Ole Anders Tandberg’s new production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District marks the Norwegian première of this opera. The production is violent, vulgar, and at times disconcertingly comical, just like the work itself. Sadly, the effect was somewhat diminished by a seeming reluctance to let the tragedy speak for itself.

Shostakovich’s opera tells the story of Katerina Izmailova, a merchant’s wife bored and disillusioned with her life. When Sergey, a new workman appears, she suddenly falls in love, and they begin an affair that results in the murder of both Katerina’s father-in-law, Boris, and her husband, Zinoviy. Katerina can never rid herself of her guilty conscience, like Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, she can never draw out the damn spot, and she and Sergey are finally taken to Siberia as convicts. When Sergey leaves her for a new woman, Sonyetka, she sees no other solution but to drown herself and Sonyetka in a nearby stream.

Svetlana Sozdateleva (Katerina) © Erik Berg
Svetlana Sozdateleva (Katerina)
© Erik Berg

Director Ole Anders Tandberg’s Lady Macbeth transplants the action from an isolated manor house on the Russian steppes to an equally, if not more, isolated fishing village in northern Norway, complete with 800 kilos of variously sized cod. Erlend Birkeland’s monochrome sets focuses on a single white eternit-clad house standing alone on a rock, the only sign of civilisation in a world enveloped in darkness. The house slowly disappeared throughout the opera, one wall at a time, leaving only the cement foundation for the last act. Even though the set was strikingly effective, the frequent rotation of the stage wound up being something of an annoyance, even though it was used masterfully in the final act.

The opera is filled with deep human tragedy, but interspersed throughout are comic moments that both highlight the tragedy and create a deeply unsettling atmosphere. Tandberg’s production seems to focus on this burlesque and at times outright grotesque aspect of Shostakovich’s opera, at times to the detriment of the tragic nature of the piece. There were a few moments where the opera dissolved into pure slapstick, such as the fight between Katerina and Zinoviy, where they wind up throwing fish at each other, not entirely unlike Monty Python’s Fish Slapping Dance. Yet Tandberg’s grotesquely humorous approach proved incredibly effective and massively unsettling in other parts of the opera: when the men are making increasingly lewd advances (in this production culminating in a full-on gang rape) towards the cook Aksinya, the use of fish as stand-in penises bordered on the comical – not to mention obscene – making an already unpleasant scene even more so.

Perhaps one of the most unsettling touches of the whole production was the decision to make the prevalent on-stage brass into a school marching band, complete with knee-high stockings and pleated skirts. The extra brass forces play every time someone dies or is having sex, and the Freudian undertones of seeing those seemingly innocent marching band girls crowded around Katarina and Sergey in the throes of passion made for a highly uncomfortable sex scene.

Although the production had its shortcomings, there was hardly a weak link among the singers. As Katerina, Svetlana Sozdateleva brought an immaculately detailed portrayal of the enigmatic anti-heroine, even managing to make her a sympathetic character in the final act. Her large voice shone in the more lyrical sections, even though her intonation had a tendency to flatten a bit after a while. Her lower register was equally impressive, with a round tone that effortlessly cut through the orchestra.

Magne Fremmerlid (Boris) © Erik Berg
Magne Fremmerlid (Boris)
© Erik Berg

As Sergey, Alexey Kosarev’s dark tenor sounded almost baritonal at times. While I would have liked just a little more edge to the voice, he was clearly audible, and while the character never appeared even remotely sympathetic, Kosarev’s Sergey was nuanced and very well acted. Magne Fremmerlid’s Boris certainly had an imposing stage presence, but he sounded strangely underpowered at times, and on several occasions, he was drowned out by the orchestra.

Yet, perhaps the most memorable performance of the evening came from Knut Skram’s Old Convict. Skram is one of the great veterans of Norwegian opera, making his debut 50 years ago this weekend, and his song detailing the convicts’ journey to Siberia was hauntingly sung. Skram’s voice is in remarkably good condition, and his expressive talents were more than apparent.

The orchestra had an almost surprisingly slender sound, considering its sheer size, but there were still some gloriously loud moments. Conductor Oleg Caetani seemed to highlight the almost austere nature of the orchestral texture, with a harshness that fit the music well.

Ole Anders Tandberg’s production of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District is deliberately provocative. The liberal use of violence, sex and macabre humour made this a shocking experience, one that isn’t forgotten lightly. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that the impact would be so much greater, had the production been reined in just a little.