroek and first with Brandon Jovanovich next week, the two leading singers in the Met's production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, I'm watching this broadcast recorded from TV (excellent image and sound, English subtitles).

    This production seems to follow in many ways the sort of sets used by Wajda in his 1962 movie Siberian Lady Macbeth (those who have Amazon Prime can watch it for free by clicking [here]) showing a derelict household with old appliances. The sets are updated from the original 19th century to sometime in the fifties.

    Some deviations from the story occur early with Katerina's father-in-law groping her from the very first scene (this occurs later in the opera). Tomlinson is very impressive in the role. He looks exactly like how I imagine the character, and displays superior acting. His voice is a bit past its prime but he can still do a good job. Eva-Maria, deliberately dressed in awful clothes, manages to be unattractive (at least for now) and as usual sings very well. She portrays a vulnerable woman and unlike in her DNO DVD from Amsterdam, doesn't come across as fiercer and more confrontational than the character is at times interpreted (Shostakovich did seem to have some sympathy for the character). So here she is more delicate and sings less forcefully.

    Pappano leading one of the best opera orchestras in the world is always a pleasure to hear, and the very descriptive, tone-painting-rich, literal score comes across very lively. Maybe appropriately, the tenor singing the wimpy Zinovy has a very unpleasant and thin voice. Comprimarios are all good.

    The sets make a point of being as ugly and bleak as possible. Well, this is a bleak and ugly tragedy, so I guess it's appropriate, but I'm a bit tired of trashy sets with everything falling apart and just looking horrible. I kind of liked better the sleek abstract sets of Eva-Maria's other Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk on video. Given that I don't have production pictures, I took a snapshot of my TV's paused screen for you guys to have an idea (I did find a close-up of the two principal singers, posted further below):

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    The scenes involving the workers are on the left-sided room, and Katerina's home is on the right (you can see Eva-Maria there). For the third scene of act I, the room on the left becomes Katerina's bedroom.

    Blocking and choreography are very good with interesting movements of the chorus, observing things or participating in certain scenes by leaning all together in some directions. Lighting does make for very atmospheric transformations of these bleak rooms with peeling wallpaper.

    Christopher Ventris is good. What's with all these British singers called Christopher? They are all good. Chris Purves, Chris Maltman, Chris Ventris.

    The lovemaking scene gets Richard Jones' signature black humor. It also restores Shostakovich's trombone glissandos while the couple has sex, which had been cut from the score in some productions, under the accusation of being obscene (they've been called by reviewers "pornophonia").

    By the way, I'm rapidly warming up to Richard Jones' staging. It does have some rather genius-level touches and is very realistic, inviting Eva-Maria to act much, much better than she did in Amsterdam, and oh boy, what a gifted actress (just watch her Anna Nicole to see how good she is). This is making the story come across more accurately than in any of the versions I've seen before (this is the fourth LMMD that I see).

    Second act coming up. This is good, folks. Musically rather perfect, excellent acting, and like I said the trashy staging is not bothering me anymore, much the opposite - after all this opera has elements of verismo, and this staging is looking exactly like the sordid story would have looked in real life. Tomlinson does a simply superb job with Boris' rant at the beginning of Act II and the scene of Sergei's flogging is masterfully staged and sung.

    The poisoning scene contains one of the best acting jobs I've seen in all of my opera experience. Eva-Maria and John are unbelievably good.

    OK, this staging has finished winning me over. I'm now officially in love with it. This is just too good blocking and choreography and black humor - the scene of Boris' death has the chorus dancing with their feet and it is hilarious. Highly interesting. Richard Jones, I tip my hat to you. No wonder this thing won the Lawrence Olivier award for best opera production of the year.

    The beautiful and famous passacaglia is played while construction workers redecorate the stage for Katerina's new life now that her father-in-law is dead and she can live with her lover. They install new wallpaper. Wow. Genial. Not to forget that Pappano and his orchestra play the passacaglia in the most sublime way, and voilà, Eva-Maria gets to be her attractive self again, blonde, with her hair down, in sexier clothes. This is just phenomenal theatrical arts! Bravo!

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    Eva-Maria Westbroek as Katerina and Christopher Ventris as Sergey. Photo credit Tristram Kenton

    I was thinking, one of these days... the Royal Opera House is slowly creeping up in my preference as being able to produce shows as compelling as Glyndebourne, at times, matching their neighbors to be one of the very best companies in the world, with intriguing productions, phenomenal casting, and an orchestra and conductor to die for.

    Wow, even the TV set gets modernized, and lighting goes pink. Nice, very nice.


    Oh my God, I just took a look at the Met production pictures to which Opera Lively has access (opening night of this new LMMD production was happening as I typed this), and they are simply gorgeous. OK, I was feeling a bit down, thinking that the two British houses are doing so much better than our beloved Met, but wait a moment, folks, it looks like we're doing just as well.

    I'll give you a couple of samples, but will only post more at the time of my review of the Met production I'll be seeing live this coming Monday.

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    Photo Credit Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera, used with authorization

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    Photo Credit Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera, used with authorization

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    Photo Credit Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera, used with authorization

    Now, not to be let undone, the ROH just produced another genial stroke: the Boris ghost appears to Katerina as a black-and-white image on her TV! That works!

    More black humor - after they strangle Zinovy, the finish him up with a huge axe, blood splashes everywhere, and Sergei says, "well, that's the end of him" - everybody laughs. Another spectacular touch, Eva-Maria gets body parts of her murdered husband into supermarket plastic bags, and it's one of the supermarkets for the Russian community in London: Azbuka Vkusa, LOL!

    The good staging continues, the police station in act III gets nice blocking with the police officers lining up against the walls, and then other nice touches happen - they throw darts in the same rhythm of the music.

    This is what good regie is. There are numerous imaginative solutions, the opera is updated, the sets are unconventional, but the opera is entirely preserved in its ideas and in the relationships between characters - not just preserved, but very accurately rendered. There are no alterations in plot (oh well, except for doing the groping a bit early - not a problem for the story, though, that's exactly how Boris would have behaved according to the novel). This is the kind of Regie that I like.

    Anyway, It's almost 3 AM... By now it's rather clear that this is another A++ production (I've had a string of these lately; lucky me). I won't continue the play-by-play report (might update it later if something very striking happens - PS - indeed, the Siberian scenes are also superb, done in a simple set with two trucks instead of train wagons, and very effective - the part when the stage goes suddenly black and only Eva-Maria is lit in the center of it is just very successful). See this if you have an opportunity, if it is revived anywhere, or makes it to YouTube, or is released on DVD (seems unlikely, this was recorded 8 years ago). LMMD has five DVD versions, and it's a pity that this one, the best of them all on video, has not been released commercially.

    Seeing it so well done reminds me of why I like this work so much - it's one of the greatest masterpieces of 20th century opera.
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); November 11th, 2014 at 02:01 PM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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