Opéra de Lyon, 2016
Kazushi Ono, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Ausrine Stundyte, Vladimir Ognovenko, Peter Hoare, John Daszak, Gennady Bezzubenkov, Almas Svilpa, Jeff Martin, Michaela Selinger, Clare Presland, Jeff Martin, Kwang Soun Kim
Culturebox - 4 February 2016
He remains a controversial and divisive figure in the opera world, but Dmitri Tcherniakov is nonetheless always an interesting director. In particular his work is often inspired when he is working in the Russian repertoire; opening up a whole new way of looking on works that are rarely performed and insufficiently explored. His production of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, recently seen at the English National Opera but now transferred to Lyon and sung in its native language with Russian leads, is a typically strong reading of the work that has many of the director's familiar techniques. In fact, it would at first appear that there's not much the director has to offer a work that is surrounded in enough controversy of its own. The touches Tcherniakov introduces here however are subtle and achieve maximum impact.
For a while at least, it seems like business as usual. There are no unexpected twists that subvert the material, nothing too challenging or unexpected. It's updated evidently, but not in an extravagant way to make any obvious contemporary reference. Instead of being a wealthy flour merchant, Boris Timofeyevich Izmailov here runs a more modern warehouse, with workers in hi-vis jackets operating forklift trucks, with a row of secretaries in the office and employees all wearing security passes around their necks. Even from the point of view of merely indicating the banality of business interests and the uniformity of the modern workplace, and in how it pertains to the relative positions of men and women within it, Tcherniakov has it down to a tee.
The background setting is an important matter in the opera, but still, it's not anything that you wouldn't see in any other Tcherniakov production. This one doesn't look that much different from his productions of The Tsar's Bride or Verdi's Macbeth, and if that means that it's not quite as radical as the updating of those works were, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk already has all the sex and violence it needs. What becomes apparent then is not that Tcherniakov's approach is in any way 'tamer' here, or that he has run out of original ideas, as much as Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk may be the definitive Tcherniakov opera. It's as if the director has taken all the boldness, the shock and the impact of this opera and used it as a model that all other operas ought to aspire to match. Tcherniakov seems to want to bring the inner Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk out of every opera he works on.
In as far as dealing with the subjects that Shostakovich depicted in his version of Nikolai Leskov's work, there are certainly other levels that could be emphasised in the opera - and it seems amazing that the composer himself seemed to be unaware of how that might would play out to the Soviet censor - but Tcherniakov is not particularly concerned with those. The wider view of the Russian character, the implications of corruption within the system and the impact that has on a woman living within a male-dominated society are all still there as part of the wider canvas that Shostakovich paints so vividly in his score, but Tcherniakov recognises that there is also an attention in the music to the individual, and in this case that's evidently the 'Lady Macbeth' of the work, Katerina Lvovna Izmailova.
Having established the context only as far as it necessary, without any unnecessary emphasis or distortion, Tcherniakov's focus is almost wholly on Katia. The director often reduces the scene down to the small room where the wife of the boss's son is mostly confined. It's a warmly-lit room decorated with rugs covering the walls, Katia moreover dressed in a more 'traditional' way that emphasises the extent to which she is cut off and set apart from the rest of the world. She daren't venture too far out of that room, and when she does - in the only way that would be possible for a woman in her position - she's soon put back in her place. Her form of liberty eventually leads Katerina and her lover Sergei being arrested and sent to Siberia. As this just closes down her world further, Tcherniakov chooses to depict all the horror that follows within the confines of a small cell rather than on a forced march in the open outdoors.
Closing down the stage in this way, reducing it to a small block, allows Tcherniakov to work in closer detail, more like a film director than a stage director. There is even a fixed camera placed high within Katia's bedroom for the sake of the video recording of the performance in Lyon that allows the level of detail, nuance and intimacy created to be seen, but clearly the impact is felt even at the back of the theatre. Tcherniakov knows he doesn't have to make grand gestures because they are already there in the music and in the subject, and he focuses instead on the performers, on what their characters feel and endure. Even on that level, there's a huge range to cover in the vivid personalities of Katia, Boris, Sergei and Zynovny, to say nothing of the colourful secondary characters. Tcherniakov's direction of the performers is superb, making them and their actions feel utterly real, and it makes all the difference in this work.
The simmering passions and explosions of violence and aggressive sexual behaviour are all fully scored by Shostakovich and brought out in all their wonderful, lurid glory by Kazushi Ono and the orchestra of the Opéra de Lyon. It really is a wonderful account that makes no attempt to play down those verismo characteristics that are what gives the work such an impact. A few of the English cast remain here - John Daszak and Peter Hoare superbly reprising the roles of Sergei and Zynovny - but the Russian production of the opera undoubtedly benefits from having singers like Ausrine Stundyte and Vladimir Ognovenko play Katarina and Boris. Stundyte is exceptionally good in an understated but compelling performance that simmers with the underlying strength of Katia's passions and her capacity to love as violently as she kills.
Links: Culturebox, Opéra de Lyon