Prejudice. That is why this work does not appear on
the shelves of some opera lovers. The composer’s name conjures dissonance;
thus are great works and performances ignored. That is a sad mistake
for one should really sit and listen. Then if you fall into the ‘hate
it’ rather than ‘love it’ camp your decision will be based on reason.
Further it is unlikely that there will be a better
recording. I was tempted to add the word ‘ever’ but that is presumptuous.
Here is a recording that drips with emotion and power. Rostropovich
conducts, cajoles, creates and controls a performance of outstanding
fluidity. Of course that is what Shostakovich intended with the orchestral
interludes between scenes creating seamless sound in each Act. And what
overwhelmingly powerful sounds there are: from quiet haunting accompaniment
through wonderfully deep vibrato via sharp tonal contrasts and into
brass and full orchestral violence. Here is musical tension second to
With Galina Vishnevshaya singing Katerina it is hardly
surprising that there is an outstanding reciprocity of musical understanding:
musical husband and wife teams are frequently so and this is no exception.
Of course Shostakovich made Katerina a more sympathetic character that
she was in the original work where cruelty predominated and no sympathy
could be aroused. Here we see another side of Katerina. Whilst she is
venomous to, and about, her father in law (listen to sam ty krýsa
and shudder) she arouses sympathy in her lonely bedtime ‘lament’ Zherebýonok
k kobýlke torópitsa; sympathy she herself feigns so
well upon her father in law’s death. This is a performance of many parts:
from warm cream toned richness to awesome aggression.
Her father in law, sung by Dimiter Petkov, has a simple
character: thoroughly unpleasant. A mean, moaning hypocritical role
(keen to protect his son’s wife until the early hours of the morning
when foiled only by her lover’s presence) Petkov sings it so well he
is believably dreadful. My only reservation is a slight lack of variation
in dynamics until he returns as ‘his’ ghost when there are dynamics
and deep coloured variation aplenty. The ever-reliable Nicolai Gedda
sings the sexually duplicitous Sergey. His distinctive timbre brings
more that a hint of Wagner. This is a towering performance moving through
raw animal passion to obsequiousness. There is a crudity in the music
which Vishnevskaya and Gedda capture faultlessly. The cuckolded husband,
sung by Werner Krenn has a comparatively small and somewhat unattractive
role. There is little for Krenn to build characterisation upon until
his return to his home and one of the infrequent duets. He and Vishnevskaya
provoke strong vocal contrasts in each other before violence erupts
and ends in his death.
At this point I cannot refrain from wondering why we
have not seen a production on film or television ‘loosely based’ on
the story. Two deaths so far, one more to come, with a mob-handed sexual
assault scene (probably updated to a gang rape) and consensual coupling
off stage rather than the earlier on stage aggressive sexual passion.
So first to an assault. Taru Valjakka as Aksinya is
a totally convincing victim manhandled with crudity. Here is frenetic
singing and accompaniment demonstrating serious unpleasantness. Valjakka
leaves us in no doubt about that with some heart-rending tones and ear
piercing cries. Birgit Finnlä, as Sonyetka, seducer of, and by,
Sergey has a voluptuous tone judged to perfection. There is some light
relief but not lightweight singing. Robert Tear is the ‘shabby peasant’
a role he obviously relishes both in its sober and almost drunken state.
Leonard Mróz as the priest produces a vocal priestly parody with
his deep strong intonation. All this and yet more with distinctive and
particularly clear singing from Aage Haugland, Martyn Hill and Alexander
Malta. Finally there is what we have come to expect in this series by
way of accompanying booklet. There is the usual full libretto which
follows Richard Osborne’s synopsis of each scene and thoroughly interesting
history of the opera and comments on this recording.
With such a cast it is not surprising that this was
an outstanding recording. Now digitally remastered it is nothing short
of a stunning recording fully justifying its place in this series. So
if you do not have it, overcome your prejudice and buy it. You might
not ‘like’ it or even ‘enjoy, it but you will appreciate the power of