Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 - 1975)
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1934)
Vladimir Vaneev (bass) - Vladimir Timofeyevich Izmailov; Vsevolod Grivnov (tenor) - Zinoviy Borisovich Izmailov; Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet (soprano) - Katerina Lvovna Izmailova; Sergej Kunaev (tenor) - Sergei; Nanà Miriani (soprano) - Aksinya; Leonid Bomstein (baritone) - Tattered peasant; Andrea Cortese (tenor) - Administrator; Nikolaj Bikov (bass) - Porter; Marco de Carolis (bass) - First workman; Fabio Bertella (tenor) - Second workman; Andrea Cortese (tenor) - Third workman; Saverio Bambi (tenor) - Coachman; Julian Rodescu (bass) - Priest; Vladimir Matorin (bass) - Police Inspector; Andrea Snarsky (bass) - Policeman; Christiano Olivieri (teacher) - Teacher; Piergiorgio Chiavazza - Drunken guest; Armando Carforio (bass) - Sergeant; Alessandro Calamai (bass) - Sentry; Natascha Petrinsky (contralto) - Sonetka; Vladimir Vaneev (bass) - Old convict; Elena Borin - Female convict; Vladimir Vaneev (bass) - Ghost of Boris Timofeyevich; Orchestra and Chorus of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/James Conlon
Stage Director: Lev Dodin; Set and Costume Design: David Borovsky; Lighting: Jean Kalman; Directed for TV and Video by Andrea Bevilacqua
Sound format: PCM Stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1; Picture format: 16:9
ARTHAUS MUSIC 101 387 [2 DVDs: 170:00]

The world premiere of this opera at the Malyi Theatre in Leningrad on 22 January 1934 was a great success, in spite of the controversial subject and the in part shockingly modernistic music. It was staged in Moscow the same year and very soon in Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia, Stockholm, Prague and Zurich. Then, in 1936, after a guest appearance from the Malyi Theatre in Moscow, the infamous Pravda article appeared, entitled “Chaos Instead of Music”. Stalin had attended the performance and left before it was finished, and according to some commentators he was the author of the article. The gravest accusation was that Shostakovich had given a false picture of a basically beautiful world. The result was that the opera vanished from the repertoire and didn’t appear again until 1963 in a rather heavily revised and ‘watered down’ version, now with the title Katerina Izmailova. Not until 1979, four years after the death of Shostakovich, Mstislav Rostropovich managed to find the score of the original version and thus the work could be restored in compliance with Shostakovich’s intentions. It was recorded by EMI with Rostropovich conducting, his wife Galina Vishnevskaya taking the title role and with Nicolai Gedda as Sergei. This is, to my mind, still the supreme recording. It is available in EMI’s GROC series.

The present DVD, from performances at the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, focuses very much on the ‘madness of love and sexuality’ as Sigrid Neef puts it in Opera - Komponisten, Werke, Interpreten (Könemann, 1999). During the titles distorted pictures in black and white are shown and the opening scene is bleak and gloomy - just as the music - reflecting Katerina’s boredom, but Katerina is colourful, and so is her bedding … And sexuality, more than true love, runs all through the story. By all means, Katerina falls in love with Sergei, but to him it’s only a question of satisfying his carnal desires - also in the last act when he bargains with Sonetka and quenches the last hope of a future for Katerina. The sex scenes are not too candidly filmed; the intense scene in Katerina’s bedroom in act I is filmed from below and the only thing we actually see is the ceiling lamp swinging ever more violently; Sergei and Sonetka do their act under a white sheet, surrounded by all the other prisoners in cold blue, while the artificial snowflakes fall, further underlining the icy atmosphere. What is not shown on stage is however graphically illustrated in the music, where no one can fail to feel the raw animality, running as an undercurrent throughout the opera. But this is a multifarious work, brutal (the flogging of Sergei), ironic, critical, humoristic (the tipsy priest) with sometimes orgiastic music and frantic dances. What it lacks is true humanism and warmth - the closest to this is Boris’s monologue at the beginning of act II, That’s what old age means: you can’t sleep.

The direction, the sets and the filming, often from unexpected angles, combine to make this a fascinating realisation of this masterpiece of its kind. During the second act interlude the camera slowly wanders out in the auditorium and then down in the orchestral pit, where the intensity in the musical climax is further heightened by the tension and concentration of the players.

There are several excellent actors among the leading singers, dominated as it should be, by Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet’s Katerina. Her facial expressions and body language at large mirror her various moods, loneliness, hope, anger, despair and finally resignation. Often filmed in close-ups her intense articulation sometimes becomes almost grotesque - and her singing leaves a lot to be desired. Her insistent vibrato is hard to stomach and at forte - and she has to sing large parts of the role at that volume - the tone becomes quite frankly repulsive. Sergej Kunaev portrays the shrewd and crafty Sergei with voluptuous intensity and the hardness of tone is quite appropriate for this disgusting character. Quite the best singer, and also a splendid actor, among the central characters, is Vladimir Vaneev as Boris, who sings the monologue about ageing with beautiful tone and deep feeling. He also appears in the last act as a touching old convict - another example of the humanity that exists somewhere behind the façade in the callous society that is depicted in this drama. Natascha Petrinsky is a cunning and scornful Sonetka. Among the many minor roles Julian Rodescu’s Priest is skilfully delineated and he sings his short buffo aria, worthy of a Don Pasquale or Dulcamara, with relish. Piergiorgio Chiavazza as the drunken guest sings his aria with gusto and Vladimir Matorin is a larger-than-life and thunderously sonorous Police Inspector.

While far from the last word in musical excellence this is still a fascinating product for its theatrical qualities - and James Conlon draws excellent playing from this Florentine orchestra. As for alternative versions there are a few that I haven’t seen. Petr Weigl has created a film with Czech actors miming to an abridged version of the Rostropovich recording as soundtrack. On Opus Arte there is a version directed by Martin Kusej with Mariss Jansons conducting the Concertgebouw Orkest, Eva-Marie Westbrook, Christopher Ventris and (again) Vladimir Vaneev. On EMI we find Nadine Secunde, Christopher Ventris (again) and Anatoli Kotcherga with Alexander Anissimov conducting forces from Barcelona. There is also a 1966 Russian production of the corrupt Katerina Izmailova with Galina Vishnevskaya in the title role. Though I suspect that all these offer better singing of the title role I can still appreciate the present issue for its theatrical qualities. The best offer of all is however the EMI CD-set with Rostropovich, Vishnevskaya and Gedda.

Göran Forsling