- The Washington Times - Monday, February 5, 2007

Those braving Sunday afternoon’s sinking temperatures to head for the Kennedy Center were rewarded with a stunning, driving, definitive performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s riveting opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” by the Kirov Opera.

Staged as a concert opera, this matinee offered solid proof that a skilled team of top-drawer performers can bring a compelling story fully to life without costumes or props.

Initially a popular success after its premiere in 1934, “Lady Macbeth” also marked the end of Mr. Shostakovich’s operatic career and the beginning of his grueling lifelong battle with the communist dictatorship of the brutal Josef Stalin. The work was banned after Stalin got a chance to see it, and the composer lived ever after fearing each knock on his door.

It’s not difficult to see what got Stalin upset. Loosely based on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” the opera’s libretto weaves the sordid tale of Katerina, a bored and desperately unhappy farm wife married to a wimp (Zinovy) and continually harassed by her bitter and violent father-in-law, Boris.

Things go rapidly and brutally downhill after Katerina has an unexpected and wild affair with a rough but handsome new farmhand, Sergey, and seeks to eliminate the opposition.

Although the opera’s farm is set in the presumably more savage pre-collective era, Mr. Shostakovich’s satirical intent is clear: The Russian people have merely swapped one dictatorial master for another. If you try to fight this new system, you’ll surely lose.

“Lady Macbeth” is a roller coaster of wild emotions and shocking, almost jovial brutality. From bloody floggings to a haphazardly buried corpse ripening in the root cellar, this is rough stuff, punctuated by blackly comedic interludes. It nonetheless embodies the atmosphere of the Soviet Union in the 1930s as the promises of socialism gave way to the Great Terror of Stalin’s purges.

“Lady Macbeth” is also intensely Russian, a worthy successor to Modest Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov.” From its vigorous male and mixed peasant choruses to its Wagnerian demands on the singers to its heroically symphonic score, it is one of the 20th century’s artistic landmarks. The Kirov, in its answer to Super Bowl Sunday, mounted a majestic performance of the work, the polar opposite of last week’s fumbled “Falstaff.”

The standout in this presentation was soprano Larissa Gogolevskaya as Katerina. Step aside, Brunhilde. This taxing Russian role requires a superwoman to withstand the composer’s immense instrumental forces, and that term accurately describes Miss Gogolevskaya. Yet, while her instrument possesses great power and stamina, it also is capable of pathos and nuance, all of which were on display during Sunday’s awe-inspiring concert.

Happily, Miss Gogolevskaya was fortunate in having a most impressive cast of principals working with her. As Katerina’s love interest, the manic trickster/anti-hero Sergey, tenor Viktor Lutsiuk, was supple of voice and convincing in manner, with twinkling facial expressions and subtle gestures to match.

As their foil, towering bass Alexei Tanovitski was sensational as the nasty paterfamilias Boris. Possessing a booming, authoritative voice threatening enough to send an army of peasants fleeing for the Urals, Mr. Tanovitski provided ample motivation for the story’s downward spiral.

Exceptional in smaller roles were tenor Evgeny Akimov as the hapless Zinovy and Gennady Bezzubenkov, whose classic, almost liturgical Russian bass was the perfect fit for his dual roles as the Priest and the Old Convict.

Under the baton of music director Valery Gergiev, the Kirov Orchestra played magnificently, lending a sharp, cutting edge to Mr. Shostakovich’s already slashing, supremely symphonic modernist score. The only thing wrong with this near-perfect “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” was that it was performed only once.

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