Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Dmitri Shostakovich, Libretto by A Pries and D Shostakovich After a short story by Nikolai Leskov translated by David Pountney
Birmingham Opera Company
Tower Ballroom, Edgbaston, Birmingham

Chrystal E Williams Credit: Adam Fradgley / Exposure
Chrystal E Williams and Joshua Stewart Credit: Adam Fradgley / Exposure
Chrystal E Williams and Brenden Gunnell Credit: Adam Fradgley / Exposure

Graham Vick, artistic director of Birmingham Opera Company, brings Dmitri Shostakovich's expressionistic opera to the masses and in doing so involves the local community.

Had Joseph Stalin seen his terrific, promenade, quasi-immersive production at the disused iconic nightclub, Tower Ballroom, in Edgbaston in 2019, I think it’s absolutely safe to say that director, conductor, singers, orchestra, local amateur choruses, designers, stagehands and audience would all have ended up in Siberia.

The erotic opera, based on a classic short story by Nikolai Leskov, was written between 1930 and 1932 when Shostakovich was in his mid-twenties. It had its première in Leningrad in 1934 and enjoyed a big success in and out of the Soviet Union until Stalin attended a performance. He did not stay for the last act.

A few days later, an editorial in Pravda condemned the opera under a headline, “Chaos Instead of Music,” lambasting “its deliberately discordant confused stream of sounds” and dismissing it as a “cacophonous and pornographic insult to the Soviet people.”

“The music quacks, grunts and growls and suffocates itself… It tickles the perverted tastes of the bourgeoisie with its fidgety, screaming, neurotic music.” The production was immediately withdrawn, putting a provisional end to Shostakovich’s career as a composer of opera. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk did not re-appear until 1962 and then only in a revised and diluted version.

Katerina (Chrystal E Williams), a bored, depressed and sexually frustrated suburban housewife, takes a thuggish lover (Brenden Gunnel), murders her horny father-in-law (Eric Greene) with poisoned mushrooms and kills her husband when he discovers her in flagrante dilecto. His dead body is put in the in the freezer and they continue humping on top of the freezer.

The expletive-ridden production offers sex, gang rape and flogging. There’s a funeral cortege and a drunken wedding feast plus an army of rats and a parade of brides in bloodied wedding dresses wielding axes and much of it is going on right in the middle of the standing audience. The singers are excellent actors.

Shostakovich’s music, conducted by Alpech Chauman and played by The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, is exhilarating in its relentless, raucous, raunchy excesses.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch