SAN FRANCISCO — Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" contains the most graphic sex scene by far of any opera in, or within proximity of, the standard repertory. That scene, with its comically lewd trombone solo, helped make the opera a sensation in Leningrad and Moscow at its premiere in 1934 and a scary scandal two years later, when Stalin vehemently condemned it.
Now, the opera is practically common. To the delight of audiences worldwide, singers bounce on box springs while the orchestra whoops it up and the trombone does its unmistakable business.
But that is not quite what happened in a new San Francisco Opera production of "Lady Macbeth" at the War Memorial Opera House on Sunday afternoon. A couple, exposing nothing, remained standing in tight embrace, not moving a muscle. A droll brass band marched on stage and played rousingly.
After being accused by traditional operagoers of turning San Francisco Opera into a haven for Eurotrash, has Pamela Rosenberg, the company's theatrically invigorating and intellectually exciting general manager, suddenly begun practicing operatic safe sex? Probably not.
Instead, Johannes Schaaf's production tries very hard, and very knowingly, not to be predictable. While every conservative opera company sees "Lady Macbeth" as an occasion to spice up its image with a little debauchery (even the staid Metropolitan Opera gets risque when it comes to Shostakovich's opera), Schaaf hopes to shock by showing too little.
The best sex is in the mind, this production seems to say. Just listen to Shostakovich's erotic music.
"Lady Macbeth," however, isn't a great score -- it is no coincidence that there have been relatively few recordings of this so-called 20th century classic. But the opera is great theater. This is music full of outrageously brilliant effects and no small amount of old-fashioned melodrama, all of it meant for the stage.
It works, as Shostakovich intended it, in a vigorous traditional production like the one the Kirov brought to Los Angeles Opera last year, which conveyed a feeling of sheer animal intensity ripping through conventional society. And it works as realistic erotica, as in the 1992 Petr Weigl film, in which sex actors lip-sync to Mstislav Rostropovich's impassioned recording of the opera.
Schaaf's production takes place on a set by Nina Ritter that consists of a movable geometric red panel across the back of the stage, skewed windows and vertigo-inducing vistas. Its evocation of German Expressionism and Russian Constructivism of the period is well done but still a cliche.
Schaaf's staging searches for ways to morally empower Katerina, the young, attractive, sexually restless wife entrapped in the misogynistic world of her impotent husband and her brutish father-in-law, Boris. She kills them both and marries her lover, Sergei. When the law catches up with them and ships them off to Siberia, she is victimized yet again. Sergei takes up with another prisoner, Sonyetka, but Katerina finishes her off too: She throws Sonyetka into an icy river and jumps in herself.
On Sunday, the voluptuous Norwegian soprano Solveig Kringelborn proved an unusually soulful and sensual Katerina. But her reflectiveness also worked against Shostakovich's crude music, intended to embody Katerina's animalism.
In this, Kringelborn was evidently following the lead of music director Donald Runnicles. The conductor has done wonders with the company, and the orchestra played exceptionally well. The score has many solo passages, and those for violin and clarinet were transfixing. But the large orchestral outbursts, another Shostakovich specialty, were theater-engulfing and luxuriously satisfying rather than bitterly sarcastic or upsetting.
There is something good to be said about much of the cast, but in nearly every case the singers, in trying to supply a little extra character insight, missed the most elemental qualities of their roles.
Tenor Christopher Ventris brought reliable vigor to the role of Sergei but lacked the necessary swagger. Vladimir Vaneev, a comic-book nasty Boris in the Kirov production in Los Angeles last year, was here too understated.
Shostakovich created the disturbingly slapstick scene in which the maid Aksinya is sexually accosted by workers at Boris' mill; Schaaf showed it as horrifying rape from the start, with Ann Panagulias as the traumatized Aksinya. The production worked hard to keep out even innocuous slapstick, which meant that Nikita Storojev couldn't be as funny as he might have been as the bumbling Police Sergeant (a caricature that probably made Stalin madder than the sex scene).
The chorus came into its own in the Siberian act. This is as conventionally melodramatic as anything in Puccini, and the production dropped all modernist pretense. In front of a nearly naturalistic backdrop, the prisoners huddled in the cold or grimly trudged through the snow. Although poignant, this was not enough to save a clearly well-meaning production from its theatrical sophistication and polish.