Yes, there’s life after the Ring cycle for Canadian Opera Company. The troupe’s splendid new production of the difficult “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” proves that its impressive mounting of the Wagner epic wasn’t just a fluke, but that COC is ready to produce an ongoing stream of works of world-class status to do justice to its impressive new venue.
Shostakovich’s opera has been a contentious piece of goods since its premiere in 1934. Its mixture of satirical humor and open sensuality was one of the features that led to a Soviet denunciation of the work in 1936 as “decadent.” In the post-Stalinist era, Shostakovich was “rehabilitated.” He revised the work substantially in 1956, making it more thematically coherent.
The plot’s lurid machinations make it seem at times like it should have been called “The Commissar Always Rings Twice.” It deals with frustrated wife Katerina, whose impotent husband Zinovy drives her straight into the arms of lusty peasant Sergey.
The story acquires added levels of complication from the improper desires Katerina’s lecherous father-in-law, Boris, has toward her as well as the seething discontent of the workers who labor in loathsome conditions for Boris and Zinovy.
Adultery, murder, guilt and discovery all play out in the same lurid style they would in a Hollywood melodrama, but there’s always something in Shostakovich’s brooding, seething music that lifts it out of the banal into the sublime.
This is an easy work to direct in an over-the-top fashion, as Graham Vick did for the Metropolitan Opera in 1995, with a chainsaw-wielding bride right out of a George Romero movie. Fortunately, Paul Curran’s production for COC embraces no such excess. It has a decidedly film noir look, which suits the material to perfection, and Curran doesn’t shy away from the sexuality. In fact, some scenes drew gasps from the staid opening-night audience, even though the content was all justified by the text.
Curran also understands that the work occasionally dips into almost surreal, Monty Python-esque humor (as in the sequence involving the singularly inept police force), but he finds a way to make it all part of one richly textured fabric.
Kevin Knight’s sets combine a sufficient dose of naturalism with an overall stylization, and Curran’s staging is fluid throughout.
Kudos are due to Nicola Beller Carbone as Katerina, the “Lady Macbeth” of the title. Working from a sincere base of sexual and emotional frustration, she escalates into a rich portrait of guilt, madness and despair.
Timothy Noble is almost Dostoevskian in his patriarchal boorishness as the sexually obsessed Boris, and his demise has real resonance to it. In direct opposition, Vadim Zapletchny plays his son Zinovy as the perfect twit the story demands he has to be.
One flaw is that Oleg Balashov’s Sergey is neither sensual nor compelling enough to warrant Katerina’s decision to throw her life away on him. The sexual chemistry just isn’t there.
As always, in a COC production, the chorus, led by Sandra Horst, perform with full vocal and dramatic intensity and the org’s general director, Richard Bradshaw, conducted the opening-night performance with a true understanding of how to communicate the complex emotions and colors of Shostakovich’s score through his orchestra.
Any opera company worth its salt can succeed with a production of “La Boheme.” To find a glowing triumph in “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” on the other hand, proves COC is on a creative roll.