Friday, March 6, 2009


The thing about Dmitri Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1934) is that it is not for the fainthearted, on either side of the curtain. 

Opera Australia's Francesca Zambello production, first seen here in 2002, and revisited now by Zambello herself was, and still is, Richard Hickox's baby. Francesca Zambello has returned, unusually, to her production for the pleasure of working with the company, to visit Australia again, to work with the world class cast, and to "deliver the best show, for the Company and to honour his memory." They were close friends. The stellar cast and production team he had assembled certainly did him proud on opening night. Susan Bullock's acknowledgment with a sky blown kiss as her first duty of curtain call was appropriate and touching. He had asked her to take on the role, she had spent a year getting the "quite tricky" rhythms and pitch right, and there he wasn't. It was left to Sir Richard Armstrong to take charge of the evening and for the good job he did, there was something, and someone, missing: Richard Hickox, with his just contained near to bursting energy and those intense penetrating eyes, and the spark and confidence of a man fully at ease with this work. 

The cast has "Chandos' stamped all over it.

Boris Ismailov John Wegner
Zinory Ismailov David Corcoran
Katerina Ismailova Susan Bullock
Sergei Simon O'Neill
Aksinya / Woman Convict Jacqueline Dark
Shabby Peasant / Teacher Kanen Breen
Steward / Sentry Richard Anderson
Porter Charlie Kedmenec
Sergeant Richard Alexander
Foreman 1 / Coachman Stephen Smith
Foreman 2 Graeme Macfarlane
Mill-Hand / Foreman 3 David Thelander
Priest Gennadi Dubinsky
Chief of Police Warwick Fyfe
Policeman Shane Lowrencev
Drunk Guest David Lewis
Sonyetka Dominica Matthews
Old Convict Jud Arthur  

Nikolai Leskov's story was written in 1865, a story of a woman abandoned in a sexless marriage, uneducated, unskilled, unloved and incomplete, whose life was all but out of her control and at the whim of male authority in a society of graft, corruption and oblivion by alcohol; a woman whose longing for sexual satisfaction, worthiness and self esteem was to only take her further down a trajectory of degradation and ultimate self destruction. It was no less valid in 1934 when Shostakovich's operatic version of it was acclaimed, no less valid when 2 years later Stalin blacklisted it, no less valid when a revised version was mounted in 1962, or when Rostropovich recorded the original version in 1979, (a must have), when we first saw it here in 2002, or now. This is, as Zambello says, a work about the abuse of power, the woman as female, or metaphor for any oppressed. And to this I would add fear. There is no power without fear. This work, those times, and these times, were and are about fear. Mardi Gras marchers and viewers take note, both sides of the curtain, the veneer of tolerance and acceptance is shiny but thin. And even at the most literal level, this horror could, and likely does to varying extents, happen in any country town in rural Australia.

Shostkovich read the Leskov story as illustrated by a family friend, Boris Kustodiev, who had painted a portrait of the young Dmitri aged 13, and whose taste in women extended well into the voluptuous and blatantly alluring, and such were his illustrations. The youthful composer wrote a work that is ultimately extremely and violently sexually abusive, wanting us to be so engaged and empathic with his (anti) heroine, that we understand and sympathize with her up to and including murder of others and self. That's the really hard bit for this incredibly difficult role.

Which brings us to Susan Bullock, the fantastic English Wagnerian, with all the vocal resources needed to get through the 3 hours on stage. It is incredibly difficult and she was magnificent, from her opening languid longing through to the depths of black deep lake despair, where the fear of death is no longer the greatest fear of all. But, and I hate saying this, she didn't completely erase the memory of Elizabeth Whitehouse for reasons I can't quite put my finger on. Perhaps it was singing in English with a loss of the cold harsh accent, the translation mostly good but occasionally raising a giggle, or something about the tone, or more likely something not coming from the pit, for the music is where Shostakovich said he wrote what he wants you to feel about her, or perhaps it was the least successful part of the staging, but whatever it was, I didn't really care when she took to the river. I felt nothing. 

Simon O'Neill's Sergei was her equal, in difficulty and execution. How high does that tessitura lie! Surrounded by young stud bods, he was at some physical disadvantage, his big bulky body not the best in show (looking remarkable like Heppner actually), but then he was a dishevelled rough bloke into rough aggressive penetration.

"Kiss me so it hurts my lips

And the blood rushes to my head

And the icons fall from their shelves"

John Wegner was the most complete character for me. I don't believe this man. I couldn't take my eyes off him when he was on stage and his masturbation scene (does it get any more difficult) was I thought profoundly moving, the tragedy of it, alcohol fueled, the very essence of attacking what you actually are yourself. He scared me. The terrifying scene of his manifestation as ghost of projected fear was rivetting.

Of the others Domenica Matthews commanded stage attention of a similar order. Kanen Breen continues his run of brilliant character roles, this time as the drunk. Jacqueline Dark's cook rape scene is a triumph for her, and especially too I think for Zambello. My only quibble was with Warwick Fyfe's Chief of Police. Shostakovich mocked the authoritarian state, but Russian police take Russian police very seriuosly, and his character verged just a bit too far into campy G&S for me. I would have been happier with words and music telling one story, bodies telling another. Well sung though. 

