Martin Kušej’s 2006 production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, revived at Teatro di San Carlo by Herbert Stöger, is brutally unsettling from the very opening. The staging looks like an enquiry on “orgasm and murder”, as the director puts it, a study in black and terror of “the entire complex of Eros and sexuality when it is put under pressure from power and dependency structures”.

Natalia Kreslina (Katerina) © Luciano Romano
Natalia Kreslina (Katerina)
© Luciano Romano

A socio-political reading, one would say, but with a robust psychoanalytic facet too, whose tone and mood were immediately established in the opening by Martin Zehetgruber's set, which evoked the bare dreadfulness of existence. The stage was surrounded by high walls on the three sides; in the middle, a glass cage where unmentionable cravings, mad sexual desires and lust for power were disclosed: that’s to say, our innermost impulses and deepest secrets which cannot be hidden.

The cage was an exhibition space, but also a trap to Katerina, one of the most fascinating roles of the 20th-century operatic repertoire. Her unconsummated marriage with Zinovy causes her sexual frustration, which she battles with a collection of elegant high-heeled shoes. But that is not enough. She unavoidably craves excitement, indulging the surge of a disquieting sexual tension with her father-in-law, Boris Ismailov. Then she has a lustful love affair with Sergey, an arrogant labourer; their illicit relationship grows more and more unabashed, provoking a vehement reprisal by Boris, who is then poisoned by Katerina: a cold-blooded homicide which leads to a massacre.

Many scenes could risk being particularly disturbing, as they were more than explicitly staged; among them, the tentative rape of Aksinia, Katerina’s seduction and her suicide. However, the director managed pretty well all of them, as their overt brutality appeared functional, nay, essential, to the structure of the drama. All in all, a dark, gloomy story as unambiguously told as it should be.

<i>Mady Macbeth of Mtsensk</i> © Luciano Romano
Mady Macbeth of Mtsensk
© Luciano Romano

The performances were excellent. In the title role Natalia Kreslina was really impressive, deploying all the shades of psychosis and lust, alternating anger and carnality with despair and angst. She sang dazzlingly throughout, and her voice and presence grew as the dreads of the story unravelled.

Ladislav Elgr was Sergey, an intimidating, greedy lover, exuding animal desire and egotism.  Dmitry Ulianov was a brutal, haughty Boris, harsh and lascivious as Katerina’s father-in-law. Both sang with self-confidence and flair. Ludovit Ludha was remarkable as Zinovy, as he brought as much as he could out an unrewarding role. Julia Gertseva made a great  impression as Sonyetka.

Yevgeny Akimov was an hilariously drunk Shabby Peasant, stumbling all over the stage before finding Zinovy’s body. Carole Wilson was an astonishing Aksinia. In addition to them, other excellent performances were from Goran Jurić as the Priest and Alexander Teliga as the Chief of Police. 

The San Carlo Chorus (with support from the male chorus members of the Mariinsky Theatre) was in great shape. They sang splendidly although required to challenging direction. Conducted by Juraj Valčuha, Shostakovich’s masterpiece sounded as dazzling and shocking as it should be. The conductor cleared the work from all superfluousness to uncover its bare emotional essence.

****1