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Culture Reviews
Lady Macbeth of Msensk Opera
By Neil McGowan
Natural-born killers

A vicious, ruthless bitch and her lover are interrupted during sex by her sleazy father-in-law – whose price for his silence to her husband is sex with her himself. Instead she poisons the father-in-law, and then she and lover-boy murder her husband when he comes back from a business trip for his father’s funeral. Their plans to skip with the cash fall-through when a nosey neighbour leads the cops to the husband’s shallow grave. It sounds like Quentin Tarantino – and in the hands of the Helikon Opera it’s no less gory or less brilliantly achieved.

It is perhaps unfashionable, or unnecessarily didactic to use vocabulary like “definitive” or “benchmark” about opera productions, when there are so many good ones around. But there are many moments in this searing, terrifying production of Lady Macbeth that would be hard to imagine better done? Vladimir Ponkin conducts the work for the third season at Helikon. His carefully-planned pacing and meticulous attention to detail is all directed towards one ghastly and heart-wrenching moment, when Katerina Izmailova overhears her lover Sergey seducing fellow-convict Sonetka, when they’re already in the Gulag for their crimes. The ending which follows – the unlikely drowning of both women in a river – acquires a credible meaning from this superbly-delivered musical denouement, for in her heart Katerina is already dead from the moment she’s betrayed. The grisly black viciousness of the plot is underscored by grotesquely comic moments, and Ponkin finds the perfect pace for the dancing conga-line of hypocritical funeral-mourners, and the absurdly anal Police Force Drill. More seriously the passacaglia is magnificently done, and the ostinato sections project the ghastly story forwards with the cracking pace of a thriller.

Dmitri Bertmann’s 2001 production returns. The Nezhny/Tulubieva designs accentuate Katya’s grimy and joyless world, in a set made of factory ducts, piping and ventilator units. The Ismailov workers are clad in black leather aprons and headscarves – whilst Katya wears an off-the-shoulder scarlet cocktail dress, and lounges on a red patent-leather sofa. Svetlana Sozdateleva is dream casting for the title role – a Wagnerian soprano with a musical background that steers her effortlessly through the complexities of the score with steely-clear intonation. She is also a sexy lady in a red dress – essential for the credibility of the drama, and her dramatic portrayal of an unsympathetic and vile character is flawless. The female roles are well served throughout, in fact. Marina Kalinina made a powerful impression as Aksinia the maid. The gang-rape scene pulls no punches – Kalinina is thrown up in the air bodily, held upside-down, slung from assailant to assailant, and sings her role perfectly the whole while. As if this isn’t already graphic enough, Bertmann has stokers and riggers thrusting pistons in-and-out in a nightmarish scene resembling A Clockwork Orange. As Sonetka, Svetlana Rossiyskaya excelled, socking it out well below the stave. Bertmann has Katya’s degradation appear in several costume-changes, and she is still in her wedding-dress in the Gulag – where she confronts Sonetka, who is now in the redhead wig and scarlet cocktail dress, and has “become” the original Katya. Igor Sirotkin was an accurately-sung and wimpish husband, whilst Vladimir Ognev glowered and prowled as the sexually-abusive Boris. Ilya Ilin had a cameo as the Teacher who is persecuted as a “nihilist” by the Police – in this production he’s a Buddhist teacher. Nikolai Galin makes a venal and drunken Priest.

The sex scenes are graphic – the production is marked “not suitable for children”, and no wonder. Nikolai Dorozhkin stripped for them as Sergey, as well as clambering all over a huge steel cage which represents Katya’s room. But this is all well-justified in the ecstatic and orgiastic music that accompanies the sex – and in the sad downward-sliding trombone glissando that accompanies post-coital withdrawal. What is surprising is not that the soviet authorities banned the work completely two years after the first production – but that it took them so long to ban an opera with graphic sex, multiple murders, a lampoon of the Soviet Police-Force and an ending in a Stalinist Gulag.

The result is a dramatic and musical triumph which succeeds on every level. A special mention is due for the Helikon Orchestra and Chorus, whose performance in this production is simply world-class. Congratulations to Bertmann and his troupe for having the courage to present this gusty, courageous and riveting production.

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