The circumstances surrounding the early success of Shostakovich’s second and last opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and its wholesale suppression by Stalin’s regime two years later, are so well known that one is tempted to view the work as an act of insurrection. But in fact, Stalin’s unbending response to the piece as”muddle instead of music” notwithstanding, the opera is in many ways a model exemplar of revolutionary opera in its satirising the bourgeois patriarchalism of pre-Soviet Russian society and its tragic consequences for individuals, such as Katerina, prevented from any meaningful engagement in society.
There is certainly nothing muddled, however, about Peter Konwitschny and Alexander Vedernikov’s new production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk for the Royal Danish Opera. Vedernikov has conducted the work many times, but making his debut at the Danish house he negotiates vividly and urgently Shostakovich’s lurching contrasts between blistering caricature, crushed hopes, and tragic yearning. In a promising partnership with the house orchestra and its fine company of soloists, Verdernikov’s level-headed direction ensures that each aspect of this kaleidoscopic score always keeps the others in check.
A similar clarity — short on sentimentality but long on genuine sentiment — marks Konwitschny’s direction, which uses Timo Dentler's simple set and Okarina Peter’s bold costumes to project the drama with unflinching focus. The stage is framed on three sides by uniform square tiles and crossed from right to left by a conveyor belt, whose practical function is to allow the singers to enter and exit holding a continuous pose, but which also represents time’s indifference to individual action. Katerina, sung by Anne Margrethe Dahl, first enters leaning coquettishly against her bed in a yellow negligee and girlish plaits. One could take her for a mechanical doll, but as the character expands beyond the mercilessly enforced banality of her environment, Dahl’s movement and singing styles echo her growing sense of moral yearning and power in womanhood. Her Act I aria, memorably rendered in Dahl’s deeply inflected soprano, is delivered to a younger version of herself, an identically clad little girl. She returns later with a balloon and the two Katerinas play with it before it disappears up in to the fly tower, bearing the heroine’s illusory future with it.
Konwitschny is merciless with the other characters, who are similarly colour-coded but perversely one-dimensional: lime green for her effete and ineffectual husband, red for her lecherous father-in-law with his rancid comb-over, blue for Sergei. The latter, admirably sung by Johnny van Hal and played as a simple good-looking thug on the make, is allowed for a moment to turn back time, pushing the adulterous bed from left to centre-stage. But the action has no purchase, and as the stage closes in at the end, even the guards look terrified before they and their dehumanised charges are born off by the conveyor one final time.