In the last scene of Shostakovich’s opera about a provincial merchant’s wife, Katerina is humiliated first by her unfaithful lover, then by her younger rival and fellow convicts. In the Royal Opera’s production it’s a significant aspect of this scene that Katerina is bearing the love-child her barren marriage could not provide. She responds by facing the audience and throwing up. The stage goes dark except for a single spotlight.
The only feeling it can inspire is total sympathy for Katerina – not a sentiment I shared when the show was new in 2004 but one that is crucial to the emotive power of this opera. We must feel what Shostakovich’s music tells us: that despite being an adulterer and double murderer, Katerina does not get her just deserts but instead inspires our pity. And Eva-Maria Westbroek, singing the part in London for the first time, certainly does that. Heavily built but pretty, with a commanding voice and a wonderfully engaging presence, she is the Katerina this production has been waiting for.
Richard Jones’s staging – a vicious satire on 1950s Soviet Russia, ingeniously conceived and devastatingly executed – now adds up to far more than the sum of its parts. Partly it’s a question of dramaturgical balance. With Katerina as the emotional lodestar Jones’s tragic-comic aperçus suddenly seem so much more potent. So does the musical performance. Antonio Pappano is less in a hurry, more inclined to listen to the music’s old- Russian heart, giving better definition to its cynical, sarcastic surface. The picture is completed by John Tomlinson’s monstrous Boris, Christine Rice’s sexy Sonyetka, John Daszak’s plausible Zinovy and Christopher Ventris’s Sergey – a sleazy, slimy spiv with a quiff.
Here we have Pappano’s Royal Opera at its peak. And through this graphic performance we can understand why Stalin objected so furiously to the opera. It wasn’t the raw sex or “muddled” music. In Katerina he was staring mother Russia in the face, brutalised by his own repressive, violent tyranny.
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