All this played out on Hildegard Bechtler's brilliant mid 20C sets for Acts 1 & 2 & 3, anywhere, anytime. Act 4 however just didn't seem right. The stage was now contained by a cyclorama, not a good thing for this stage, it shows all of its weakness and none of its strengths (depth), and Tess Schofield's costumes veered a bit off track, the guards more like leather Nazis than heavy coated Siberians, unless this too was to broaden the time frame. Why they weren't given the opportunity to disappear into nothingness upstage as the scrim suggested I don't know.

We were better prepared than last time for this work, K araldited to a chair for weekends past, as we played it through, and through, and.. I missed Hickox, that's all I'll say. The placement of brass outside the pit was not new; I think it had been done at ROH for this opera. It was better than getting a choked blurt from below, and surely was better for OH and S. but there was a downside. The dynamic shift was so great as to be distracting from the drama, when all your attention was directed to how, not what, they were doing, and it was one-sided, and sounded one-sided, lop sided. I wondered if they could have sat either side of the proscenium.

We left drained, discussing more the state of the world and the spiral into choas (K is a closet pessimist, not much help from me there) than the details of this shocking work, its shocking score, the tumescent brass, the toy soldier mock authoritarian marches, the dreadful last chord. We had been given the big picture. Thank you to everyone involved.

And thank you to the late Richard Hickox. This should be videod. Repeat, this should be videod.

Addit 9 March:

Elsewhere the excellence of the chorus has been raised, and while I lay claim to nothing more serious than 'these are my thoughts', I agree that you shouldn't even think about this performanc without thinking about the chorus, all praise to them, and don't beleive me, believe Francesca 'they're A+ fantastic' Zambello.


Jarrett said...

Wonderful review of a wonderful production of a piece that was new to me. Despite a background in theatre, I've never been obsessed as with opera as gay men of my generation are supposed to be, so came to this armed mostly with a deep love of Shostakovich's symphonies, concertos and quartets.

Theatrically I agree about the problems of the last act, both in the set and in the performance, but all these difficulties point to a fault/challenge in the structure of the opera. It reminds me a little of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in the way it completely shoots its load before the interval, so that we return to nothing but an extended coda, in which all the passions that drove the action remain only as ghosts and grotesques. (The satyr-play that followed Greek tragedies on the Athenian stage might be another analogy.)

Perhaps because the story was over, I found myself watching the last act mostly through my training as a stage director, and from that perspective I thought Zambello and her team did a great job. That it seemed a let-down after the brilliance before the interval may mean, in a way, that she got it right. It captured the feeling that all of life's excitement is over, and that nothing remains but a vast plain of boredom stretching to the horizon -- real existential boredom, not just the dramatic boredom in which the show began.

wanderer said...

Jarrett, good to see you (supposed-to-be is overrated) and thanks for you thoughtful response.

There is a gear change in there isn't there, but I don't think it starts till the very end of Act 3 when inevitability sets in with Katerina's quick submission to the police. The audience of the day must have been horrified at what they knew was coming; we've been inoculated somewhat.

I wonder if the Act 4 problem is the Sergei convict girl episode. It tells us nothing new about Sergei, only confirming he's weak, carnal, and opportunistic. The girl is another body given up for comfort, warmth. The question is whether it adds anything to Katerina's fate, and that boils down to - does it precipitate her suicide. I'll take the position that it doesn't. She's journeyed from exogenous (circumstantial) depresssion to black endogenous suicidal depression, and in her final lament refers only to her conscience, nothing without. She going to suicide anyway (just decides to take the b*tch with her). Right, that makes it easier, get rid of the whole episode and keep the focus on her descent.

I still think the problem for Zambello, compounded by having to deal with Sergei-girl, was the set. I like your existential boredom take. Only Sergei gets to stay, that works.

While you're in the room, I think we are the only ones here, I enjoyed your post on Eucalypts and thought bubbles. Thinking about it today, it makes evolutionary sense that they're not 'fully foliaged', and carry only the foliage that our poor dry soils can sustain. Also, shallow soils means shallow roots and wind vulnerability. Gums tend to run their roots away from the prevailing winds, to brace themselves, but I'd bet they wouldn't stand a chance if they didn't effectively let the wind blow through.

Jarrett said...

I think I agree with you about the convict girl episode. As an actor one would need an answer to your question about what motivates Katrina's suicide, but as a director I might be inclined to leave that open, let each viewer have her own experience.

Not everyone can identify with endogenous depression, and for those who can't, the convict girl gives a way to construct K's motivations on a more soap-opera level, where the ping-pong of betrayals is what makes life sing.

Thanks for the response on the eucalypt post! I was so stuck on the poetics of eucalypt foliage that it didn't even occur to me, as it usually would, to speculate about the purpose. Wind resistance makes sense, especially a the tops of trees.

Look forward to following your beautiful blog.