Opéra National de Paris’s Lady Macbeth de Mzensk is coherent, crude and intensely musical

Ingo Metzmacher
Financial Times

If opera had a bad sex award, it would surely go to Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Stalin called the work pornographic, and he had a point: the sex scenes are many, brutal, and mercilessly explicit.

In the Paris Opera’s new production, director Krzysztof Warlikowski wastes no time on euphemisms. We meet Katerina at home in her father-in-law’s slaughterhouse, a crude environment of polished steel and pig carcasses. We are somewhere today in provincial Russia or South America or Asia — it makes little difference. This is a world without tenderness, where survival is everything and sex is just a bargaining tool.

Warlikowski’s production is meticulously thought through, every detail part of a coherent whole, his people bringing history and motivation to each movement. It is also both crude and intensely musical. Shostakovich’s unambiguous score leaves little room for metaphor, and Warlkowski is, for the most part, unflinchingly literal. But there is always a little more. The woman raped by the workers is also the unhappy mistress of Katerina’s brutish father-in-law. Katerina watches the rape from the shadows, smoking, and intervenes only because she desires Sergey. Later, the girl takes revenge by partnering with the police chief. It is she who points out Zinovi’s body, wrapped in plastic and hung by the feet with the pig carcasses. It is a gruesome coup, horrid, obvious only in retrospect.

Ingo Metzmacher conducts with corresponding violence, effectively vulgar, always in control, seldom subtle; the orchestra rewards him with slick yet forceful playing. The cast is uniformly strong, dominated by Ausrine Stundyte’s Katerina. She is powerful yet vulnerable, able to combine force and nuance. It is her yearning for love that drives the action; you grieve for its futility. John Daszak, in what surely must be the worst wig of his career, makes an admirably petulant, ineffectual Zinovi, easily supplanted by Sergey, a role to which Pavel Cernoch brings both feline grace and loutish opportunism. Dmitry Ulyanov is a repugnant, eminently poisonable Boris with fabulous low notes. The chorus is on top form.
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