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Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk

Naxos // Unrated // June 30, 2009
List Price: $49.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted June 28, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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

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.

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.

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 illutsrated 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.

"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet

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