Tugan Sokhiev: Katerina Izmailova requires symphonic interpretation
Katerina Izmailova by Shostakivich is to become the fi rst Bolshoi opera premiere of 2016.
Music Director of the production is Tugan Sokhiev, Principal Conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre.
— What role does Shostakovich play in your repertoire, in your musical picture of the world?
— One of the most crucial ones. It’s not just my view of the world. Shostakovich is one
of the leading figures in the cultural life of the XX and XXI centuries. His musical commentary is often more intense and persuasive than historic archives.
— Several performers are not from Russia. But don’t you think that they wouldn’t be able to capture the flavor of the times?
— I would be very glad if all the parts were performed by the Bolshoi artists. However, all theaters have to invite performers nowadays. It is becoming ever more challenging to
find singers who would be able to fully express the characters and perform the parts Shostakovich wrote.
— How was the casting?
— It wasn’t easy. We spent a lot of time in search of characters that would suit our needs. It’s not enough to find the people who would perform well in terms of vocal. The real challenge of the opera is that the music is totally surreal with libretto being just the opposite, very concrete. Russian audience, being familiar with Leskov and Shostakovich, has a certain perception of Katerina’s character. In addition to the image contained in the music, we know Katerina because we belong to her culture. Both Shostakovich and Leskov established
certain boundaries, which are now very difficult to cross. In this light, we had to find performers who the audience would associate with the characters, rather than those who would just sing well. Sergei is just a young working man. So, we must understand why Katerina cheats on her husband and then kills her father-in-law, and her husband, because of him. Sergei must have something in him, more than just great singing.
— Have you seen Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk
District performed in the Bolshoi Theater since 2004?
Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducted it for several years.
— I did not have the pleasure to see the performances conducted by Mr. Rozhdestvensky,
but I happened to witnessed his performance of symphonic pieces and, thus, can imagine what sort of a music director he was. Katerina Izmailova requires symphonic interpretation. Shostakovich is symphonic in everything. I mean general things, such as his
sense of form and work in large strokes, rather than something more particular.
— Nowadays, both singers and conductors often complain that performances are no longer staged by one team worked on the production from the very beginning. Describe your work on Katerina Izmailova, please.
— From the very beginning, we worked with director Rimas Tuminas. The first choir practice took place as soon as in October, and Mr. Tuminas started working with singers in November, in spite of being extremely busy. Rehearsals started in early January, and we’ve been constantly discussing, intercommunicating and searching ever since. This opera comprises enormous musical segments which are very difficult for a director to fill in. It often feels purely symphonic: Katerina’s aria comes to an end and starts a tremendous interlude immediately followed by an aria by Boris Timofeyevich. Interlude is a part of the act, but it doesn’t have any action within it. This is where a spectator becomes a participant of this drama. Shostakovich made his work for sophisticated, thoughtful audience that would use this time to conjecture, argue, analyse. The conductor and the director need to find a key to such scenes. And the only way to do it is to do it together.
Scene 1. Katerina Lvovna leads an unhappy existence in the home of her husband, the distinguished merchant Zinovy Borisovich Ismailov. The marriage has produced no children. Katerina spends her time in agonising idleness, languishing in melancholy and loneliness. She is exasperated by her father-in-law Boris Timofeyevich, who is frustrated that she has been married five years and has failed to produce an heir.
Zinovy Borisovich brings in Sergei, a new worker. Business forces Zinovy Borisovich to leave home for a period: the dam at the mill has burst. Ordered by Boris Timofeyevich the workers pretend they are sad when their master leaves. Katerina’s cruel and suspicious father-in-law insists that Katerina swear fidelity to her husband. The cook Aksinya tells Katerina about Sergei: “Name any woman who’s taken his fancy, he’ll get her into trouble.”
Scene 2. Taking advantage of the master’s absence, the Ismailovs’ servants loaf around. Sergei and his friends mock and play tricks on the clumsy Aksinya. Katerina Lvovna enters the yard and defends the cook, threatening to do away with Sergei, the ring-leader. He proposes a battle of strength. At the peak of the jovial scuffle Boris Timofeyevich appears. He sends everyone back to work and threatens Katerina that he will tell her husband everything.
