Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Opera: Changing Rooms; Peter Conrad on a Revolutionary Epic's Drab Contemporary Make-Over

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Opera: Changing Rooms; Peter Conrad on a Revolutionary Epic's Drab Contemporary Make-Over

Article excerpt

For Oscar Wilde, murder was permissible if it aesthetically cleansed the world: he applauded the poisoner Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, who killed a woman because she possessed unsightly ankles. Shostakovich, less teasingly ironic, justified murder as a revolutionary act, a private campaign of social retaliation. You may not be able to alter the world, but you can at least eliminate one or two of the household despots who oppress you. Shakespeare's Macbeth kills for a kingdom, but the heroine of Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk--a tragedy queen becalmed in the muddy steppes, the victim of tsarist feudalism--poisons her authoritarian father-in-law and then polishes off her ineffectual husband because she longs to feel free.

Unfortunately, liberty comes in the form of a fickle new lover, her accomplice Sergei, who promptly betrays her; sex, after all, is no substitute for institutional reform. None the less, Shostakovich celebrates Katerina's bloody initiative, which is why he changed Nikolai Leskov's novella--on which the opera is based--in preparing his libretto. Leskov's Katerina commits the infanticide that Lady Macbeth only fantasises about: she smothers the young heir to the Ismailov estate in his sickbed and then abandons the child she has conceived with Sergei. Shostakovich omitted those supplementary crimes, preserving Katerina's claim on our sympathy.

But what does this licentious vigilante achieve? Merely the liberation of uproarious, protesting, orchestral noise--the unholy cacophony that offended Stalin when he attended a performance in 1936. A rampant, snorting, orgiastic interlude accompanies her first sexual bout with Sergei; later, before her suicide in Siberia, a thundering threnody splits open the sky and announces the day of her wrath. Antonio Pappano, conducting the Royal Opera's new production, stirs up Mahlerian cataclysms in the pit, helped by a brass band that migrates around the theatre, alternately rejoicing and grieving. The singers do not quite manage to ride this whirlwind. Katarina Dalayman plays Katerina as a dumpy slattern, and sounds shrewish rather than erotically elated. Christopher Ventris as Sergei punches out the notes but lacks cocky swagger, and John Tomlinson no longer has the glowering vocal malevolence needed for the lecherous father-in-law.

Or was this belittling of the characters the aim of Richard Jones's grungy production? When David Pountney directed the work for English National Opera in 1987, Katerina's uprising provoked a convulsion on stage. Pountney's production mimicked the blatant, riotous agitprop of Bolshevik theatre; its festive exuberance hinted at a connection between Shostakovich and the Soviet literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, who in 1940--making his own coded attack on the lethal officialdom of Stalin--claimed that the truest expression of revolution was carnival, which scandalously mocks power and propriety. …

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