Mark Wigglesworth’s arrival as English National Opera’s new Music Director was never going to be a quiet affair. They probably heard it all the way over at the Kremlin. It wasn’t so much a case of a new door opening as the existing one being kicked in. The choice of composer was shrewdly one he has a particular and very enduring kinship with and the brute of the piece in contention had already brought him conspicuous success at this very theatre: Shostakovich’s astonishing “shout out” against the stifling provincialism born of brutal and demeaning (and State sponsored) chauvanism – Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. He conducts it patiently, audaciously, and with wicked relish of its withering irony and cartoonish cynicism. For great swathes of its duration it is the blackest of black comedies. Why, Shostakovich even borrrows (perhaps unwittingly) from Gilbert and Sullivan (wondered if he’d ever heard any?) when his terminally corrupt police force take to the stage flaunting their instituionalised profiteering. Then there are the vulgar rip-roaring interludes with two (Red Army) brass bands competing against outsize orchestra from opposite boxes. An involutary image of Stalin with his fingers in his ears makes them that much more satifying.
But equally there is aching tragedy and desolation and playing from the ENO orchestra that finds real beauty in the bleakness. It is a tremendous and angry tour de force and could hardly throw down the gauntlet for ENO’s future with more defiance.
The director (and designer) Dmitri Tcherniakov has his moments, too, though some wilful rewriting of the libretto is harder to defend. Tcherniakov (whose Bolshoi Eugene Onegin is something I will never forget) is wilful but his nose for theatre (and ear for the music) sweeps much before it and among the indellible images he tenders here is one of Katerina annointing the beaten and naked body of her lover Sergei (the strapping John Daszak) against the shattering and grandiose Passacaglia that marks the death of her brutish father-in-law Boris (Robert Hayward). It is at once tenderly (almost religiously) ritualistic and blatantly erotic. And most importantly it underlines Katerina’s servitude. Her inner world is cleverly evoked, too, and it is only a matter of time before that too becomes a prison cell. The illusory premonition of her suicidal drowing is thrillingly counterpointed by the orchestra’s mightiest shriek of outrage and Tcherniakov does not allow her to take her own life preferring to underline the fact that the State had decreed her death long before the boots went in. In the title role Patricia Racette now has to sacrifice beauty to brawn but it’s still a brave performance in an orchestrally stupendous evening.