Image borrowed from www.roh.org.uk

Image borrowed from http://www.roh.org.uk

Unfortunately I left it a bit long to get around to writing about this, and most of the detail has vanished from my memory (which was the main reason I started writing reviews in the first place). Nevertheless, I try…

As with Maskarade last year, this was a case of first experience with the opera of a composer whose orchestral works I have loved for a long time. I was listening to Shostakovich’s symphonies long before I took any interest in opera, and in a way it’s quite odd that I hadn’t got around to exploring this work yet. I’m glad I did, as I enjoyed the performance very much, but musically it didn’t move me as much as many of his other works. The elements were there: long twisting melodic lines, big scrunchy discords, dark tonality (no, I’m not entirely sure this attempt at description makes any sense) and of course his fabulous woodwind writing – and yet, something not quite there. Perhaps it was the lack of structure – or rather, the more free-form structure of theatrical music as opposed to concert works?

Pappano did an excellent job with the orchestra; I’m never quite sure what to expect with him, as I’ve heard him direct some absolutely wonderful performances, but also some slightly ropey ones. This was a good one. The whole orchestra were on good form, although I have to note that the stand-out performance from the pit was, for me, the piccolo (now there’s a shock). Seriously though, it was so good at times that I forgot to listen to the singers.

The production was set at some point in the 20th century, which worked. I overheard someone from the audience talking about inconsistencies, but I didn’t notice at the time and have now forgotten what they were anyway. Katerina (Eva-Maria Westbroek) was rather sexy, despite being frumpy and sulky – at least, in Act 1. Full, dark-toned voice that I liked too, although maybe a little strident at the top? The tenors were perfectly decent, but the voices of neither John Daszak (a suitbaly useless Zinovy), Christopher Ventris ( a brutish Sergey) or Peter Bronder (a highly entertaining ‘Shabby Peasant’) made much of an impression. I was offered a cheap ticket for this and booked before looking at the cast list, and was not enthralled to see John Tomlinson down as Boris. I have tried on several occasions to enjoy his singing, as so many people seem to rate him, and particularly as I he seems to be in every other opera I want to see; unfortunately I’ve come to the conclusion that I just don’t like his voice or acting. Having said that, he did make a very convincing job of playing a disgusting old pervert whose bullying drives his daughter-in-law to murder him with rat poison.

I really didn’t expect there to be so much comedy in the show, although admittedly it was of the blackest variety. I remember there were moments when the audience laughed aloud – unfortunately because I didn’t write this straight away I now can’t remember what they were. (I think maybe the policemen were funny?) It wasn’t overly played for laughs though, and the scenes intended to be tragic, anguished or horrific were indeed so. Katerina and Sergey’s sex scene is always going to be ridiculous – with that music it could hardly be anything else – but this time was particularly daft as they decided to (romantically) shag up against a wardrobe, which proceeded to slide along the stage a bit with each bump.

When I was picking up my ticket and having a brief chat with the woman at the desk, she said “Watch out for the wallpaper”. This seemed an odd comment, but actually the wallpaper scene was brilliant. In the long prelude to Act 2 (I think), workmen come on stage to do up Katerina’s house for her, replacing her skinny little bed with a huge shiny pink one, her old lampshade with a sparkly chandelier, and, yes, getting up on a scaff and re-wallpapering the whole set, all in a few minutes. Wasn’t impressed with Katerina’s glamorous new look, though – voluminous satin dressing-gown thing and a bright yellow wig, neither with her wedding outfit in Act 3. She looked more attractive in Act 1 with her frumpy cardie, pigtail and funny blue stockings.

Act 3 was generally played for laughs, although not at all in a bad way, with a sardonic police chief and drunken peasants rolling around on the floor. Even Boris’s ghost was hammy. It did, however, provide an excellent contrast for the grimness and despair of Act 4, with a set consisting of two large trucks (used for transporting the prisoners) against an oppressive black background. Sonyetka (a brief but brilliant turn from Christine Rice) was really asking for it, and despite everything that had gone before (the murders, for example), to the end Katerina still commanded the audience’s pity, empathy, and even, to some extent, admiration.