"This is so boring . . . I could kill myself," sings the heroine in the first aria of Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District." She scores 50 percent for accuracy, which is a bit above the norm for factual content in soprano arias. Before the opera is over, she kills not only herself but her husband, her father-in-law and a rival for the affections of her paramour.
But you should ignore the part about boredom, at least in relation to the opera's impact. Life may have been boring for Katerina Ismailova (at least until she began her life of crime), but the opera made from her story is anything but boring. In a superb new production and translation, unveiled Saturday night at Gian Carlo Menotti's Spoleto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston, S.C., it was clearly recognizable as one of the great operas of the 20th century.
Menotti has spared no effort to make the only operatic attraction at this year's festival a production fully worthy of the work. The new English translation by Edward Downes, commissioned for this production, was still being revised (for all the world like a Broadway show during tryouts) in the late stages of rehearsal and may be revised more before it is produced again. But at this point it is already lucid, singable and often eloquent--and the cast of young American singers makes about 90 percent of the words intelligible, which is the final justification of opera in English.
The stage setting, costumes and direction are all entrusted to the sure, subtle hands of Liviu Ciulei, artistic director of the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. With skilled use of a unit set mounted on a turntable, he has given the staging an almost cinematic fluidity, sometimes shifting the point of view in mid-scene with a partial turn of the sets. He also has given the acting a subtlety rare in operatic performance--so much so that he might disappoint fans who come looking for pure melodrama. Music director Christian Badea (like Ciulei a native of Romania) also emphasizes subtlety in his conducting of the orchestra (a large, ad-hoc group of young Americans) and the superb Westminster Choir.
The solo roles are strongly cast from top to bottom. Nancy Henninger in the title role is the most powerful singer in the cast, though she sings with the least verbal clarity. Her voice sometimes takes on a slightly raw edge at the top, which actually makes her sound a bit more Russian, and she is convincing dramatically as the victim turned murderess. There is excellent support in the other leading roles by Kari Nurmela, Jacque Trussel and Franco Farina, while Leonard Eagleson, Roger Havranek and Marc Embree give excellent cameo performances in minor, more or less comic roles. The biggest surprise in the cast was the superb performance of Emily Golden in the small but powerful role of the convict Sonyetka, who appears only in the last scene and becomes (quite rightfully) Katerina's final victim. Her mezzo voice has a purity of tone, clarity, accuracy and dramatic power that I would like to hear again in larger roles.
In total impact, this production falls slightly short of the great recording on Angel records, conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich with Galina Vishnevskaya and Nicolai Gedda in the leading roles--a performance that put more emphasis on the opera's sheer, melodramatic power. But as a fresh concept in its own right, it is most impressive and should become even more so in the three remaining performances scheduled for the 17-day festival.