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,
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.
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"
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.
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.