The week in classical: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; Kátya Kabanová; Haitink at 90 – review

Tower Ballroom, Birmingham; Theatre Royal Glasgow; Barbican, London
Birmingham Opera Company excels with an unforgettable Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. At Scottish Opera, a great season for Kátya Kabanová continues

Opera shouldn’t ever deliver normality, but there are a few basics we might expect: a seat to sit on; orchestra and conductor in front of us; the action at a safe distance, especially when, as in Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1934), that action teems with rats, poisoned mushrooms, a dead husband in the chest freezer and plenty of adulterous pneumatic sex, noisily and graphically illustrated by the music. (The composer dedicated the work to his first wife. They had issues.)

Birmingham Opera Company’s only norm is to upturn all norms. It changes lives. Since the company’s foundation by Graham Vick and Simon Halsey in 1987 as City of Birmingham Touring Opera, it has always walked on the wild side and asked its audience to come too. This might involve standing for three hours in promenade, or being alienated by blinding searchlights; or, in some instances, commanded to climb into a sack or wear a mask or put a brown paper bag over your head. BOC has exploded the way we experience the art form, unrivalled trailblazers for opera up close.

Watch Gamar’s story of working for BOC as a translator and mentor.

Vick has remained the company’s inspiration and artistic director, committed to working with a 150-strong community of local singers and actors – including refugees from Syria and Sudan – many of whom come each year and bring friends. The soloists are international professionals. Standards are formidably high. Vick treats every staging with the same rigour he brings to his work for international opera houses. (His new production of Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt opens at La Scala, Milan in May.)

Lady Macbeth, BOC’s 50th production, is perhaps its most brilliant so far, praise in itself given the company’s impressive track record: Wozzeck, Fidelio, Otello; Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, Tippett’s The Ice Break, Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht with its helicopter quartet among them, all subjected to Vick and his team’s daring, encompassing approach. The venue for this latest staging was the disused Tower Ballroom. Its central wooden dancefloor intact, it provided a ghostly backdrop to the staging: chorus wearing competition-style numbers, couples moving stiffly as if in a half-dead last dance. Full credit to Banksy collaborator Block 9 for designs, Ron Howell (movement), Giuseppe Di Iorio (lighting) and Jonathan Laird (chorus) for bringing coherence to a sprawling work in a cavernous space.

Shostakovich’s youthful masterpiece, written when he was 26, enjoyed early success but was denounced by Stalin and banned in the Soviet Union until 1961, not least for its empathy towards its murderess heroine, the love-starved Katerina Izmailova. Its scurrilous treatment of the police, the church and morality in general, not to mention a brazenly satirical (but emotionally potent) score, did not help. Shostakovich turned away from opera, leaving only unfinished efforts and an operetta about the Soviet housing dream, Cheryomushki (1959).

Relishing the music’s lurid and caressing colours, and on rigorous form, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra sat with their backs to us facing a blank wall. An additional brass band, in various garbs, joined in the action. The conductor Alpesh Chauhan, Birmingham-born and nurtured but with a fast-growing international reputation, was hidden to the rear, visible instead on the many screens for singers to follow. However many BOC productions you see, being caught in the performers’ crossfire never grows comfortable. The stampede of brides wielding hammers, saws and meat cleavers set the nerves jangling, but no more so than being at arm’s length from the powerful anger of baritone Eric Greene singing Boris, Katerina’s boor of a father-in-law.

Did the tenor Brenden Gunnell, making his BOC debut as the lover Sergei, realise he’d be down to his smallest smalls, required to indulge in such rampant physicality his modesty was almost compromised? He sang with brawny charm and threw himself about with carefree aplomb. The mezzo-soprano Chrystal E Williams deserved her roars of praise for her portrayal of Katerina, fearless and expressive, raw but nuanced. Thirty two private funding bodies, as well as the Arts Council, England and Birmingham City Council are credited with supporting BOC. May they continue, never mind the state we’re in.

Watch a trailer for Scottish Opera’s Kátya Kabanová.

Another isolated wife called Katerina who takes a lover and drowns, another 20th-century opera. However many times you see Janácek’s Kátya Kabanová, staged already this season by the Royal Opera House and Opera North, it yields revelation. Scottish Opera’s new production by Stephen Lawless is conducted with pace and urgency by Stuart Stratford – some first-night glitches in the strings will settle – and designed with desolate beauty by Leslie Travers (lighting by Christopher Akerlind). It’s updated to a 1970s Soviet industrial waterland of rust, sluice, corrugated iron, reed beds, sludge. Tarkovsky’s Stalker is never far from mind.

Set on two levels, bridge and river bank, the story is slightly muddied initially but works with devastating coherence in the final act. The American soprano Laura Wilde’s Kátya, making a striking house debut, is outwardly meek, bewildered, the girl in the mumsy frock. Inwardly she’s an eruption of desire and guilt. It’s a telling, sympathetic reading. In an accomplished ensemble cast, Patricia Bardon stood out as a cold, corvine Kabanicha. Hanna Hipp’s Varvara had tenderness and dash. Ric Furman’s Boris, the lover, was played as sharp-suited opportunist, off at the first sign of trouble. It rendered Kátya’s passion all the more illusory and terrible.

Bernard Haitink conducting the LSO at the Barbican, as part of his 90th birthday celebrations.
Bernard Haitink conducting the LSO at the Barbican, as part of his 90th birthday celebrations. Photograph: Mark Allan

In the first of three London Symphony Orchestra concerts to mark Bernard Haitink’s 90th birthday, Till Fellner was the soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 22, his pure, unfussy music making an ideal match for Haitink. Then came Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony “Romantic”, a Haitink favourite. This wonderful, modest conductor’s gift is to bring out a work’s form and architecture, particularly vital for Bruckner. With a restrained flick of the baton or slight movement of a finger Haitink can trigger, from a lone horn call, an astonishing avalanche of sound. He will take a sabbatical in the 2019-20 season. We must hope this means à bientôt and not farewell.

Listen to Bernard Haitink’s 90th birthday concert with the LSO on BBC Sounds or watch on Medici TV

Star ratings (out of five)
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
Kátya Kabanová
Haitink at 90


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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