Last night was Schostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Bolshoi. I have never seen this opera before, and this performance was a decent introduction to it. Also, there were English supertitles! I wasn’t sure whether to expect these or not, and it was a pleasant surprise. The performance was not in the Bolshoi’s main theater – a certain amount of confusion over this point led to a dash around a police barricade (there was some big shot attending the other performance, I guess) and over to the other theater and through the metal detectors and into the theater and to our seats just in time.
This production was fairly staid visually. You get a big wooden barn-like structure that is storehouse and house for the family; the third section (the wedding) takes place in this space as well, and there is a prisony-looking prison for Act 4.
And ye gods the stage direction. It ranged from functional to extremely awkward – the worst bits were the part in the first act where the men are tormenting/teasing/groping the maidservant. This just did not work. The same was true for when Sergei and Katerina fall into one another’s arms later on. They do this, and lie down on the bed, and then they have to get up and leave the stage because another scene is beginning. The acting was about par with the stage direction. Functional most of the time, but that was it.
But the orchestral playing was great. My favorite parts were the solo cello at the bit near the beginning where Katerina is going to bed and is complaining about her life and also the violin bit when she leaves her father in law to get the poison to kill him. The orchestral interludes between the acts, and particularly the orchestral music of the fourth act were great. This actually had the unfortunate effect of showing up the limits of the acting/direction: in Act IV, when Katerina and Sergei are in prison, there is a great big noisy orchestral climax right before Katarina has a monologue about how she is going to find a certain dark pool in the woods and throw herself in. What you see on the stage didn’t match emotionally at all with the size and expressiveness of what you heard from the orchestra. (Also: the sound in that hall is very intense – it’s not a huge space.)
The singing was pretty good. Elena Zelenskaya (Katerina) has a big, solid-sounding voice, and in Katerina’s various monologue bits, where the stage direction couldn’t get in the way as much, she was at her best. The tenor who has a smallish part as a laborer and the guy who finds the body of Katerina’s husband also had a nice sound. And the chorus did a great job with the opening section of Act IV which is repeated at the opera’s close. In general, the performance gathered punch later on – the fourth act was my favorite part.
And you did get glimpses of the dark, bizarre humor that is part of the story – e.g. the priest’s song in Act II about how ‘hey, sometimes people just die’ or the bit with the police and the nihilist in Act III. In general, the impression I got of this opera from this performance is something that could really hit you hard if done right. But this particular production/performance lacked charisma – despite all that great music.