Dmitri Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk district is not an opera for those of a nervous disposition, resembling a thriller in its graphic depiction of sex and violence, and, back in the day, causing a scandal in the Soviet Union. There was no scandal in Salzburg this year, today’s audiences being more accustomed to explicit scenes on the operatic stage. Shostakovich’s music, also, retains its capacity to cause agitation and distress, especially when it is played with the excellence achieved in this performance by the Vienna Philharmonic under Mariss Jansons.

Brandon Jovanovic (Sergei), Nina Stemme (Katerina) © Salzburger Festspiele | Thomas Aurin
Brandon Jovanovic (Sergei), Nina Stemme (Katerina)
© Salzburger Festspiele | Thomas Aurin

Detail-obsessed and transparent, but always with an eye to the whole, Jansons led the musical unfolding of events and conjured so many colours and nuances out of the orchestra that one often thought one was hearing the work fully anew. Sometimes moving forward forcefully, then soft and smooth, the orchestra moved through Shostakovich’s score, giving vividly thrilling moments and, above all in the lengthy orchestral interludes, making the most of the dynamic range. The icy cold and absence of society’s empathy, just as the stark parody of Church and State, were clearly spelt out by Jansons, surrounding the warmth of Katerina’s inner life, and he found ever more lyrically affecting passages for her despair and yearning for love. In the truest sense of the word, the climax of the evening was the sex scene of Act 1, in which the Vienna Philharmonic delivered concentrated passion in an ecstatic timbre. The intoxicating rapture coming from the orchestra pit would have been enough to create a high quality evening’s opera, but to that was added an ensemble of singers who were consistently top class, turning this performance into an event of true significance.

Nina Stemme (Katerina) © Salzburger Festspiele | Thomas Aurin
Nina Stemme (Katerina)
© Salzburger Festspiele | Thomas Aurin

Above all, Nina Stemme achieved a convincing portrayal of Katerina’s ambivalent nature. In Stemme’s portrayal, Katerina is not so much the classic victim of her circumstances but rather a completely frustrated and bored, at times quite emancipated woman, who is not only desperate to break out of her golden cage and to leave her husband Zinovy for her lover Sergei. For each shift of emotion, Stemme found the perfect vocal nuance, depicting her character with dark lows and shining highs, filling the hall equally with dramatic attack and gentle tenderness, leading the listeners side by side with Katerina with a full, round timbre. At the final twist in the story, at the deep humiliation of Katerina being dumped by Sergei for Sonyetka, Stemme’s suffused her voice with a soft, pale light, turning herself into an overwhelming emotional picture of despair and resignation.

Nina Stemme (Katerina), Stanislav Trofimov (Preist), Brandon Jovanovic (Sergei) © Salzburger Festspiele | Thomas Aurin
Nina Stemme (Katerina), Stanislav Trofimov (Preist), Brandon Jovanovic (Sergei)
© Salzburger Festspiele | Thomas Aurin

No less interesting was the meeting in Act 1 of Katerina and Sergei; here, director Andreas Kriegenburg focused less on the fascination over the violence but on the nature of both characters as outsiders, who encounter each other as equals. Brandon Jovanovich gave us a Sergei of unbounded strength, but left enough space for vocal restraint. With a bright timbre and a good variety of colours in his tenor, he gave equally believable portrayals of the gentle lover, the ironic playboy and the heartless bastard. It was not just a vocal harmony between Stemme and Jovanovich: there was exceptional, feverish stage chemistry.

For the whole evening and for every character, the direction of the actors was in fine detail. Dmitry Ulyanov played Boris as a despotic patriarch and father-in-law, suffering from a nervous fetish for disinfectant spray, his bass voice flowing darkly: he showed that on an opera stage, it’s possible to make death from rat poison into a thing of elegance. He stood out as having the biggest stage presence, whereas Maxim Paster, as his son Zinoviy, who was tighter vocally, came across as pale, bored and uninterested. Amongst the moments of comedy, the most notable was Stanislav Trofimov’s drunken staggering as the Priest, while in the last act in the prison camp, erotic sparks flew from the velvet mezzo of Ksenia Dudnikova as Sonyetka. The Vienna State Opera Chorus was outstanding for their high precision and beauty of sound, especially in the last act with captivating soft passages.

Nina Steme (Katerina), Andrii Goniukov (Old Convict) © Salzburger Festspiele | Thomas Aurin
Nina Steme (Katerina), Andrii Goniukov (Old Convict)
© Salzburger Festspiele | Thomas Aurin

Andreas Kriegenburg’s staging marked out a contrast between dreary, decrepit industrial buildings and the elegant, expandable bedroom in the merchant’s family home, always working at one with Shostakovich’s music. Above all, the director gave a visual counterpart to Katerina’s inner feelings and despair, in which the scenery was continually bathed in a blue dream (or rather nightmare)  world. And Kriegenburg held nothing back in the uncompromising portrayal of sex and violence. The only weak point of the staging became visible at the very end, when Katerina hangs herself and her rival Sonyetka, which not only struck one as illogical, but also works against the libretto, which is completely clear about the death being by drowning. To my taste, the closing scene would have been somewhat more elegant and closer to the libretto. To be fair, this objection is only a high level complaint considering the outstanding acting direction and the strong visuals of the sets.

An excessive passion from blazing eroticism and raw violence, that penetrates into the darkest depths of the human soul; an intense and emotional evening of the highest musical achievement!

Translated from German by David Karlin