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28.6.06

Summer Opera 2006: "Lady Macbeth"

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, De Nederlandse Opera, directed by Martin Kusej, 2006Here at Ionarts, we love Mariss Jansons in recordings, and we love Mariss Jansons live. How great would it be to hear him conduct Dmitri Shostakovich's memorable opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at De Nederlandse Opera, with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam? Well, readers, you have until July 2 to find out yourself, or you can read some reviews. The earliest review I saw was by Sébastien Foucart (Orgasmes et meurtres, June 4) for ConcertoNet.com (my translation):

For this Amsterdam Lady Macbeth, the intention of Austrian director Martin Kusej, explained in the program notes, is quite clear: "Orgasm and murder are two diametrically opposed poles, two extremes between love and hate, two fundamental relationships between human beings. The climactic and profoundly mysterious essence is the pillar on which my production rests." This is reflected in his staging, constantly oscillating between the darkest tragedy there is and the most caricaturish and expressionist grotesquerie that can be imagined. Sex, desire, eros, are clearly in the background of the spectacle, which spares nothing of the violence, but never seeks to be grossly provocative. [...]

At the head of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the conducting of Mariss Jansons deserves only praise. Whether in the most tender and lyrical moments, in the most violent and implacable passages, or in the pages of delirious cacophony (the second act finale, wildly acclaimed by the audience!), Mariss Jansons, who was making with this production his first appearance with De Nederlandse Opera, leads an orchestra that is thrillingly precise, with a result in sound that can only be qualified, without exaggeration, as miraculous.
Writing for the Financial Times, Richard Fairman also reviewed the prima (Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Amsterdam June 5):
Shostakovich’s panoramic tale of Soviet oppression might have been intended for the wide stage of the Muziektheater. The director, Martin Kusej, used the space well, filling it with blue-collar workers, vodka-swilling wedding guests and Gulag prisoners stripped to their underwear, riskily raising the cliché quota as he went along. There were some striking stage pictures but the production was so busy dealing in symbols of repression that the human element largely passed it by.

That was a shame, as it had a first-rate protagonist in Eva-Maria Westbroek, a Katerina of Jean Harlow- like allure, who had all the vocal power and stamina that the role demands. Christopher Ventris repeated his burly Sergey and bass Anatoly Kotscherga boomed impressively as Boris. Unlike the others, he also managed to keep his trousers on. Various excellent singers of the smaller roles – notably Carole Wilson’s game Aksinja – lost most or all of their clothes. If you are planning to appear in a Kusej production, make sure you are wearing clean knickers.
A couple of other reviews are of later performances, beginning with that of Jean-Louis Validire (Une éclatante réussite, June 13) in Le Figaro (my translation):
One can hardly imagine a more beautiful way to honor Shostakovich, the centenary of whose birth we are marking this year, than the one given by De Nederlandse Opera in presenting a Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk full of noise and fury. [...] Martin Kusej has created a sober and expressive staging. The torrid scene where the two lovers succomb to their passion is a model for the genre. Using strobe light effects, Kusej gives a harried rhythm to the scene while at the same avoiding the trap of pornographic vulgarity.

The triumph of this production is soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, who shows in Katerina, one of the most beautiful roles of the 20th-century repertoire, the extent of her talents. Vocally, she is impeccable as much in the nuances of love as in the hysterie of passion. The casting -- in which English tenor Christopher Ventris stands out, singing the lover, Boris [he means Sergei], with beautiful clarity -- is very even and contributed to this stunning success.
Geoffrey Norris's review (Eloquent pace, illuminating detail, graphic sex, June 14) in The Telegraph combines the opera with a concert by the Concertgebouw that preceded it the previous evening:
The director Martin Kusej and designer Martin Zehetgruber create an atmosphere heavy with unease and foreboding. The provincial Izmaylov house is a gleaming glass construction of barren modernity, in which the bored Katerina, ogled by her husband's mill-workers, has only her dozens of pairs of shoes for company. The sense of claustrophobia is sustained right until the very end of the opera, where Katerina, now on her grim way to a prison camp and stripped of her Footballers' Wives-type finery, is incarcerated with other semi-naked, semi-sane convicts in a waterlogged, subterranean hell-hole. [...]

Shostakovich's recourse to popular music-hall idioms here and elsewhere in Lady Macbeth was the central theme of the previous evening's concert, in which his Second Suite for Dance Band and excerpts from his ballet The Bolt framed the First Piano Concerto. Marin Alsop breached one of the last bastions of male supremacy by being the first woman to conduct a Royal Concertgebouw programme, and she showed that, light though the music might be, it is also benefits from being taken seriously. In among the snook-cocking fun, there were many typical Alsop nuances and, in The Bolt, suggestions that the Shostakovich of the searching symphonies was not that far away. Simon Trpceski, soloist in the piano concerto, capped the concert with an exhilarating blend of rhythmic brilliance and expressive finesse.
Snook-cocking? I think all of us should try to use that word correctly in conversation tomorrow. How much are airfares to Amsterdam? More pictures here.

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