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Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at Royal Opera House review – ‘graphic, visceral and exuberant’

Eva-Maria Westbroek and Brandon Jovanovich in Lady Macbeth of Mtensk at Royal Opera House, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton Eva-Maria Westbroek and Brandon Jovanovich in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at Royal Opera House, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Famously condemned by Stalin in 1936, Shostakovich’s graphic Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk still has the power to shock.

Until the bleak final act, Richard Jones’ 2004 production reveals more of its black comedy than its black heart, but its startling shifts in dramatic mood and musical style are captured with exuberant, stylised theatricality.

By updating the action a century or so on from 1865, the year in which Nikolai Leskov’s original novella is set, Jones can relish kitsch imagery and sharp satire, but he also upsets the social order of a provincial Russia of rich merchants, downtrodden servants and smarmy priests.

In the demanding central role of Katerina Ismailova, Eva-Maria Westbroek is most persuasive in the tragic final act. Before that, she seems too sympathetic to think of poisoning her odious father-in-law or prompting her lover to slice up her husband. Her singing is powerful and often rich-toned, but her Russian is murky.

Better capturing the opera’s febrile pulse is tenor Brandon Jovanovich as the priapic Sergey. He commands the stage and produces a heroically shining tone.

John Tomlinson sang Boris in Jones’ original production, and returns to the role. This opening night marked Tomlinson’s 40th anniversary with the Royal Opera. Happily, he remains a force of nature.

John Daszak gives vocal muscle to the impotent Zinovy, while Peter Bronder makes a vivid Shabby Peasant and Wojtek Gierlach a sonorous Priest. Mikhail Svetlov is the sleazy Police Inspector to the life and Aigul Akhmetshina’s Sonyetka palpitates bitchily.

After a first act that does not quite grab one by the throat, Antonio Pappano’s visceral conducting has a sense for the score’s beauties, and the 14-strong stage brass band covers itself in particular glory.

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Exuberant, stylised production of Shostakovich's opera features an outstanding performance from Brandon Jovanovich