As the opera goes, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk is a pretty big deal, officially the 54th most produced operatic work in the world. On first blush, it may not appear the immediate choice for the Birmingham Opera Company—increasingly known for using diverse and unusual locations to bring opera to people in an accessible way—to adapt, yet it turns out to have been an inspired choice by artistic director Graham Vick and his team. This was a sublime three hours of performance.
Now, full disclosure: what I know about opera I could write on the back of a postage stamp. Indeed, as it is for many people from working class backgrounds, the opera for many years was a form that felt arch, alienating and difficult to engage with on a relatable level. Here lies the skill of the BOC, in tandem with the marvellous City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra—conducted here by the excellent Alpesh Chauhan—who bring Lady Macbeth of Mtensk to the glorious Tower Ballroom; a century old, now abandoned classic big band ballroom in Birmingham’s Edgbaston district.
With a sense of faded glamour marked by urbanisation and the passage of time, partly thanks to some impressive production design which ripped the guts out of the place, the Tower Ballroom serves as a great stage for Dimitri Shostakovich’s work, which tells the story of a wife in a loveless marriage, abused by her powerful father in law, who falls into a passionate affair with a roguish labourer. Originally mounted in Russia in the 1930’s, and subsequently banned by the Communist regime (reputedly thanks to a review by a young Josef Stalin) for three decades, Vick’s adaptation is a dark, absurdist, surrealist 1980-set erotic farce with a bitter tang.
On arrival, as an audience choreographed on your feet for the entirety of the performance, you are greeted by immersive front of house; members of the sizeable chorus weaving, in character, in and out of audiences as they wait, dressed in faded ballgowns or as listless cleaners, or in more surrealist scenes as bare chested wrestlers fighting on mounted beds or people in rat masks seductively pole dancing. The rats serve as a powerful metaphor for the journey the wife takes, and the dark deeds she is driven to, but operate on a basic level as a creepy, arresting sight. From the moment of arrival, you feel the story undulating around you.
This continues across what becomes a deeply unsettling, and at times deeply erotic, piece of work. Crystal M Williams makes for a superb soprano as Katarina, the wife; lonely and bored, she is at the mercy of men determined to exact their psycho-sexual power over her, particularly her father in law Boris (Eric Greene, a commanding and magnetic baritone) and her eventual lover Sergei, performed by Brenden Gunnell, a devilish tenor who matches Williams brilliantly, with an unexpected level of sexual chemistry, despite her being an elegant black woman and he a portly white man. For those like me in the audience without an operatic appreciation, the quality of the performers, and a magnificent chorus, are particularly important to engage you, and the cast were utterly mesmerising throughout.
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It helps that Shostakovich, one of Russia’s greatest composers in its history, gives you an incredibly beautiful, haunting and frequently tragic amount of music to accompany the histrionics of the play itself. It compliments an opera which has been reimagined for the present day to be less the kind of insurgent, politically threatening polemic that troubled the powers of Soviet Russia, and rather a timely comment on the sexual supplication of women, of the abusive power of entitled men, and in this case the terrible actions such trauma drives Katarina to in order to escape it.
An inspired work from the Birmingham Opera Company in a fabulously evocative setting and on a functional level, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk made someone with zero previous interest in or appreciation of opera want to know more about the form. Oh and by the way, no this doesn’t have anything to do with Shakespeare…
Lady Macbeth of Mtensk was performed at the Tower Ballroom, Birmingham, between March 9-17th, 2019.