During an unseasonably chilly Paris energized only by the blaze that consumed much of its famed Notre-Dame Cathedral, passions ran hot on the City of Light’s main operatic stage. The last weeks of the season feature two stunning productions: a new staging of Dmitri Shostakovich’s brutal second, and last, opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, by Krzysztof Warlikowski and a revival of the Catalan director Calixto Bieito’s long-circulated but relatively new-to-Paris production of Bizet’s classic Carmen, the quintessential French opera of murderous passion.
Premiering in Leningrad in 1934, just as High Stalinism took hold, Shostakovich’s setting of Nikolai Leskov’s eponymous 1865 novella spoofs provincial Russian life within the horrific story of the dysfunctional Ismailov family. Katya, the bored young wife of the loathsomely inadequate Zinovy, is crudely seduced by the farmhand Sergei. When Zinovy’s father, Boris, uncovers her passion, she kills him with a dish of mushrooms laced with rat poison. Upon Zinovy’s return, she and Sergei strangle and bludgeon him to death and then hide the body in the cellar. The town drunk finds Zinovy’s corpse while pilfering booze and denounces the murderous couple to the police, who arrest them at their wedding. On their way to Siberian exile, Sergei wearies of Katya but uses her devotion to procure her valuable stockings for his new crush, Sonyetka. Devastated by his faithlessness, Katya spitefully throws Sonyetka and herself into an icy river, where they both perish as the column of convicts morosely moves on to the strains of an old convict’s song.
When the opera premiered in Moscow in 1936, an unsigned review in Pravda that may have been written by Stalin himself denounced it as “muddle instead of music.”
Lady Macbeth has suffered a lengthy and tortured history. Composed to an atonal score derived from folk tunes, circus music, and other non-traditional idioms, Lady Macbeth did not survive under stolid Stalinism. When the opera premiered in Moscow in 1936, an unsigned review in Pravda that may have been written by Stalin himself denounced it as “muddle instead of music.” It disappeared from performance, and Shostakovich spent the rest of the Stalin era living in fear of arrest and suffering varying degrees of official disgrace. The opera was only allowed to resurface some twenty-five years after the Moscow debacle, and then only in a renamed and watered-down version. Shostakovich never composed another opera, and the original version did not see the light of day until the conductor and émigré to the United States Mstislav Rostropovich produced a recording of it in 1979. Paris did not mount its first production until 1992, and Russia did not see the uncensored version again until 2000.
Warlikowski’s production opens a new chapter in the opera’s chaotic tradition. All affects aside, the performance immediately preceding the one under review was stopped midway through when a stage accident reportedly severed part of the toe of the lead Lithuanian soprano, Aušrinė Stundytė. It was reattached, however, and just four days later she remarkably returned to continue the scheduled run of performances, albeit outfitted with what looked like therapeutic boots.
Warlikowski’s staging is unapologetically raw and brutally realistic, easily reimagining the opera within the subdued authoritarianism of Putin’s Russia. Few liberties are taken, and little is left to the imagination. The opera’s climatic moment—Sergei’s forceful seduction of Katya— is not relegated to an offstage encounter or stylized concept. Here he simply has his way with her with her active acceptance—there is no hint of the rape or even ravishment that the relentlessly percussive music suggests. Likewise, in another great moment—Katya’s realization of her betrayal by Sergei—which usually unfolds in a silent scream while the orchestra expresses her plight and horror, Warlikowski merely has her sob into the wall of the prison vehicle transporting her and the other convicts. Filmic projections capture other crucial moments. The opera’s opening strains show two female figures plunging lifelessly into the watery depths, an image that recurs at the end, when Katya indulges her grief in murder-suicide. During the wedding scene, a projected curtain runs red with blood, an utterly unsubtle suggestion of her and Sergei’s guilt.
Despite her injury, Stundytė delivered a stunning vocal performance, matching Shostakovich’s searing score, which Ingo Metzmacher led rather less forcefully than other conductors I have experienced. Her Sergei, the brassy tenor Pavel Černoch, has a lyric sound that lent itself ironically well to his character’s seedy persona; anything more robust would have vitiated Sergei’s hissable corruption. Dmitry Ulyanov sang a stentorian Boris, cruel throughout and yet pathetic in his death-by-poisoned-mushrooms. Among the supporting cast, Oksana Volkova stood out as a mercilessly tormenting Sonyetka. Alexander Tsymbalyuk, who starred in the grand title role of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov here last season, made for a menacing police chief with his profound bass.
Calixto Bieito’s Carmen, in a concurrent run, was finely paired with Lady Macbeth’s crushing realism. It is now fashionable to strip Bizet’s opera of its clichéd espagnolerie, and the only hint of Spain among Bieito’s sparse sets is the suggestion of an early 1980s malaise, an aftertaste of a worn-out post-Franco society. Against a black background, shabbily clothed choristers competed with beige-uniformed soldiers as a small fleet of old school Mercedes Benzes tooled around the stage carrying thugs and their molls.
Calixto Bieito’s Carmen, in a concurrent run, was finely paired with Lady Macbeth’s crushing realism.
Bieito’s production has been around for nearly twenty years, but it only entered Paris’s repertoire in 2017. Despite the passage of time, it has lost very little in effect. Bieito clearly wants his Carmen to be simply a woman, driven by natural feelings and emotions rather than the cultural expectations or crude stereotypes that have traditionally defined and limited the character as a flighty Spanish gypsy. In the superb dramatic mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, Paris certainly chose the most exciting singer in that category today. In an athletic performance, she was wild without being ridiculous and utterly convincing in both the predicament of her fading love for Don José, the soldier who helped her escape captivity, and her undulating passion for the exciting toreador Escamillo. Rachvelishvili’s dark timbre resonated throughout the performance, coming most overwhelmingly in the third-act card scene, in which Carmen foretells her own death. The men in the cast were similarly impassioned. Jean-François Borras admirably replaced the fading French tenor Roberto Alagna, who was announced ill and whose voice is far from what it once was. Roberto Tagliavini sang a powerful Escamillo. The soprano Nicole Car was a bit too saccharine in the role of Micaëla, Escamillo’s girl next door, but the characterization is hard to avoid. The talented young Italian conductor Lorenzo Viotti led a robust performance.