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"What She Did for Love"

The Lyric Opera House
02/22/2003 -  and 26, 28, and 2 March 2003
Dmitri Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
Karen Huffstodt (Katerina), Vladimir Vaneev (Boris), Garry Grice (Zinovy), Leonid Zakhozhaev (Sergei), Kathleen Stapleton (Aksinya), Pierre Lefebvre (shabby peasant), Nikita Storojev (chief of police), Svetlana Furdui (Sonyetka)
Christoph Schubiger (scenery), Jessica Karge (costumes)
Christian Badea (conductor)
Uwe Eric Laufenberg (director)
Baltimore Lyric Opera Chorus

Seldom does one experience a pre-curtain announcement warning viewers of segments of nudity and extreme violence, but the Baltimore Opera's production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk provided that experience. And, it was a warning well worth noting, for those not expecting simulated sex, rape, and murderous violence, all vividly enacted.
If any current operatic production shows the leaning toward casting singers who look the part and play the part, Baltimore Opera's did. One cannot imagine more portly performers or even those of an older school of thought wanting or even being able to go the lengths asked here in Uwe Eric Laufenberg's Dresden Opera House production, which also served as its American premiere. In this Lady Macbeth the principals, Karen Huffstodt and Leonid Zakhozhaev, are handsome, lean, and know how to act. In the seduction scenes, the raw sexual feeling was palpable and real. Whether Zakhozhaev was topless or bottomless, both of which he was, he radiated unrestrained desire. And Huffstodt, as well as several other female members, threw themselves into the moments of simulated sex with abandon. Throughout, there was exceptionally fine acting taking place, which added to the already heightened drama and intensity.
Oh, lest I forget, there was also excellent singing. The combination of true theatrical acting, brilliant staging, wonderfully thematic sets, and splendidly done singing and music making combined to make this Lady Macbeth memorable. In fact, I suspect it will be difficult to hear the score again without certain images flashing through the mind, so strongly etched was the music and meaning of this work.

Laufenberg is a true theater person, as attested to in a directorial background that is strong in serious stage drama. To this updated Lady Macbeth he brought a firmly conceived image of 20th century Soviet Union. The sets by Christoph Schubiger, artistically aided by Benjamin Pearcy’s lighting, were appropriately industrial looking--colorless, cold and impersonal. And Jessica Karge’s costumes were working class drab. There could be much made over digging into this concept’s 1930’s Stalinist era setting and its suggestion of downcast society, abandonment, isolation, and the like. But, the essence of the story remains a focus-a bored wife who, to paraphrase a well-turned phrase, would kill to love and does so, again and again.
Laufenberg brought to his production as well crafted a stage direction as you'll see. There was nary a wasted moment in the work that wasn't carefully crafted to each measure of music. Everything made theatrical sense. It seemed as if even Huffstodt's long flowing hair, which became her most used prop, was even choreographed for dramatic affect. The moments were many that displayed creative staging, from the physical transformation of the workers into policemen in front of our eyes in a keystone cops kind of business to the stunning visuals of the closing scene, with its sense of bitter, biting cold isolation. Here, the scene opened with darkness, broken by a dual banks of bright white lights glaring at the audience, with the singers in silhouette against them. The silhouettes proceeded to break up and reassemble throughout the scene, the bright lights always present, always glaring. Following Katerina's suicide, snow began to fall and the convicts reassembled upstage in front of the lights, again becoming dark images against the dark night. As the snow increased and the curtain everso slowly descended with the music, the stark image was theatrically stunning and culminating.
This wasn't a case of the production outclassing the singing, for in the vocal department, things were splendid and solid. Huffstodt delivered her Katerina with a well-directed, full soprano that easily pierced through the wall of sound emanating from the pit. Similarly, Leonid Zakhozhaev’s tenor was flexible and direct and appealing. Considering the amount of time he spent in varying degrees of undress, one is obligated to indicate that the production put his physique to good use. When paired with Huffstodt’s natural charms, the duo was mighty credible and dynamic. Again, it would be difficult imagining many singers going to such theatrical posings and lengths to convey such raw sexuality.
The large cast likewise featured solid singing, most notably bass-baritone Vladimir Vaneev as Boris, Kathleen Stapleton as Aksinya, mezzo-soprano Svetlana Furdui as Sonyetka, and bass Nikita Storojev as the chief of police and old convict. Comic relief was effectively achieved by tenor Pierre Lefebvre as the shabby peasant. Gary Grice delivered an effective Zinovy, although his tenor tended to be uneven.

Christian Badea had the score firmly under control. A difficult work to maneuver and to play, the results were stellar. In fact, the highly vocal cheers for the orchestra at closing were gratifying and justified. That this opening night took place on the Washington Opera’s opening night of “Aida” and that the orchestral performance was every bit as fine as what’s expected from Washington’s excellent orchestra, suggests there’s mighty music making taking place in Baltimore by the bay. It’s a rare operatic evening when so many elements work together. This was one that will long be recalled in memory.

John C. Shulson



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