Scene 3. Katerina Lvovna’s bedroom. She is tormented by boredom and recalls how in her childhood she admired a pair of doves that billed and cooed around their nest… But now her life is to pass with no joy, no happiness. Sergei’s unexpected appearance shatters her loneliness: he asks “if I can borrow a book” and speaks of woman’s sorrowful lot, but all this is a mere ruse to seduce Katerina. In confusion she yields to him: Sergei has awoken hitherto unknown emotions.
Scene 4. Boris Timofeyevich cannot sleep, he sees thieves everywhere. He remembers how he found it hard to sleep in his younger years too, but for a different reason: he loved to stroll past the windows of other men’s wives. Even now he enjoys reflecting on the old days and having a glimpse at his son’s young wife.
And so he sees Sergei slinking out of Katerina’s apartments. Old Ismailov is merciless. Katerina’s pleas are to no avail: Sergei is beaten half to death before her very eyes then locked in the storeroom.
In furious madness Katerina serves her loathsome father-in-law mushrooms tainted with rat poison for dinner. As he dies, the old man confesses to the priest and accuses his daughter-in-law of the foul deed.
Scene 5. Katerina is happy. Her lover is at her side. But Sergei is dispirited at Zinovy Borisovich’s impending return: it is not enough for him to be Katerina’s secret lover – he wants to be her husband and the master. Katerina pacifies him, but her conscience is in torment: everywhere she sees the ghost of Boris Timofeyevich, cursing the woman who poisoned him.
Zinovy Borisovich’s unexpected return and mockery of Katerina incite the lovers to murder. They kill Zinovy Borisovich and hide the corpse in the cellar.
Scene 6. Although the path to happiness now seems clear, Katerina’s soul knows no happiness: her conscience troubles her. Even on the day of her marriage to Sergei she stands by the cellar containing the corpse of Zinovy Borisovich…
A covetous Shabby Peasant has long believed the cellar to be full of good wine. After the couple leave for church he breaks open the lock, finds the corpse and hastens off to the police in terror.
Scene 7. The police station. The constable is complaining that “They pay us most unfairly and good bribes are rarely offered.” But he is particularly aggrieved that, contradictory to custom, he has not been invited to the Ismailovs’ house for the wedding. The Shabby Peasant’s tale thus arouses vengeful delight. The policemen rush off to the Ismailovs’.
Scene 8. The wedding feast is in full swing. Drunken guests and the priest praise the newlyweds. Katerina is envious and angry at the guests. Suddenly she sees that the cellar lock has been broken open. Seeing that the murder of Zinovy Borisovich has been discovered she decides to flee with Sergei. But too late – the police are already at the gates. In an attempt to save Sergei, Katerina takes the blame: “I, I alone, am guilty.” Sergei tries to flee with the money but is apprehended. The newlyweds are taken to prison.
Scene 9. A group of convicts headed for Siberia has settled for the night on the banks of a river. Sergei and Katerina are among them. Now Sergei has no reason to pretend he is in love. He accuses Katerina of being the source of all his miseries and that she has brought him to this. In front of everyone he openly flirts with the young convict Sonyetka; together they poke fun at the “rich merchant’s wife”. Sergei seeks Sonyetka’s favour, but she demands a present – Katerina’s warm stockings. Sergei comes to Katerina Lvovna and tricks her into giving him the stockings by feigning sickness. The convicts roar in laughter at the abandoned Katerina.
It is time for debts to be settled. Sergei’s treachery is the last straw for Katerina: she realises the true horror of everything that has passed. Neither the drum roll reveille nor the kind words from the Old Convict can restore her energies. Death is the key to salvation…
She thrusts Sonyetka into the water and then plunges in after her. The swift current carries them both away, and the Old Convict’s bitter voice seems to hang over the surface of the river: “Oh, why is this life so dark and terrifying? Is man born for such a life?”