“Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” at the LA Opera

The hoodoos that have bedeviled Dmitri Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk almost since its premiere, performed double duty in Los Angeles this past October. As with the seesawing fortunes of the composer himself, however,  the final notes were of triumph hard-won  and deserved.

Anticipation had run high for the announced third offering in the Los Angeles Opera’s 16th season, Prokofiev’s War and Peace in the same lallapalooza  Kirov Opera production  that had run at the Met last season – underwritten, as at the Met, from the seemingly bottomless pockets of financier/opera buff Alberto Vilar. It was not to be, however. The Los Angeles Opera encountered a $600,000 shortfall in advance expenses, which Vilar declined to meet; the Shostakovich opera,  in a 2001 Kirov production reported as costing $1 million less than the Prokofiev, was substituted.  As principal donor, Vilar’s name was replaced on the program by “a group of devoted friends of Los Angeles Opera.” Okay so far?

Not quite, as fate would ordain. In early October word reached the company that George Tsypin’s Kirov sets, bound  by ship from St. Petersburg to the Port of Los Angeles,  were becalmed off the California coast by a labor lockout and would be diverted instead to Tokyo (where the company was later to perform). Ten days before the scheduled October 23 opening, the company’s carpenters and stage crew, armed with a duplicate  set of  Tsypin’s blueprints (with instructions in Russian) set out to rebuild  the massive farmhouse and the ingenious sliding walls of the Russian design. The sound of hammering resounded  through the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as late as 5p.m. on October 23; two hours later, however, the curtain’s on-time rise was greeted by relieved cheers.

Irina Molostova’s  staging returned the opera to the 1860-ish setting of Nikolai Leskov’s original story; not for her the automobile, refrigerator and plastic trashbags of Graham Vick’s Met updating. Hapless Katerina and her nogoodnik  Sergei went about their monkeyshines in clear silhouette behind a crimson curtain, further blatantly silhouetted by the roars and guffaws of Valery Gergiev’s 96-member Kirov Orchestra. At the final curtain, the lament of the downtrodden prisoners merged memorably into  chill vapors overhead: a stunning multimedia moment..

The Los Angeles engagement – seven performances in as many days, October 23-29 – necessitated multiple casting: three Katerinas, four Sergeis, one night when two  singers shared the role of the comic Police Sergeant. There were no sensational vocal discoveries and nothing disgraceful; the sense over-all was of a series of substantial but typical Kirov nights in midseason, brightly lit by the spectacular work of Gergiev’s fabulous orchestra and the equally motivated 70-member chorus.  For the last two performances (October 28,29) conductor  Maxim Shostakovich, the composer’s able son with a solid reputation on his own, took over the podium and upheld the family honor most eloquently.

Larissa Shevchenko was the robust Katerina on opening night; Larissa Gogolevskaya, visually more believable if given to shrillness, sang in two later performances. Vladimir Grishko’s Sergei, on October 23, was that of a substantial businessman home from the office; Oleg Balashov’s performance on the 27th was pure sexual innuendo. Vladimir Vaneev’s Boris on opening night – the mean father-in-law who gets his comeuppance in a dish of poisoned mushrooms – projected a creature of infinite menace. Nikolai Gassiev, as the drunken peasant who finds the corpse in the cellar, stole the show – as drunken peasants in Russian operas always have, and always will. – ALAN RICH

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