None of the characters in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk come across as smelling of roses. The cynical philanderer, the overbearing father-in-law, the impotent but violent husband, the corrupt police chief, the shambolic priest – it tells you something when the most appealing character in the piece is Katerina, the triple murderess who gives the work its title. But Shostakovich’s opera brings this kaleidoscope of characters brilliantly to life, and Dmitri Tcherniakov’s powerful and thoughtful production, launching the 2015/16 English National Opera season, brings it fully to life. This is a theatrical experience to hit you between the eyes.

Patricia Racette (Katerina) © Clive Barda
Patricia Racette (Katerina)
© Clive Barda

Shostakovich described Lady Macbeth as a “tragic-satirical opera”. His score is an exuberant riot of styles, every one executed with panache. Who needs consistency when you can bring equal quality to a delicate love scene, to film-music tension building, a schmaltzy parody of jazz or ballroom dancing, Russian plainchant, a peasant wedding eulogy turned into a fugue, or a massive climax at extreme moments – the discovery of adultery, a murder, the arrival of the police? Conductor Mark Wigglesworth revelled in every note, bringing out a dazzling range of colours from ENO’s orchestra, soft and nuanced when wanted, blisteringly intense in the loud climaxes, assisted by a huge brass section which overspilled the orchestra pit into the two boxes either side. This production launches Wigglesworth’s career as Music Director of ENO, and he could not have wished for a better vehicle with which to impress us.

John Daszak (Sergey) and Patricia Racette (Katerina) © Clive Barda | ENO
John Daszak (Sergey) and Patricia Racette (Katerina)
© Clive Barda | ENO

Updating the setting from 19th century mill to 21st century warehouse, Tcherniakov gets top class acting from all of the large cast. The character of Katerina is a complex one, and Patricia Racette makes us believe in her utterly as she veers between the desperation of being downtrodden in a loveless marriage to the triumph of controlling her own destiny back to the twin despairs of imprisonment and sexual betrayal, making Katerina’s extreme actions seem inevitable to us in the audience. Robert Hayward is equally credible as the overbearing ageing father-in-law, and John Daszak plays Katerina’s lover Sergei with the perfect dose of leering, cynical swagger. The smaller roles are less nuanced and more of a caricature of Russian rural life, but they’re well acted none the less. Per Bach Nissen stands out as the police chief whose main motivation for arresting Katerina is pique at not having been invited to her wedding, while Clare Presland’s Sonyetka is a pouting sexual predatrix.

Rosie Aldridge (Aksinia), Patricia Racette (Katerina) and Peter Hoare (Zinovy) © Clive Barda
Rosie Aldridge (Aksinia), Patricia Racette (Katerina) and Peter Hoare (Zinovy)
© Clive Barda

Racette, Daszak, Hayward and Peter Hoare (as Katerina’s husband Zinovy) all sang well, Racette outstandingly so, with attractive timbre and phrasing, a great deal of emotion injected into each line and no difficulty in being heard above the orchestra. And the ENO Chorus was in very fine voice. But with such an assault on the senses from the orchestra and the sheer drama of each situation, the individual singing isn’t necessarily what you remember: what stays in the memory are scenes as a whole. The opening scene impresses: Katerina bored senseless in her cubical space, surrounded by opulent wall hangings and isolated from the hurly-burly of working life with its clipboards, forklift trucks et al. Her confrontations with Boris are filled with tension, particularly the points where he humiliatingly forces her into a show of despair at the departure of her husband, or where he is almost on the point of raping her. The sex scenes between Katerina and Sergei, and later between Sergei and Sonyetka, are graphic and unsettling without ever approaching pornography. The murders are every bit as shocking as you might imagine. And Katerina’s final betrayal is unbearably sad.

Caricature and satire this may be, but there is plenty of real meat about the role of women in the society of the time and of the destructive ways in which people can behave. I was blown away by the music and riveted by the drama from beginning to end.