Birmingham Opera Company Lady Macbeth review

X-RATED SCENES IN A DISUSED BALLROOM

LADY MACBETH OF MTSENSK
Birmingham Opera Company at the Tower Ballroom, Edgbaston ****
Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is a perfect vehicle for the idea of community opera as conceived by Birmingham Opera Company's director, Graham Vick.
Its story of a bored adulteress desperate to break free from her stifling marriage and environment allows plenty of scope for busy village activity, and in this huge company, drawn from all walks of life (including, hearteningly, refugees drawn here to what has been up to now a welcoming country) we see all kinds of characters -- to the extent that it becomes impossible to differentiate between performers and audience-members, directed as we are to mill around the vast unseated spaces of this once luxurious dance-hall.
Vick indeed responds to the venue's history, by having us enter into what seems to be a last-century disco atmosphere, mini-skirted, fishnet-tighted dancers cavorting and gossiping. Later he makes ingenious but not totally effective use of the Tower's legendary revolving stage -- not totally effective because so much of the action is invisible if you happen to be in a visually obscured place at any time, not least when crucial things are going on at floor level.
Never mind, all the X-certificate stuff -- several juicy bed scenes, a disgusting rape, a prolonged flogging -- takes place clearly on raised levels in everyone's line of vision, making an accordingly strong impact.
But the strongest impact of all comes from the sheer musical values of this presentation. Alpesh Chauhan conducts a searing, biting CBSO with an adept feel for pacing of the drama, underlining all the tension, bringing irony to the folky passages, and, thanks to excellent CCTV coverage, drawing from the singers a quite astounding perfection of ensemble secured at such distances.
Chrystal E. Williams commits herself wholeheartedly to the title role of Katerina (in the programme-leaflet puzzlingly described only as "The Wife" -- makes it sound like some Brummie phoning into a talk-show), Brenden Gunnell is powerful as "The Lover" (Sergei), and Eric Greene makes a loathsome "Father-in-Law" (Boris). But, just as visuals were a problem, so was audibility, when so much of the sung text just could not be discerned in this acoustic..
Christopher Morley

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