When women in English-speaking countries used #MeToo on social media recently, French women used #Balancetonporc, which roughly translates as ‘call out your pig’. It’s the same word used by Katherina Ismailov (Eva-Maria Westbroek) to refer to her dull, boorish husband Zinovy (John Daszak), in the English surtitles of Dmitry Shostakovich and Alexander Preys’ libretto for Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. But it’s not the only animal used as an insult to the men in the opera. Zinovy’s father, the far more objectionable and leering Boris Ismailov (John Tomlinson), is not only called a rat, but dealt with accordingly; the mushrooms he chomps down on are laced with rodent poison. This male chauvinist pig/rat theme is even more clear when Sergey (Brandon Jovanovich) and other workers at the Ishmailov’s mill use a dead rat to torment Aksinya (Rosie Aldridge) as they sexually assault her.
Shostakovich’s opera was composed long before hashtags (Richard Jones’s production which returns to the Royal Opera House is based on the composer’s original 1932 version), but its depiction of Katherina is far more sympathetic – empathetic, even – than that of most murderous and desire-driven female characters in all forms of art, including the Shakespeare play that inspired the work’s title. Basically, it feels like he’s on her side.
Shostakovich’s opera is based on Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov, the same short story used as source material for the 2016 film Lady Macbeth, directed by William Oldroyd and written by Alice Birch. There are several major plot differences between the opera and the film, including that the filmic Katherine is responsible for more murders, torments her maid Anna into muteness, and ends with successfully placing all blame on her lover Sebastian and Anna, thus escaping punishment. Crucially, it also ends with her alive – and pregnant – whereas the operatic Katherina drowns in a Siberian lake, taking with her Sonyetka (Aigul Akhmetshina), the woman Sergey has by that point dumped her for.
In the 2016 film, Florence Pugh’s Katherine is implacably beautiful from the start, her dark, centrally-parted hair and deep blue dress giving her a slightly Tudor look – a bit Anne Boleyn. Her beauty and youth makes her marriage to an older, slimy man – who prefers to masturbate looking at her naked body whilst she faces the wall rather than having sex with her – particularly unpleasant. She is, however, sensual right from the start. By contrast, Eva-Maria Westbroek as Katherina starts this opera in lumpy knitwear, her hair hanging limply down, and looking both older than she is and downright depressed. Whilst she cowers in corners and hides against walls, Boris (who gets his own musical language full of pompous, bravado-filled brass) prances around her, incessantly obsessed with his daughter’s sex life and, at one point, grabbing her breasts.
It’s only after she starts an affair with Sergey that her attitude – and in this production – appearance transform. Act II scene V, after a short interlude, opens with both the house’s interior decoration and Katherina having had make-overs to make Cher in Clueless proud. Westbroek, who created the title role in the opera based on the life of Anna Nicole Smith, changes into a bottle blonde who has thrown out the intarsia cardigans in favour of silk slip dresses (and presumably ramped up the heating to keep out the Russian draughts).
Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes are shamelessly fun – as are other borderline camp moments of the production, such as the schlock horror reveal of Zinovy’s decapitated body. And as with Max Webster’s recent stage version of Fanny and Alexander at the Old Vic, this frivolity has a genuine purpose – both works rail against restrictive, puritanical policing of behaviour. In the case of Shostakovich’s opera, it’s situated specifically within a celebration of sex and (female) desire. Which isn’t to say he is arguing that murder is justified, but that desperate acts of passion are, at the very least, understandable.
It’s a shame, then, that the actual sex scene between Katherina and Sergey culminates with a comedy Carry On bonk inside a wardrobe (unless the real reason she needed a new set of clothes is that her knitwear got ruined in this moment of passion). An opera that endorses its heroine’s sexuality so much deserves a sex scene that’s less… British.
The most intriguing part of the Oldroyd/Birch film is the slipperiness of Katherine. She’s consistently hard to fully root for because, despite her loveless marriage and despicable father-in-law, she goes on to commit numerous violent and cruel acts – including towards those who truly don’t deserve it, such as Anna and a young child who may, or may not, be her husband’s son with another woman. With the action relocated to northern England, the film kept the ‘Lady Macbeth’ part of the title, and in doing so plays off the Shakespearean character’s reputation as merciless. Shostakovich, in a similar way to the dance work Lady Macbeth: Unsex Me Here by Company Chordelia and Solar Bear, pulls instead on different threads of Lady Macbeth’s character. Namely, the guilt that eventually overpowers her, and a basic understanding of her as one of very few female characters surrounded by – in this case – pigs.
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is on until 27 April 2018 at the Royal Opera House. Click here for more details.