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Tom Gibbs
Audiophile Audition, August 2009

This magnificent new 2-disc Blu-ray set from Opus Arte captures the 2006 Netherlands Opera daring and risqué staging of Shostakovich’s operatic masterpiece, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Prior to its initial staging in 1934, Dimitri Shostakovich wasn’t particularly admired as a composer by the Soviet press, but that would all change with Lady Macbeth—suddenly, he was a media darling, and the crowds clamored to see his opus of seduction and murder. Hardly seems like suitable material for the Russian proletariat, especially in a regime where they’d purportedly cast away the mantle of materialism and all its ill-begotten trappings. But nonetheless, after nearly two-hundred performances between Moscow and Leningrad over a two year period—and countless other performances worldwide—the show went on, and the young Shostakovich had become an important icon of the new Soviet culture. That all came crashing down on January 26, 1936, when Josef Stalin decided to attend a performance of the much ballyhooed opera. Two short days later, an article appeared in the Soviet paper Pravda entitled “Chaos Instead of Music;” while the piece was unsigned, it was undoubtedly authored by Stalin, and was essentially a death sentence for Shostakovich. From that point—at least until Stalin’s death in 1953—the entire timbre of Shostakovich’s music shifted dramatically (and out of complete necessity) to more politically acceptable artistic expressions, and the world outside the Soviet Union responded coolly to his music as well. Lady Macbeth disappeared completely for almost twenty years, but finally did resurface in Russia after Stalin’s death in a cautiously toned-down version known as Katerina Ismailova. Years later, cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich discovered a copy of the original score in the Library of Congress, and helped champion a resurgence of interest in Shostakovich’s magnum opus.

The story surrounds the merchant business of Boris Ismailov (sung magnificently by Vladimir Vaneev); his impotent son Zinovy (Ludovit Ludha) is married to Katerina (sung by American Eva-Maria Westbroek—one of the highlights of this production), and Boris has never been particularly enamored with his sons’ choice of wives. To compound the situation, the couple hasn’t produced any offspring, and that weighs heavily on Boris, as he’d like an heir to pass his business and family fortune to. Zinovy is required to leave town on business; a dam has broken that requires his supervision during the repair process. Boris insists that Zinovy get an oath from Katerina that she’ll be true to him during his absence, and Zinovy departs. Katerina spends her days in boredom, cooking mushrooms regularly for her overbearing father-in-law. On a particular occasion, she notices Sergey (sung by Christopher Ventris), who has been brought in by Boris to manage the operation while Zinovy is away. Katerina has been warned that Sergey is a womanizer of whom she should beware. Later, Katerina goes to the factory, where a rape has just occurred; she meets Sergey, and the chemistry between them is obvious. They begin a dangerous romance, but are ultimately caught by Boris, who has Sergey beaten within an inch of his life. Boris then sends for Zinovy to return. Katerina then poisons Boris’s mushrooms; she and Sergey no sooner dispose of Boris’s body when they also kill Zinovy and lock his body in a storage room. The two then plan their wedding, although Katerina is constantly haunted by images of the dead Boris. A drunken worker at their wedding celebration discovers Zinovy’s body and informs the police, who promptly arrive at the wedding, and although Sergey arranges to pay off the police, Katerina’s overwhelming guilt forces her to confess and Sergey is arrested. Katerina then shows up at the prison, but Sergey has already found another love interest, whom Katerina promptly kills, and is then lynched by the angry prison mob.

This production follows a recent trend among the world’s opera houses of greatly pared-down set decoration; there are actually only two sets employed, here—one is essentially a glass house/closet where Katerina lives, and the other is a sort of cage that doubles for the workhouse/prison settings. The settings are particularly dark throughout the production, and much ado is made about the dirt and mud that abounds on set; there’s a particularly good commentary in the accompanying documentary from Stage Director Martin Kusej about the significance and imagery of all that mud. And the costuming is pretty spare as well; while Shostakovich’s subject material may have met with the ultimate disapproval of the Soviet authorities, his statement [through the opera] concerning the human condition shows that despite high ideals, people lie, cheat, steal, kill and die despite their ideology. And he also wanted to show clearly that the Russian people weren’t faring particularly well under the Communist regime, especially those who had been exiled to the harsh gulags of Siberia, so the prisoners are mostly clothed in only their underwear—if that. That’s another aspect of this production that some may find a little disturbing; there’s some nudity involved, and trust me—it’s not always very pretty! And the imagery for the rape and sex scenes can also be more than a little difficult to watch; while I agree with Martin Kusej’s artistic ideals, the strobe-light effect employed during the sex scenes was especially grating to watch.

From a technical standpoint, this Blu-ray disc is just the slightest bit short of reference quality. The onscreen images, while quite dark throughout, are nonetheless very crisp, clear and highly detailed with really good contrast. And the chosen color palette is remarkably natural in appearance. Visually, my only complaint came from the onscreen menus, which were a bit blurry. Of the two audio options, I did all my listening through the 5.0 uncompressed PCM track, which was incredibly dynamic, with a truly seamless surround presentation, and although there wasn’t always a lot going on in the surround channels, they helped provide a superior sense of envelopment. My only audio complaint was that the surround track was only 5.0; Shostakovich’s often bombastic music would have benefited tremendously from a little subwoofer action. And the bonus options were a very welcome addition, especially the exceptionally well done documentary feature (also in hi-res!) which offered tons of insight into the performances and the stage direction of this incredible performance. If for no other reason, get this to witness the matchless work of Eva-Maria Westbroek—she’s a true star in the making! Highly recommended!



