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S & H International Opera Review

Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, The Helikon Opera, Moscow, 2nd April 2002 (NM)

Music instead of muddle


Soviet Opera is Box Office poison these days in Moscow, as maestro Rozhdestvensky discovered with his 2001 staging of Prokofiev's "The Gambler" - which was so disastrous it lost him his job at the Bolshoi. Moscow's cultural scene is changing fast, and where once high and heavy culture reigned unchallenged, the "new fat" (as the former "New Russians" are now known) like their entertainment easy-listening and unchallenging. This month the newest of three home-grown big-budget Musicals, Dracula, opened for what's expected to be a long run, and more imported musicals (such as Chicago) are set to open soon.

Against this background, many might think that Dmitry Bertman's decision to stage a soviet-era work of uncompromising violence and seedy sleaze concluding in a Siberian labour-camp, as worthy of being taken away for mental re-education in itself. But as the "producer with the Midas touch" showed, you can strike gold in those Siberian salt-mines sometimes.

The lynchpin of this benchmark production is the superlative conducting of Vladimir Ponkin, who eschews spikiness and instead finds the black humour, lyricism and scorching eroticism of this complex score. It is rumoured that behind the "anonymous letter" in Pravda proscribing the work as "muddle instead of music", two years after the first production in 1936, was the hand of Joseph Stalin himself. Whatever the truth of that episode, if the anonymous author had heard Ponkin's lush, verdant interpretation, he might have been won-over. His fortissimos most clearly demonstrate this - not merely blaring, but great blocks of sound welded-together with perfect balance and colour, providing a thrilling contrast to the subtler moments which dominate the piece. A greatly augmented Helikon Opera Orchestra played stunningly, with a wealth of solo work of great quality - especially in the lower woodwind, the violas, and violins. The passacaglia section was magnificently played - one would have loved to have this performance on record.

As with most Helikon productions, the cramped conditions in which they have to work dictate only one set for the duration of the entire piece, since nothing can be changed during the action. Igor Nezhny and Tatyana Tulubyova's set is a nightmarish factory-floor of leaky steel tubes, pipes and ducts that is somewhere between Heath Robinson and Terry Gilliam's Brazil. Sliding-out when needed is a sort of animal-cage in which Boris Timofeyovich locks his daughter-in-law Ekaterina, the "Lady Macbeth" character.

Before even mentioning the principals, foremost praise must go to the fantastic performance of the Helikon Chorus, who dominate the work. On-the-button musically and vocally, they brought a dynamism to the dramatic action which carried things forward at an inexorable pace. Yuri Ustyugov's movement-work resulted in brisk, realistic crowd scenes. The sexual molestation of Aksinya was violently graphic, and for those still unclear what was being planned, those not directly involved in abducting her carried-out "factory work" rhythmically shoving huge section of steel piping into machine "orifices" of different kinds. The male chorus shone as the wedding guests, exiting the stage as a drunken dancing conga-line to the pseudo-burlesque music. Their rapid return as the cops in pursuit was another great moment, ably animated by Denis Kirpanev as a swaggering Sergeant with an idiotic grin and a short temper.

Svetlana Sozdateleva gives a heroic vocal performance in the title role, and rightly deserved the public accolade she received for it. It was fabulous to hear a big dramatic voice in this music that was still note-perfect and practically without an oscillating vibrato - a super technical performance. No less convincing was her dramatic portrayal, which does not mince words or emotions - she's a brassy bitch without redeeming qualities. Sozdateleva is pretty although not a model - but the conviction and passion to brought to the sex scenes, which are graphic and pull no punches at all, made the whole thing totally convincing. Her partner in both crime and passion in this production is Alexei Kosarev, fresh from playing a milksop Lensky here to Sozdateleva's Tatiana. This is a Sergei you can really hate - a vile, boastful, adonistic cheat of a guy. Kosarev finds all of these traits with astounding dramatic truth, and his bright accurate tenor comes burning through the texture with exciting effect. The physical energy he throws into this performance - from leaping up and down the cage-structure to bedroom gymnastics - is amazing to behold, a truly bravura performance.

Nikolai Dorozhkin pops-up as the cuckolded husband Zinovy. Dorozhkin could make solfeggio exercises an interesting listen, and he's no disappointment here either, showing an equal ability in the extreme ends of the tessitura as he does in the regular dramatic tenor repertoire. It would be great to hear him take a try at the Policeman in Shostakovich's only other opera, The Nose. Andrei Antonov made a rather unthreatening Boris, but sang it very well. Nikolai Galin made a lugubriously amusing Priest, cadging drinks and boring the pants off his parishioners. Outstanding in the smaller roles was an excellent cameo as Zinovy's works-manager by Dmitry Ovchinnikov, and the ever-present "character man" Ilya Ilyn as a Drunken Guest who is the front vocalist for a very dodgy heavy-metal rock band at the wedding, out-Lemmying Lemmy in affectionate parody. Andrei Palarmarchuk made a good if brief impression as the Intellectual cross-examined by the doltish Police - a nice little lyric tenor.

Larissa Kostiuk plays Sonetka, Ekatarina's final nemesis - at last Ekaterina falls foul of someone who is an even more ruthless bitch than she is herself, and Kostiuk managed the difficult job of playing this role without parody. The drowning is cleverly realised with a long scarf between the two women's necks, each one pulling the other down even though she herself is dragged down with her foe.

Ponkin finds a warmth, breadth and satire in the music that allies it with Weill, and perhaps other "problem" pieces like Krenek's "Jonny spielt auf" - the jazz-influenced moments especially. Bertman's staging goes hand-in-glove with this, by turns darkly humorous, erotic, absurdist, and bitterly tragic, with great ensemble pieces and choreography. Sadly this marvellous production played to a house one-third empty. If only they knew that they had missed a piece which is more sardonic and more tragic than Chicago, Dracula or Nord-Ost, and is, in fact, the most superbly executed 30's musical in town.

Neil McGowan


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