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OPERA REVIEW

The pros are here

The Kirov survives obstacles and delivers a lurid 'Lady Macbeth' in all its farcical glory.

October 25, 2002|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Knowledgeable opera-goers detest the applauding of sets. But Wednesday night was an exception to this bit of operatic etiquette. How not to give a hand to George Tsypin's slatted wooden, sculptural set for Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" as soon as the curtain went up at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Built by Los Angeles Opera in 10 frantic days, this handsome copy of the original Mariinsky Theatre set looked just fine, which meant, under the circumstances, it looked wonderful. Indeed, with the raising of the curtain, it was as though the black cloud that had hung over the first Kirov Opera L.A. tour finally seemed to lift.

Two months earlier, Los Angeles Opera had been forced to cancel its plans to bring the Kirov's celebrated, spectacular production of Prokofiev's "War and Peace," making a last-minute switch to "Lady Macbeth" to save $1 million dollars.

Though the Kirov is famed for it resourcefulness, the challenge was considerable, given that the company is performing Shostakovich's opera daily for a week. "Lady Macbeth" has enough punishing roles that, with this schedule, seven roles require multiple, mostly triple, casting. Yet with minimal rehearsal, and the company's artistic director, Valery Gergiev, maintaining his typically overextended schedule, the show still went on Wednesday without noticeable hitch.

By giving Los Angeles its first major production of Shostakovich's once-controversial work, L.A. Opera also managed to turn adversity into something approaching triumph, even if the lurid, parodistic "Lady Macbeth" may not be to the taste of ticket-holders who had been looking forward to something a lot grander. Nor is the Mariinsky's notably Russian-style production the kind that L.A. Opera, or any American company, would normally present.

"Lady Macbeth" is a strange opera with a strange history. It is best known for having made Stalin mad, when he saw it in 1936, two years after its premiere. Begun in 1930 when the composer was only 24 years old, Shostakovich was still in the thrall of Soviet art's avant-garde vitality. Thinking anything goes if the politics are OK, he boldly presented one of the most boisterous operas written up to that time, a farce with humor so blatantly black that it can only turn tragic.

Katerina, a merchant's wife, the oppressed woman who represents oppressed classes, comes to life through sexual liberation in a graphic sex scene with whooping trombone solo. She gleefully overthrows her bonds, taking up with a charming laborer, and killing her obstructive father-in-law and husband.

Shostakovich conveys sex and violence as grotesque burlesque through twisted, manic, musical-hall dances, and even the priest and police are vaudevillian. But this reckless opera never stays in one mood for long, as it also explores the dark recesses of Katerina's psyche and the deep angst underlying Russian society.

Most modern productions do their best to exploit as much raw sex and violence as they can. The Kirov's director, Irina Molostova, however, is more understated, contrasting silly sex with grim life. Tsypin's set twists and turns imaginatively, but is essential a large wooden barn. Tatiana Noginova's costumes are mostly drab, occasionally farcical.

The drama is enacted as a world-weary satire, except for the final prison scene. Here, Katerina and her lover, Sergei, have been arrested, and life suddenly turns harsh and serious. Katerina commits a final liberating murder, as she drags Sergei's new lover, Sonetka, into the river with her.

The matronly Larrisa Shevchenko is probably no one's idea of the young, sexually frustrated Katerina, and if Vladimir Grishko is slimmer and more charming, it is only in degree. To see them bouncing in bed -- in huge silhouette behind a red curtain -- is downright goofy.

But both happen to be sturdy singers, and both somehow, in the end, wound up making this absurd "tragedy-satire," as Shostakovich called it, convincing.

The real force behind the performance, though, is Gergiev, who finds a depth of expression in every dramatic outburst -- and this is an opera with nothing but dramatic outbursts. The orchestra constantly comments upon the action, often making a mockery of the characters, the Kirov is a superbly expressive ensemble. Gergiev always digs for ever richer string textures, ever more soulful or outrageous wind solos, ever louder percussion whacks.

The Kirov company is large and full of life. The chorus is exceptional. And on Wednesday there was plenty of individuality in the performances of Vladimir Vaneev, Katerina's bully father-in-law, Boris; Leonid Zahkozhaev, her insipid husband, Zinovy; Nikolai Gassiev, a shabby peasant; Gennady Bezzubenkov, at ludicrous Priest; Fedor Mojaev, a Keystone Kops sergeant; and Liubov Sokolova, a seductive Sonetka.

All these roles will be sung by alternates at other performances, including no less than five Sergeis; and Maxim Shostakovich, the composer's son, conducts the last two performances.

The cloud may have lifted, but the adventure is hardly over.

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