SHOSTAKOVICH: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Blu-ray – 2 discs (2006/2009)
Stage Director: Martin Kusej
Starring: Eva-Marie Westbroek, Christopher Ventris, Carole Wilson, Vladimir Vaneev, Lani Poulson, Ludovit Ludha, Alexandre Kravets
Conducted by: Mariss Jansons, with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Studio: Opus Arte OA BD7031 D [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 1.78:1 for 16:9 color, 1080i HD
Audio: Uncompressed PCM 5.0 Surround, PCM Stereo
Extras: Documentary, Interviews, Illustrated Synopsis, Cast Gallery
Subtitles: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch
Feature Length: 236 minutes
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!
— Tom Gibbs