An influential opera that gets lost in the dark

Mtsensk. Hosted by the Israel Opera at the Tel Aviv Opera House, the Helikon company will perform Lady MacBeth a third and final time Thursday evening.

helkon opera 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
helkon opera 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
After inspiring high expectations with its superb production of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, Moscow's visiting Helikon Opera proved a disappointment with its Tel Aviv version of Shostakovich's Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk. Hosted by the Israel Opera at the Tel Aviv Opera House, the Helikon company will perform Lady MacBeth a third and final time Thursday evening. Revolutionary and avant garde though the work may have been at its 1934 premiere, the opera doesn't strike one as particularly modernist or original today. A major international hit following its Soviet debut, the opera earned the enmity of Stalin and quickly disappeared from the Russian stage after the dictator saw Lady MacBeth in Moscow in 1936. But the purposeful dissonance and lack of melody that so offended Stalin are no longer considered great advances in modernism (or examples of bourgeois perversity), and thus no longer generate the interest they once did. If Shostakovich had stopped composing after this opera - which premiered when he was still in his mid-20s - he may never have been regarded as more than a minor phenomenon of 20th century music. Director Dmitri Bertman's staging of this particular production - and the set by Igor Nezhny and Tatiana Tulubieva - were both depressing, and not just because of the plot itself, which focuses on the murderous intrigues, deportation and eventual suicide of Katerina Izmailova. The Tel Aviv Opera House's stage remained dark for most of the performance, though for variety's sake it grew even darker as the action went on. Consequently, not much tension could develop, unless one focused on just how indistinct the figures on the stage could become as the performance progressed. The acting, unfortunately, was characterized by an exaggerated theatricality, with the final death scene so artificial and pseudo-sophisticated that it became both irritating and confusing. In the title role, soprano Karina Grigorian proved a monotonous presence, with only a few changes in volume and expression as the opera went on. Grigorian's performance offered few reasons to sympathize with the heroine, a shortcoming that ran counter to the supposed intentions of the composer. Lady MacBeth's other performances proved stronger, fortunately, with Larissa Kostyuk's mezzo-soprano sounding as seductive as the role of Sonyetka required. As Boris, Sergey Toptygin's dark, forceful bass was credibly aggressive and arrogant - characteristics in keeping with this decidedly unpleasant character. And the Helikon Opera Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ponkin, displayed some remarkable solos in its wind section and impressive percussion work. The production also soared, albeit temporarily, with its lively wedding scene. In comparison to its Boris Godunov, however, the Helikon Opera fell short here, with performers hindered by problematic direction and a stage that simply never lit up with the drama and power of Shostakovich's influential early work.