The truth, Oscar Wilde said, is rarely pure and never simple. The same can be said of Katerina Ismailova, the complex character who drives Dmitri Shostakovich's operatic masterwork, Lady Macbeth of Mtsesnk.
In freeing herself from a mundane existence as a rich merchant's wife, she discovers new passions inside her, leading to catastrophe for herself and others. There's no mistaking the bad things that result -- three murders, for a start -- but it's impossible to think of Katerina as a clear-cut case of evil, which is one reason why she will never lose her fascination.
She becomes an even less pure and simple figure in the remarkable, for-mature-audiences-only production by the Baltimore Opera Company, which opened Saturday night after a warning to the audience about scenes of nudity and sexual violence. Director Uwe Eric Laufenberg sees Katerina as very much the product of a hideously sexist, sex-driven world that is all about domination, duty, conformity.
It's also a world of fear, for this production, originally created for the Dresden State Opera and acquired by the BOC, takes place not in 19th century Russia, but the Soviet Union of the 1930s. A sense of oppression underlies Christoph Schubiger's sets, with their industrial, impersonal walls and shadowy spaces. In such an environment, Katerina's fate seems doubly inevitable.
A severely repressed, well-to-do vixen whose marriage has long represented the anagrammatic equivalent of bedroom -- boredom -- Katerina is easily persuaded to risk everything for a taste of gratification and perhaps love with a new addition to her husband's work force, Sergei. Like Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth, she then becomes intensely goal-oriented. Her meddlesome father-in-law is quickly dispatched. Then her hapless husband returns home to discover, too late, that's no lady -- that's Ismailova. His murder does not make things any easier than the first one did. An annoying residue of guilt, a ghostly apparition a la Banquo, and the realization of Sergei's true nature lead Katerina to an abyss.
Soprano Karen Huffstodt gave a commanding performance on Saturday (so did her abundantly flowing hair). The voice wasn't always attractive or cooperative, especially in the upper reaches, but it dug into the music with assurance and insight. In the last scene, after discovering Sergei's sadistic betrayal, she delivered her final lines with great poignancy, strikingly illuminated by lighting designer Benjamin Pearcy to isolate her and her pain.
Above all, Huffstodt proved a convincing actress, generating plenty of heat on the stage. There was something tart (in several senses of that word) about this Katerina from the beginning, an earthy edge that pointed up the woman's volatility and vulnerability. But for sheer earthiness it would be hard to beat Leonid Zakhozhaev, who threw himself, literally, into the role of the serial womanizer Sergei. The tenor also spent as much time out of his clothes as in them, and gave the sex scenes an uncomfortable grittiness. His singing was mostly sturdy and vibrant.
Vladimir Vaneev captured all the smarmy qualities of Boris, Katerina's father-in-law, who is obsessed with her fidelity to his son on one hand, desirous of her himself on the other. There was authority in the bass-baritone's voice and phrasing.
As the husband, Zinvovy, tenor Garry Grice sounded under-powered but caught the character's wimpy side effectively. Nikita Storojev seemed vocally out of sorts; a lot of his singing was raspy. He still made his presence felt, though, in the dual roles of an old convict and the police chief. For the latter, he was done up as Stalin, one of the production's most heavy-handed touches. (The gimmick doesn't really fit the police station scene, which gives us the odd sight of Stalin interrogating an arrested "socialist" who "doesn't believe in God.")
Other firm contributions in the supporting cast came from Pierre Lefebvre (Shabby Peasant), Tomas Tomasson (the less-than-saintly Priest), Kathleen Stapleton (Aksinya, whose assault by workmen is graphically portrayed) and Svetlana Furdui (Sonyetka).
The chorus, prepared by James Harp, hit a new peak in blend, articulation and sheer firepower. The orchestra, too, operated on all cylinders, responding vividly to the equal parts sensitivity and momentum coming from Christian Badea. His conducting understandably won the loudest cheers Saturday night.
Whatever quibbles can be made about Laufenberg's concept, his sense of theater makes for some memorable images -- Boris teasing Katerina with the whip he has just used on Sergei; Katerina and Sergei, after the murder of Zinovy, sitting on opposite sides of the bed, their relationship already fraying; laborers turning into policemen during a clever scene change; blinding lights making the audience not just confront, but become a part of, the final scene.
(Presumably some of Saturday's glitches, including a long, noisy wait for the last scene and the sight of Sergei hopping into bed after Katerina sings "He's still asleep," will be fixed as the run continues.)
With this production, the company's nod to the Vivat! St. Petersburg festival, Baltimore Opera took a mighty risk and met with considerable success. Three performances remain -- well worth checking out. Just don't bring the kids.
What: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 Mount Royal Ave.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8:15 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. March 2.
Tickets: $37 to $132
Box office: 410-727-6000