Jeffrey Kauffman
DVD Talk, June 2009

The Movie:

Some time ago here on DVD Talk, I mentioned in my review of Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges how amazing it was that the great early to mid 20th century Russian composers were able to work under the strictures the Soviet state imposed on them. The flip side of that equation might be seen in the cautionary tale of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, an opera which debuted in 1934 to praise (if some consternation), but just a few years later was denounced in Pravda, the official Soviet news source, and became the symbol (in official Soviet eyes, at least) of Shostakovich’s bourgeois degradation, leading to the official banning of his music for years. I have to say that I’ve always found it somewhat amazing that an opera this openly salacious, sexual and, dare I say, perverted ever saw the light of day in the USSR to begin with, let alone have at least a few years of public acceptance, if not general acclaim. It’s a challenging work, full of Shostakovich’s trademark vinegar-bitter dissonances, both musically and in the libretto which he co-wrote, adapting the famous story of Leskov.

Lady Macbeth, at least in its original conception, took place in Tsarist Russia (something this production seems to eschew, at least in its modern dress), a convenient way for Shostakovich to rationalize his anti-heroine’s awful behavior. She was, after all, being oppressed by a pre-Revolutionary government, so it’s little wonder she resorted to murder. The opera follows the travails of Katerina, an unhappily married woman who is being terrorized (if not outright abused) by her father-in-law, who, perhaps justifiably, is suspicious that Katerina may not be totally faithful to his son. Enter the kind of morally ambiguous farmhand Sergei (in this production, more of a factory worker), who soon becomes embroiled in a nasty, quasi-sadistic affair with Katerina. Things devolve from there, with Katerina resorting to murder. Both Katerina and Sergei end up being taken prisoner and are exiled to Siberia. Without posting any spoilers, let’s just say things don’t end up well.

This is a shockingly visceral piece of writing, and anyone familiar with Shostakovich’s penchant for combining achingly lyrical string writing with suddenly jarring reeds and brass will know at least a little of what’s in store for them here. There are the usual Shostakovich flashes of genius—a bassoon to “fart” out the entrance of Boris, the hulking father-in-law, along with some amazing florid arias for Katerina, beautifully sung in this production by Eva-Marie Westbroek.

What’s lacking in this opera, and no doubt because of its rather sordid source material, is any hint of comedy relief. Anyone who’s experienced Shostakovich’s First Symphony, for example, knows what a musical trickster, even satirist, he could be, something he shared with his contemporary Prokofiev. If there’s satire to be had in Lady Macbeth, it’s the bitter pill born of remorse and anger, and it makes for an emotionally turgid experience that may leave some viewers and listeners feeling the need for antiseptic wipes. This is not to berate the musical innovation and outright genius that underlies the opera, it’s simply a statement of fact that this is one of the most oily, lugubrious libretti ever to be set by a major composer, let alone one under the purported aegis of Uncle Joe Stalin.

In this spare but effective production by the Netherlands Opera, director Martin Kusej may or may not be making an intentionally ironic statement by having Katerina living in a literal glass house. In an extra, he does talk about two performing spaces—the transparent home where Katerina lives, ostensibly pristine, and then the “dirt” that houses beings like Boris. What struck me most about the glass house is how much it resembled a jail, which is of course completely in tune with Katerina’s emotional state of being. She is trapped by her state in life, in marriage, and in a stultifying town where “nothing ever happens.” It’s a brilliant little touch to see her surrounded by numerous pairs of shoes in the opening scene. Evidently she can at least shop.

Matching the excellent singing is the always reliable Concertgebouw Orchestra under the direction of Mariss Jansons, which rips into Shostakovich’s stark, almost geometrical, lines with gusto. The reed playing in this performance is especially gutsy. There are some occasional television directorial gaffes, as in cutaways during scene changes to Jansons conducting. I completely understand why this was done, but it robs the opera of its emotional momentum, and, frankly, its claustrophobia, which is so important to portraying Katerina’s inner life. It would have been better to simply have let the camera show the darkened proscenium, which in and of itself might be an exceedingly apt metaphor for the moral turpitude in which these characters find themselves.

This is certainly not material for the easily offended, or even the squeamish. There are moments of at least partial nudity, several sex acts, consenting and otherwise, are at the very least hinted at, if not outright depicted, and the entire enterprise has a sort of sordid almost quasi-Gothic feel to it, something that Shostakovich mines with his trenchant music. This is verismo taken to its expressionistic extreme, audience be damned, perhaps because it’s obvious the characters already are themselves.

The Blu-ray

Video:

Once again, OpusArte gives us an excellent AVC 1.78:1 image that is sharp, well defined and with plenty of detail. My only complaint about this particular performance (and I’m sure it was done on purpose), is its unrelenting darkness. Contrast and black levels are superb, so everything is relatively easy to see, but after a while, the monochromatic scheme of things becomes an additional weight on the viewer, pulling him down to even greater depressive depths than the story and music already have.

Sound:

As is typical with these live OpusArte releases, we are offered both a PCM 2.0 and 5.0 mix. Both are quite excellent, with the 5.0 offering (as might be expected) more of a live hall ambience, with superb separation and excellent balance between singers and orchestra. Fidelity and range are both top notch. The opera is sung in its original Russian, with optional subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Dutch.

Extras:

Again as usual, we get a good essay in the insert booklet, as well as on the first BD of this two BD set an illustrated synopsis, an hour long documentary on this production, and a cast gallery.

Final Thoughts:

This is not an easy opera on any level. Shostakovich’s music, especially in this heady (and heavy) idiom, can be an acquired taste, and the subject matter here is lurid and troubling. That said, this is an important work of art that plays a pivotal role in exposing the hypocrisy of the Soviet system’s treatment of major artists. This particular production is beautifully sung and played, and deserves to be seen. Recommended.






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12:48:43 PM, 25 October 2014
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