It’s one of the great if-onlys of opera: if Stalin hadn’t found Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk so objectionable when he saw it in 1936, we might now have a trilogy of Shostakovich operas about gutsy Russian women – which is what the composer had planned. As it is, we have only the one – and Richard Jones’s 2004 production, returning to the Royal Opera House for the first time in 12 years, has been away far too long.
Revived by director Elaine Kidd, it is blackly funny, unsparing, sometimes shocking and often tasteless, but always on point. Jones moves this 19th-century story to the mid-20th, with Katerina’s joy in her love affair and her self-discovery manifesting themselves in a makeover for both herself and her shabby home. Suddenly and violently, out go the two men of the house; in come deafeningly loud wallpaper and a blingy chandelier. Yet what’s more striking is how acutely observed all the relationships are within the high yet claustrophobic walls of John Macfarlane’s multi-roomed set – walls that finally find a grim echo in the towering sides of the pantechnicons in the final scene, transporting prisoners as if they’re livestock.
The score sounds searing. Antonio Pappano’s conducting again weaves together the music’s satire – the on-stage brass bands, the tumescent trombones – with its moonlit beauty, and never lets the tension slacken. John Tomlinson also returns to the work, leering and bellowing brilliantly as father-in-law Boris, with John Daszak tenderly wimpish as his son. In an overdue company debut, Brandon Jovanovich brings an aptly alpha-male tenor to the despicable Sergey, and the many smaller roles are vividly taken.
The production, however, hangs on the performance of Eva-Maria Westbroek as Katerina. She sang the role here in 2006; her soprano now sounds even more gloriously incisive and full-bodied, and her interpretation has only deepened. Thanks to her we get to marvel at the way in which in this opera Shostakovich so brazenly and lovingly hands the moral high ground to a murderer, and keeps you rooting for her until the very last note.
• In rep at the Royal Opera House, London, until 27 April