Rocks, fish and a marching band: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin

Shostakovich – Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Леди Макбет Мценского уезда)

Boris – Wolfgang Bankl
Zinoviy – Thomas Blondelle
Katerina – Evelyn Herlitzius
Sergey – Sergey Polyakov
Aksinya – Stephanie Weiss
Workman – Sam Roberts-Smith
Steward – Derek Welton
Priest – Tobias Kehrer
Police Inspector – Seth Carico
Nihilist – James Kryshak
Old Convict – Stephen Bronk
Sonyetka – Vasilisa Berzhanskaya
Female Convict – Stephanie Weiss
Sergeant – Noel Bouley

Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin / Donald Runnicles.
Stage director – Ole Anders Tandberg.

Deutsche Oper, Berlin, Germany.  Saturday, April 14th, 2018.

Earlier this year, the Deutsche Oper Berlin presented Ole Anders Tandberg’s new production of Carmen.  In many ways, in its black humour and strong female protagonist, it’s a sister show to his Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, tonight revived by William Robertson.  A co-production with Oslo’s Norske Opera, where it was premiered in 2014, the action is relocated to what could be a contemporary Norwegian fishing village.  The single set is a rocky island, reinforcing Katerina’s isolation from the labourers and villagers who happen to be workers in a fish processing factory.  Katerina’s only company appears to be a marching band in uniforms with blonde wigs and skirts, at least until Sergey comes along.  The band serenades Katerina and Sergey during their copulation and taunts Katerina as she treats her injured lover.  Later, the band appears to become more distant from her, leading the action as it proceeds to its conclusion.

Photo: © Marcus Lieberenz/

As a way of illustrating Katerina’s isolation and subsequent disgrace, the rocky outpost seemed intelligent and cogent, particularly so as the villagers started to take it over during the wedding, symbolizing Katerina’s loss of status; as well as in the final act, where Katerina became simply one prisoner of many.  It was made especially vivid by Evelyn Herlitzius’ commanding illustration of Katerina’s journey both vocally and dramatically.

The presence of fish on the stage is constant.  Sergey uses a rather large one to kill Zinovy and both Boris and his ghost perambulate around with a pair of them.  I’m not quite convinced I understood the nature of the symbolism, or whether Tandberg provides a coherent theatrical argument for their use, but the effect is certainly visually striking.  The cast threw themselves into everything asked of them, although in comparison with last night’s Entführung, the violence seemed more slapstick than convincing – although one could argue that is very much in keeping with the nature of the work.

Photo: © Marcus Lieberenz/

As one would expect, Herlitzius dominated the stage as Katerina.  Her use of tone colour was masterful, bringing out Katerina’s isolation in clear almost icy lines.  This compared with the warmth that she found in the tenderness of her lines to Sergey.  She made a genuine effort to really articulate the text, her vocal production always open and clear.  It did sound to my ears that the voice took a little while to find its stride, the top didn’t quite emerge with absolute freedom at first but, as the evening developed, Herlitzius found her top form, pinging out on high with laser-like, theatre-filling sound.  An impressive assumption.

Sergey Polyakov brought a big, beefy tenor to Sergey’s music.  It’s a bright sound but perhaps lacks a touch of metal at the core.  Certainly an artist I would like to hear again, though.  Thomas Blondelle sang his farewell to Katerina with loving lyricism and an attractive lyric tenor.  Wolfgang Bankl’s Boris incarnated the malicious father-in-law with terrific comic timing.  The top of the voice is now dry and arid, but the middle and bottom have a slight acidity that seems ideally matched to the character.

Photo: © Marcus Lieberenz/

The supporting roles were a credit to the house and once again demonstrated the remarkable depth of talent available here.  As so often, it seems almost injudicious to single out individuals in the extensive cast.  Tobias Kehrer was luxury casting as the Priest.  The warm, rich and complex depth of his bass gave much pleasure.  Stephanie Weiss was a nicely sarcastic Sonyetka sung in a youthful mezzo making generous use of a plush chest register.  Seth Carico’s Chief of Police was absolutely show-stopping.  His diction sounded incredibly authentic, those particular Russian diphthongs really brought to the fore, and his extremely handsome, resonant baritone had genuine impact.

The orchestra was on exceptional form for Donald Runnicles.  The rhythmic accuracy was staggering, the coordination between the on-stage band and the orchestra in the pit absolutely unanimous.  Indeed, the on-stage band was wonderfully game in how they dressed up in their skirts and danced along with their music.  We were given some delectably bawdy playing in the sex scene – that celebrated glissando dragged out in a way that was hilariously pornographic.  The strings also found some genuine beauty of sound.  It would be hard to imagine the score better played than one heard it tonight.  Runnicles led a reading that unfolded naturally, always allowed the singers through but also didn’t hold back on the volume where needed.  The chorus found excellent depth of tone, impeccable tuning and great blend.

Tonight showed the Deutsche Oper at the very peak of its form in a true ensemble show.  The evening was dominated by a consummate assumption of the title role by a truly great singing-actor on searing form.  We were also given an intelligent staging.  There may have been a few moments where the symbolism, particularly of the fish, was lost on me, at least; but overall, it allowed the narrative to flow, provided plenty of comic moments and framed the excellent performances within.  This was a true company achievement for this excellent house.

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