Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk has never been for the faint of heart, packed to the gills with sexual violence and murder. It’s little wonder it was roundly condemned by Stalin, earning the now notorious Pravda editorial headed “Muddle instead of Music.”

Paris Opera’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Photo © Bernd Uhlig/Opéra National de Paris

Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production for the Paris Opera, screening at selected theatres across Australia, is an unflinching, potent excavation of this brutal work. Forget the comforts of a successful mercantile family – he places our anti-heroine, Katerina Ismailova, in the slaughterhouse of her boorish father-in-law. The set fairly reeks of blood, so replete is it with animal carcasses and cold, sharp steel.

While Warlikowski’s productions have sometimes felt more cerebral than dramatically attuned in years past, there’s no charging him with that here: this staging has a primal, nightmarish logic that hurtles, awfully, toward the inevitable devastation of that fourth act. He does full justice to this agonising story of a deeply unhappy woman, neglected by her cold fish husband, tormented by his loutish father and stuck in a community whose residents always have their ears pressed to the door.

Paris Opera’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Photo © Bernd Uhlig/Opéra National de Paris

Not every singer can rise to the challenges of the title role, or indeed, this production, so it’s a good thing Warlikowski has the Lithuanian soprano Aušrinė Stundytė on hand, who once again confirms her reputation as a consummate singing actress. Commandingly eloquent in both gesture and inflection, her performance is full of telling musical and psychological detail. Although her mezzo-hued instrument might not open up at the top as easily or beautifully as it once did, she remains a canny technician, her singing sensual and rhapsodic when required. Her portrayal reminds us over and over again just how lonely Katerina is, never more apparent than in her final lament. It’s an astonishing performance, muscular and heartrendingly vulnerable.

As her lover and partner in crime Sergey, Czech tenor Pavel Černoch is no slouch either, singing with insinuating grace (complete with heroic top notes!) and crafting a figure both repulsive and alluring. The moment he betrays Katerina, tricking her into handing over her stockings which he presents to his new lover, is appropriately callous.

Dmitry Ulyanov, Sofija Petrovic and Aušrinė Stundytė in Paris Opera’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Photo © Bernd Uhlig/Opéra National de Paris

As her husband Zinovi, British tenor John Daszak (who made his Opera Australia debut earlier this year as the Drum-Major in Wozzeck) comes up especially pathetic next to this portrait of masculine bravado, but never descends into caricature. His intelligent singing, and Warlikowski’s production, infuses him with an interior life absent from most other realisations.

He seems a man fated to always be out of his depth, regardless of whether he’s dealing with his equals or subordinates. As the hypocritical Boris, Katerina’s father-in-law, Russian bass Dmitry Ulyanov is in fabulous voice, clearly relishing the chance to get stuck into such a juicy role. The smaller but pivotal roles of Aksinya (here mistress to Boris, a highly effective directorial touch) and Sonietka are vividly brought to life by soprano Sofija Petrovic and mezzo Oksana Volkova respectively.

Aušrinė Stundytė in Paris Opera’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Photo © Bernd Uhlig/Opéra National de Paris

The Orchestre de l’Opera national de Paris under Ingo Metzmacher tear into the score with terrifying, almost crude energy, but there’s never a moment when the cast aren’t audible or supported. It’s a transparent, detailed reading that makes most of the score’s fleeting moments of beauty, and all this comes across in the cinema. It’s clearly been filmed by somebody who knows the blocking and music inside out, and there are moments given effective emphasis that wouldn’t register to a live audience. In many ways, Shostakovich’s psychodrama is the perfect piece to see on screens.

It’s a rare thing indeed to catch an opera where every element seems to work in unison – this is one such occasion, so run, don’t walk.


Paris Opera’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is screening in Palace Cinemas from May 24 – 29

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