Stalin, either in person or by proxy, famously described Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as “muddle instead of music”, in a Pravda editorial that only fortuitously failed to damn Shostakovich to the gulags or to execution. What was he thinking? The way Sir Antonio Pappano and the Royal Opera Orchestra played last night revealed that score as a cornucopia of musical treasures – eclectic, to be sure, flipping deftly between genres, but in a way that’s brilliantly consonant with the drama. The only musical chaos happens when it matches the on-stage mayhem – of which, to be fair, there is no shortage in this pot-boiler of a thriller.

Brandon Jovanovich (Sergey), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Katerina) © ROH | Clive Barda
Brandon Jovanovich (Sergey), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Katerina)
© ROH | Clive Barda

That extraordinary variety gives the orchestra plenty of chances to shine, and they took every one. There were schmaltzy dance tunes, served with a lilt. There were old-time Russian folk-style melodies, soaring and nostalgic. The set-piece crowd scene “Who is fairer than the sun in the sky?” at Katerina and Sergey’s wedding could have come straight out of Boris Godunov, rendered magnificently by the Royal Opera Chorus. Dramatic sections scurried and morphed into blazing climaxes that would not have been out of place in Hollywood. The on-stage brass band was imposing. Solos from clarinet, cor anglais and bassoon were delivered with force and elegance. The one thing that wasn’t there was anything that might have reminded Stalin of traditional opera in the vein of Verdi or Tchaikovsky.

Eva-Maria Westbroek (Katerina), John Tomlinson (Boris) © ROH | Clive Barda
Eva-Maria Westbroek (Katerina), John Tomlinson (Boris)
© ROH | Clive Barda

You can read all sorts of political messages into Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and perhaps Stalin did, be they about the oppressive societal norms of tsarist times, the rape of Russia by the the Communist regime, the complaint that corruption and incompetence remained rife in Russia, or many others. But you don’t have to, and Richard Jones' production (dating from 2004 but receiving only its second revival) doesn’t: rather, it’s a straight human tragedy of sexual frustration and opportunism spiralling out of control. Well, perhaps “straight” is the wrong word: Shostakovich overlays a giant dose of sarcasm and black humour. While the last of Katerina’s murders, accompanied by her suicide and closing the opera, is deathly serious, the first two are played as grand farce. Jones and designer John Macfarlane’s setting is totally domestic – a few sparsely furnished rooms (usually two at a time, with a wall splitting the left and right hand halves of the stage), decorated with Jones’s trademark greenish wallpaper.

Revival director Elaine Kidd draws top class acting from everyone. It’s particularly impressive to see Eva-Maria Westbroek, who is a tall woman and no shrinking violet, appear small and pathetic as Katerina cowers in a corner: the metamorphosis back into a confident woman was quite stunning when she broke into the formal lament “Boris Timofeyevich, why have you left us?” for the father-in-law she has just murdered. Vocally, also, Westbroek was never anything other than totally committed, heart-meltingly smooth in her aria “The foal runs after the filly”, hard-edged and credible in the faster passages. Her voice has a rare quality of projecting to the back of the hall regardless of the volume level employed. John Tomlinson exuded his familiar relish as Boris, although for the first time, I found him short of full power. Brandon Jovanovich was a splendid Sergey, sneering and swaggering both physically and in his voice. John Daszak (an excellent Sergey himself for ENO) took on the lesser role of Boris effectively. Minor roles were strongly cast, with Rosie Aldridge notable as the cook Aksinya and Peter Bronder giving a hilarious cameo role as the Shabby Peasant who discovers Zinoviy’s body.

Wedding Scene © ROH | Clive Barda
Wedding Scene
© ROH | Clive Barda

Alternating with the high farce (the corrupt, drunken police are particularly notable), there’s plenty to make you uncomfortable. The near-rape of Aksinya is delivered forcefully, but I was particularly troubled by Sergey’s seduction of Katerina, with its strong reinforcement of the old trope that “all women want it, they mean ‘yes’ even when they say ‘no’”. In turn, the ease with which Aigul Akhmetshina’s Sonyetka manipulates Sergey and the her vicious torment of Katerina were difficult to sit through.

Peter Bronder (Shabby Peasant), John Bernays (Sergeant), Rosie Aldridge (Aksinya) © ROH | Clive Barda
Peter Bronder (Shabby Peasant), John Bernays (Sergeant), Rosie Aldridge (Aksinya)
© ROH | Clive Barda

There are some neat directorial touches (like the bag with Zinoviy's head and the blue stockings of the last scene) and the occasional misfire (why does Katerina elaborately redecorate her room after murdering Boris, and how is it that Zinoviy fails to notice?), and Jones may not have added both depth and visual interest to Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in the way that Dmitri Tcherniakov did for ENO. But this is a superbly sung and acted revival, and an orchestral performance that will be hard to beat, demonstrating what a loss it is that Shostakovich never again attempted an opera.

****1