Probably La Plata´s Teatro Argentino has never started a season with such a bang. The local premiere of Shostakovich´s "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" is the first time ever that a Russian opera is given there, and in Russian. To boot, excepting the protagonist, who is Lettish, the whole cast was Argentine or in one case Chilean, and they all sang with very reasonable phonetics and authenticity. And the opera is a raging, roaring masterpiece written by a 26-year-old genius on one of the most sordid plots ever attempted.
The trajectory of this opera has been fraught with drama. Shostakovich, born in 1906, began his career when Lenin was in power; both him and his Minister of Culture Anatoly Lunacharsky supported renovation in art and it was in this stimulating atmosphere that the young composer developed. But after 1930 Stalin took over and a couple of years later Lunacharsky was relieved of his post; things changed drastically, as Stalin promoted Socialist realism and clamped down on innovation, wanting a simple and direct art for the masses.
When he was only 24 (1930) Shostakovich wrote that hilarious satire, "The Nose", based on a tale by Gogol; the Colón saw splendid performances of it in 1994 and 1996 by the Moscow Chamber Opera. "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" had its first performance on January 22, 1934, at the Maly Theatre in Leningrad, with a rousing success; during the two following years it was even premiered in New York. But in January 1936 Stalin saw it and stalked indignantly out, angry at the strong eroticism and apparently some very dissonant musical passages. A period of ostracism came about; the composer decided not to publish his radical Fourth Symphony, and was vindicated for a while by his Fifth Symphony (1938). It was only upon Stalin´s death that Shostakovich revised "Lady Macbeth", softening it and calling the opera "Katerina Ismailova"; the premiere met with great approval on January 8, 1963, at the Stanislavsky Theatre in Moscow. This version, though in Italian, was presented by the Colón in 1968. Later on the original version was revived, especially by Mstislav Rostropovich, and eventually it was given at the Colón with his conducting on March-April 2001.
Nikolai Leskov (1831-95) was a prolific writer who stressed rural life in a wide variety of themes; his "Lady Macbeth of the District of Mtsensk" dates from 1865 and according to Shostakovich "there is probably no other work that describes with such accuracy the position of Russian women in the prerevolutionary period". The story happens in a small rural town in 1840. Both Katerina and her lover Sergei murder her father-in-law and her husband, and eventually get their comeuppance.
The libretto is by Shostakovich and Preis. The music, though tonal, is frequently quite dissonant and shocking, but there are also episodes of tragic Mussorgskian cantilena, of deep sarcasm, of mass frenzy, of purple eroticism. The imagination of the orchestral writing is enormous, and vocally there are many moments of strong lyricism.
Although I have some reservations, I´m full of admiration for the overall level of the Argentino´s performances. A cast without a weak link (allowing for some differences in quality), a fantastic choir, a much improved orchestra under a brilliant conductor, and a staging that, notwithstanding some conceptual bad decisions, was executed with first-rate professionalism, all were quite beyond common standards. True, the production had already been presented last year at Santiago de Chile with the same three principals, which certainly helped.
The protagonist was simply stunning: Natalia Kreslina (debut) is a beautiful woman with feline agility and a lithe body, an involved and convincing actress and a dramatic soprano of sustained power and stamina. Enrique Folger as Sergei has done nothing better: he has the "physique du rôle" and he sang with very firm and often attractive tones in a strong assumption of the cad. Hernán Iturralde, looking a bit young for the part, doesn´t have the deep sound of a Russian bass but he sang and acted with presence and character. I found Chilean tenor Pedro Espinoza very effective as the husband, sounding out with clean projection of the frequent high notes. Carlos Bengolea was adequate as the Drunken worker, Gustavo Gibert perfect as the corrupt Chief of Police, Ariel Cazes acceptable though light as the tipsy pope and the Old Convict, Alejandra Malvino professional as Sonyetka, Sonia Schiller stalwart in the ungrateful part of Aksinia, and the others in the picture.
The Chorus under Miguel Martínez was simply splendid, and the Orchestra responded to the talented conducting of Alejo Pérez with astonishing punch and precision, apart from very minor slips. The production by Marcelo Lombardero was well supported by functional stage designs by Diego Siliano and costume designs by Luciana Gutman and by intelligent lighting by José Luis Fiorruccio. But he changed the setting from a farm to a slaughterhouse and the timing to about 1950, and I disliked this. He used projections in some scenes, evoking well the preparations for the wedding but choosing badly in the final scene which needs the vital presence of the river where Katerina and Sonyetka drown…but there was no river. A botched moment was putting the husband´s body in what looked like a safety box. Otherwise Lombardero veered from well-observed satire to unconvincing erotic gropings. But the adjustment and professionalism were always there.