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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

 

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Dimitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1934)
Katerina Ismailova: Eva-Maria Westbroek (soprano)
Sergey: Christopher Ventris (tenor)
Boris Ismailov/Old convict: Vladimir Vaneev (baritone)
Zivoniy Ismailov: Ludovit Ludha (tenor)
Priest/Guard: Alexander Vassiliev, (baritone)
Chief of Police: Nikita Storojev (baritone)
De Nederlandse Opera Chorus
Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam/Mariss Jansons
Martin Kusèj (director)
rec. Amsterdam, 25-28 June 2006.
DVD all regions; NTSC
OPUS ARTE OA 0965 D [236:00]

 

"Warning: This production contains stroboscopic light effects, nudity and scenes of a sexual nature". So reads the cover of this new release. To which Iíll add "Thank goodness and about time, too!"

This is a wonderful production. It goes right to the spirit of the opera without dishonesty and pretence. After all itís hypocrisy that created the situation in the first place. Katerina endures a sham marriage, the police and church are corrupt, and social order demands the degradation of women. In comparison, a bit of nudity is hardly scandalous. Indeed, itís integral to the production because itís used to illustrate important themes like human vulnerability. In the sauna, the police are ordinary men. Once they don their uniforms they are transformed into agents of the brutal society they live in. So if Katerina spends most of the opera en deshabillée, thereís a sound reason for it. She may be a murderess, but the dishonesty all round her is far more corrosive.

This is a powerfully authoritative production in musical terms, as well. Instead of using an ordinary opera orchestra, the Nederlandse Opera have gone for no less than Concertgebouw Amsterdam. It makes a huge difference, because these are musicians used to being centre-stage, so to speak, making music as music, not as an adjunct to the singing. Much of the opera is non parlando, but the purely orchestral passages are an integral part of the action, so important that they shape its development. The Concertgebouw Orchestra doesnít normally do opera, but this is a special case. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is in many ways a symphony with narrative, singing and drama, rather than an opera in the traditional Italianate style. Under Jansons, the orchestra produces some marvellous, spirited playing. Under Haitink, it was safe, albeit capable of mellow richness. Now they can do dangerous, electric and cutting-edge, too, and do it with conviction. Jansons brought out the modern Bergian edge in this music, laying bare its crackling nervous energy. Those long orchestral passages function like those in Wozzeck, commenting on the action, intensifying the mood. Thereís no room for pseudo-Russian sentimentality in Jansonsí reading Ė this is, for him, utterly universal and contemporary. This playing is so vivid that it "speaks" for itself. When these passages play, the filming concentrates on Jansons, as if to underline the symphonic character of the opera.

Excellent as the orchestral playing is, this production is also superlative in dramatic terms. As is to be expected of a house where Pierre Audi is artistic director, this is state-of-the-art staging, imaginatively using space to create multi-dimensional performance areas. The Ismailov house is like a cage, with its metal bars, and yet, it has no walls, as if to imply that the characters are trapped in a world of their own making. Itís claustrophobic, and yet it lends itself to being adapted to show what must be the yard of the warehouse where the workers operate. Thatís significant, too, because in this production, thereís a marked contrast between purity and grime, cleanness and corruption, domestic and wild. The Ismailov house is pristine, but empty: the yard is a brutal place where women get raped and men are barbaric animals. Indeed, Vladimir Vaneev, in the documentary, talks about Boris as a kind of wild animal defending his territory, but subject to base passions. He ends up dead in the dirt, and no-one cares. That animal spirit for survival animates his appearance as a ghost and later as the Old Convict an organic development of the deeper themes in the plot. Katerina dies, Boris somehow adapts. Vaneev is a great actor, evoking a surprising amount of sympathy for his character. This Boris is no one-dimensional boor, as in some other productions. Katerina sings of the women who hold their families together in times of war: Boris "is" the male equivalent, despite his flaws.

Similarly, Katerina is a wild, instinctive creature whose normal healthy needs are warped by "civilisation" Ė the same false social construct that the Police Chief refers to when he sings "How in our civilised society can people live without Police?"; in other words, not a natural state but one controlled by force and corruption. Sergey may have no qualms about animal lust, but he is too tied up with the barbarity of the mob and with falsehood to be a truly free character. Itís he who tries to bribe the policemen, but Katerina who openly confesses. This Sergey tantalisingly offers Katerina a glimpse of another way of living, but venality and hypocrisy identify him wholly with "civilised" forces.

Thus, in this production, the female convict who sleeps with Sergey for stockings, becomes a crazy-mirror image of Katerina, complete with black eye shadow. She has long black hair, in contrast to Katerinaís blonde curls. This characterisation is part of the narrative, not merely an incident in the plot. Like Boris sheíll do anything to survive and probably would, were it not for Katerina killing her. When Sergey humiliates Katerina, he and the female convict coil themselves around Katerinaís body, kissing and touching her. Itís a truly horrifying image, which raises lots of ideas, far more disturbing than having Katerina watch while Sergey and the female convict have it off.

And then, thereís the sex. Obviously, itís integral to the whole plot, but itís also symbolic of the human need to survive. This is an extremely erotic opera which bristles with dangerous, nervous tension, for sex here is an elemental force that unleashes destructive energy. Thus the scene where Sergey and Katerina make love - at least in her case - is explicit, disguised by strobe lights to create an air of mystery and violence Ė the lights are like thunder, like powerful electric surges from nature. When the orchestra plays against this stage action, itís painfully poignant and unsettling. Sex, however, is part of the power struggle between nature and "civilisation". For Katerina, itís a fundamental need, but she transmutes it into love. Sergey, who is incapable of love, is involved in the rape of the old woman in the yard. In this production, the rape is so brutal that it sickens you Ė as it should. In so many productions, itís quickly glossed over and used merely as a ruse to get Katerina out of the house. But Shostakovichís music is so powerful that itís clear he wanted to point up the parallel between the rape and Katerinaís symbolic rape, for she, too, will be exploited and humiliated in her turn. Itís importance too, lies in how it underlines the brutality of the "established order". The men in the mob may be a rabble but they are "men", who need to crack down on any woman who challenges them. "Weíre bored", they explain, in a parody of Katerinaís "boredom" aria. But, as Katerina points out, women can be stronger than men. Perhaps thatís "why" they need to be suppressed. She can see through the dishonesty of their claim to power. Sergey is attracted to Katerina because she is strong, and all the more satisfying to destroy. Lani Poulsen playing the raped woman received a huge bouquet at curtain call. She deserved it for an unusually powerful and dramatic performance.

Eva-Marie Westbroek and Christopher Ventris are perhaps the most important exponents in these roles at the moment. They inhabit their parts as if by instinct: their singing has the presence that comes from complete absorption in the inner dynamics of their characters. In the climactic arias, like the one where Katerina contemplates the deep lake, Westbroek is unbelievably convincing. Ventris exudes sexuality: here heís no pure Parsifal! What makes their performances even more admirable is that they can recreate the roles in a completely different fashion for other productions. A few short months after this production, they were at the Royal Opera House in a diametrically different production. Westbroek switched effortlessly from the Jean Harlow goddess she is here, to a neurotic Katerina in a naff 1950s interior complete with psychedelic wallpaper. The characterisation could not have been more different, and the overall concept less complex than the Amsterdam production. Yet Westbroek excelled in both styles. Thatís the mark of a true artist.

This is a wonderful film, one which is so well performed on all counts that it is an outstanding choice. Except, of course, for those who donít like the messages in the opera. Stalin famously condemned it, as it cut a little too close for comfort.

Anne Ozorio

 



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