Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Shostakovich's 'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk' burns with violent passions and dark deeds, and Austin Lyric Opera brings this torrid tale to blazing life

Arts Review

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Bass Concert Hall, through Jan. 15 Running time: 3 hrs

The bored bride, stifled inside a loveless marriage and starving sexually, finds her inner fires stoked by a strapping young stranger who shows up in the small town where she lives. They fall into one another's lustful arms and, driven by inflamed desires, violently dispatch her feckless spouse, only to have their escape into a new life together thwarted by the discovery of their crime.

To Americans steeped in the shadowy sagas of Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain, this may seem familiar turf, another SoCal noir. But here, the setting is much closer to St. Petersburg than the City of Angels – it's The Proletariat Always Rings Twice. Katerina Lvovna Ismailova is the wife of a Russian merchant, and her murderous affair earns her and her workman lover a long march to Siberia. Still, their story, from Nikolai Leskov's 1865 novella, shares the violent passions and fatalism of later American crime novels and films. And as adapted to the operatic stage in 1932 by Dmitri Shostakovich and co-librettist Alexander Preis, it's compulsively watchable in the way of a film noir; we're drawn, like moths by a flame, to its overheated desires, especially as magnified in Shostakovich's turbulent, sensual score full of anxious, sawing strings and orgiastic brass, and we can't turn away from dark deed after dark deed they inspire.

Austin Lyric Opera brings this black, torrid tale to blazing life. From the pit, Artistic Director Richard Buckley – whose ardor for Shostakovich prompted the yearlong citywide celebration of the composer's work which this production launches – leads the orchestra in a vigorous reading of the score, pumping it full of the heat and tension and churning emotion that drive its characters. Central among these and at the dark heart of this production is Brenda Harris as Katerina, the title character. From the moment she raises herself from her spinning bed and announces her boredom, the soprano projects the character's deep frustration with her life, a frustration that grows into a seething resentment as she deals with her abusive father-in-law, Boris. With his period suit, shaven skull, and perpetual talk of money, Tom Fox's Boris calls to mind a Slavic counterpart to Daddy Warbucks. But he's less paternalistic than patronizing, a scowling, surly overlord who views everyone and everything with a glowering disdain. Thundering insults in his deep baritone, Fox makes him a real threat, and as Harris watches him, her eyes take on the nervous, darting quality of a trapped animal. When she first feels the virile embrace of Sergei – Brandon Jovanovich's roguish lover is cocksure, in more ways than one – Harris' body sinuously registers the heat, and her face gives the impression that she senses a way out. Of course, there is none, but as it all goes horribly awry, Harris reveals the full range of Katerina's feelings, from tender longing to smoldering desire to steely determination to icy recognition that all of it has been for naught. After her final humiliation at the hands of a faithless Sergei and his heartless new paramour (Elizabeth Cass, effortlessly cruel), Katerina rises slowly to face her final fate, and in the cool moonlight beautifully provided by Nancarrow it feels as if the flame of her soul has flickered out.

Stage director Ken Cazan and designer David Nancarrow have sought to ground the production visually in the opera's homeland, outfitting the chorus, which is employed to move set pieces about and even on occasion to serve as furniture, in the uniforms of Soviet workers, and using three screens above the three-story industrial towers that ring in a central raked platform for periodic projections of Russian art. Unfortunately, the small size of the screens and their placement high above the stage, combined with a choice of images that at times appeared to bear little relationship to the action or the music, make their use more distracting than illuminating, and the absence of any reference to the Soviet era in the work itself makes the constant presence of all these proletariats ultimately intrusive. What matters here are the characters themselves, these hard, driven characters, and their sordid spiral into a starless night of the soul. And as long as it's focused on them and the music that speaks of their deepest, darkest selves, ALO's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk fascinates with the white-hot intensity of a flame in the dark.

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Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Dmitri Shostakovich, Austin Lyric Opera, Ken Cazan, David Nancarrow, Brenda Harris, Tom Fox, Richard Buckley, Elizabeth Cass, Brandon Jovanovich

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