Ole Anders Tandberg’s chilling production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk that premiered last season is back for its first revival. The production is as violent, vulgar and grimly comical as its première, but it now appears more cohesive, all elements working together to intensify this already harrowing opera.

<i>Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk</i> © Erik Berg (2014)
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
© Erik Berg (2014)

In this Lady Macbeth, director Ole Anders Tandberg moves the action from a 19th-century Russian farm to a North Norwegian fishing village, complete with an Eternit-clad house and a whopping 800 kg of (rubber) cod. While the locale is different, the sense of loneliness and boredom still pervades Erlend Birkeland’s bleak, monochromatic sets: a lone house atop a black rock, glistening with seawater. As the opera progresses, the house is gradually deconstructed, until only a small foundation remains. When Katerina and Sergey are taken to the penal colony, the house is completely gone, just like Katerina’s future.

A running theme in the production is the incorporation of the extra off-stage brass band, placing them all on-stage, dressed up as rather undead-looking school marching band girls, all in red uniforms, providing an unsettling splash of colours whenever they appeared on stage. Their appearance whenever someone was being murdered or having sex lent a darkly comical, Freudian touch to the proceedings.

Svetlana Sozdateleva (Katerina Izmailova) and Magne Fremmerlid (Boris) © Erik Berg (2014)
Svetlana Sozdateleva (Katerina Izmailova) and Magne Fremmerlid (Boris)
© Erik Berg (2014)

When I reviewed the première of this production one and a half years ago, I remarked that the more comic bits fitted somewhat uncomfortably into the story as a whole. Shostakovich’s music is filled with burlesque –verging on grotesque – humour, surrounded by raw tragedy, like the violently loud trombone glissando-cum-orgasm right after the first sex scene. While during the première performance of this production, I found the humour gratuitous and forced at times, it was now much more central to the production, not only being played for laughs, but having its own dramatic impetus. The grotesqueness of the humour succeeded in making this already uncomfortable piece even more chilling. The cast, largely the same as in the first run, but surely more comfortable with the production, gave even more committed performances, both musically and dramatically.

Returning as Katerina was Svetlana Sozdateleva. Her big, steely voice has power throughout the range, especially at the bottom, but the very top had a tendency of turning slightly shrill. She again proved a remarkable vocal actor, deftly colouring her voice to suit the situation, whether it be a rapturous love duet with Sergey or disingenuously lamenting the death of her father-in-law. Alexey Kosarev as Sergey impressed with a muscular tenor, although it was perhaps somewhat lacking in softer dynamics. Magne Fremmerlid was an imposing Boris, his large voice booming over the orchestra. Kjetil Støa, making his debut as Zinoviy, gave a convincing performance as the downtrodden husband, with a loud, somewhat nasal voice. Tone Kummervold once again impressed as Sonyetka, her plummy, alluringly dark mezzo-soprano proving a perfect fit for the low-lying, Slavic contralto parts.

Svetlana Sozdateleva (Katerina Izmailova) and Alexey Kosarev (Sergey) © Erik Berg (2014)
Svetlana Sozdateleva (Katerina Izmailova) and Alexey Kosarev (Sergey)
© Erik Berg (2014)

The orchestra under the baton of Alejo Pérez played with a cool sense of lyrical detachment – the string section in particular sounding like flowing ice – yet they were not afraid to dive head-first into dramatic, violent outbursts. At times, especially in the first two acts, I wished the orchestra would play louder, but for the final two acts, it was firing on all cylinders. Pérez led with admirable clarity, expertly drawing out melodic strands. There was also some very impressive individual playing, especially from the woodwind section, the E flat and bass clarinets and contrabassoon in particular. The on-stage brass, in their marching band uniforms, played with commendable balance, especially in the middle and lower registers. The sheer volume of the on-stage brass, especially of the trumpets, was thrilling.

Tandberg’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk proves, in its first revival, an even more impactful performance than in the original run. With totally committed performances from all involved and an utterly gripping production, this is a must-see.

*****