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Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth(2008)
At first glance, the title of Shostakovich’s opera seems to speak for itself: Katherina, neglected and unhappy in her marriage, commits the most heinous crime just like the Shakespearian Lady Macbeth. But Nikolai Leskov’s short novel, which portrays Katherina as a monster, was only the starting point for Shostakovich to elicit understanding for an oppressed woman whose pursuit for self-determination is suppressed by society. Through combining satiric, grotesque and tragic elements in his music, Shostakovich succeeds in striking the balance between repulsion at Katherina’s immoral acts and sympathy for her.
For more about Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth and the Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth Blu-ray release, see Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on January 17, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Vladimir Vaneev, Vsevolod Grivnov, Jeanne Michèle Charbonnet
Director: Lev Dodin
» See full cast & crew
Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth Blu-ray Review
There's verismo and then there's verismo. Shostakovich's shocking and violent opera gets its second Blu-ray release with this new Italian production.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, January 17, 2010
"Why couldn't Uncle Joe have gone to the Eisenstein festival at the Moscow Pantages?" You can almost imagine poor Dmitri Shostakovich asking himself that plaintive question after the disastrous results the composer experienced when Joseph Stalin decided to attend a 1936 performance of Shostakovich's lascivious opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Once the golden boy of Soviet composers, a man whose bracing harmonies and often pungent, even bitterly satiric, melodies were hailed as the best example of the "new Soviet artistic freedom," Shostakovich suddenly found himself on the obverse of that particular coin. Now due to Stalin's extreme displeasure at the unseemly nature of Lady Macbeth led to Shostakovich being denounced on Pravda's front pages as the worst example of bourgeoisie excess and decadence. Who says opera can't change lives?
Of course this particular change was manifestly for the worse, deeply scarring Shostakovich emotionally and psychologically and literally putting the composer in fear for his own life. As was rather shockingly portrayed in the recent Michael Tilson Thomas Keeping Score episode on Shostakovich, which I reviewed here, Shostakovich actually took to camping out on the back steps of his Moscow flat in order to hopefully thwart what he assumed were plans for the KGB to show up in the middle of night and whisk him away to Siberia. The controversy led to the opera being banned in Soviet Russia for over three decades, and when it finally did reappear it was in a vastly revised version which Shostakovich himself evidently preferred, but which is rarely if ever performed today. It's rather remarkable that as we slowly move into a mature Blu-ray market in terms of classical music and opera releases, that this rare and not especially beloved work is one of only a handful to have received two separate Blu-ray versions. I reviewed the previous version for another site last year and found it well sung and rather intriguingly designed, with putative heroine Katerina and her boorish husband Zinoviy Borisovich literally living in a glass house. There were also some interesting directorial asides, as with Katerina's large shoe collection, something which seems on the surface at least to belie Shostakovich's assertion that he was attempting to portray the hapless woman as the victim of a repressive pre-Soviet society.
It's ironic, to say the least, the Shostakovich defended his erstwhile heroine, Katerina, despite her murderous proclivities, by insisting she was a victim of an oppressive sociopolitical environment out of control, one which stifled personal creativity and brought people to the edge of madness. It seems almost incredibly self referential considering what Lady Macbeth wrought for Shostakovich personally. This production is certainly less overtly violent than the Netherlands Opera version previously released on Blu-ray by Opus Arte, and it also has an arresting physical production which seems to capture the ambience of an isolated and inbred Russian village. In fact one of the most interesting directorial decisions of this version is the onstage presence of the ensemble throughout vast stretches of the piece, even when they're not singing. It adds to the claustrophobic, almost paranoid, feeling that Shostakovich posits as chief motivators for Katerina's descent into murderous rage.
I was less impressed with some of the singing in this version, however. As clear as Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet's upper register was, especially effective in depicting Katerina's emotional turmoil, an overly wavering vibrato kept some of Shostakovich's more lyrical passages from finding tonal certitude. From an acting perspective, Charbonnet does often very moving work, though she seems a little brusque even in some of her love scenes with Sergei (Sergei Kunaev). Katerina is certainly a "tough cookie," as it were, but there needs to be a hint of vulnerability and even torment, and I'm not quite sure Charbonnet ever completely gets there. In fact the final dramatic denouement between Katerina and her final rival seems almost like a dramatic afterthought in this version. I also had some issues with some of the secondary singers' ability to project loudly enough over Shostakovich's often extremely busy accompaniment.
On the plus side, this is a production which better finds the acerbic wit and satire of Shostakovich, something that can be extremely tenuous with subject matter as unseemly as Lady Macbeth's. From the farting accompaniment which greets father in law Boris' demands for mushrooms (something which will seal his fate) to the famous trombone glissandi which consummates Katerina's lovemaking with Sergei, the orchestral accompaniment at least is biting and remorseless and adds a certain black humor to the proceedings. Conductor James Conlon leads the Orchestra and Chorus of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino with bravado and gusto and provides a lot of the momentum this production eventually achieves. It's also interesting to note that the orchestra does not seem to be in a traditionally deep pit. Several interludes feature shots from both the audience and the slightly lowered orchestral level which seem to indicate the orchestra is almost in front of the stage rather than beneath it. It literally elevates the musical element of the opera and helps to keep the viewer consciously aware of the incredible orchestral virtuosity on display. Purist that I am, I wish that television directors wouldn't cut to the orchestra during the opera as much as Andrea Bevilacqua does here, but that's a relatively minor complaint.
There are also some wonderful stage effects to be seen throughout this production, including a couple of incredibly gorgeous, golden hued lighting segments that seem to momentarily give Katerina a sort of interior psychological relief, even as the walls are closing in around her. And the final snowbound scene is really quite arresting, at least in medium shots. The close-ups reveal the cut paper too clearly in this Blu-ray to keep the illusion from being completely magical.
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is not an easy opera to experience, for any number of reasons. A frankly sordid plot, bracingly dissonant music and a heroine who doesn't exactly fit the mold of someone an audience will root for all can present obstacles to easy accessibility. The piece is however a remarkable example of Shostakovich's unflinching examination of psychology and even sociopolitical morés and how individuals find themselves bound by forces over which they have little, if any, control. How fitting, then, if sad, that Shostakovich experienced that very same lack of control when the "powers that be" decided the piece was not appropriate. Luckily, we're able to experience two really quite different interpretations of Lady Macbeth on Blu-ray (so far, at least). If this piece is not quite as well sung as one would hope, it offers a luscious physical production and superb orchestral playing.
Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth Blu-ray, Video Quality
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of ArtHaus Musik, with an excellent 1080i AVC encode. The best part of the image is the really luscious lighting design, which varies from rather harsh, realistic browns to the incredibly gorgeous golden hues mentioned above. The final, blue-laden prisoner scene is also incredibly well saturated and very effective. Detail is sharp throughout this Blu-ray. You'll be able to see the errant hair on Charbonnet's wig, and the fine detail on many of the costumes. Skintones are lifelike, and black levels and contrast are also excellent. I was pleased to note that no artifacting occurred in the snow scene, especially since this a 1080i release. This is a very strong looking Blu-ray, if lacking in vibrant costumes and sets.
Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The DTS-HD MA 7.1 mix is simply astounding, and I was repeatedly impressed with the conducting of James Conlon and playing of the Orchestra of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Shostakovich, to borrow a phrase from Hollywood, isn't above "Mickey Mousing" his underscore in this piece (to the point where one wag termed it "Pornophony"), and that descriptive element is fully alive throughout this wonderful sounding recording. Brass is especially robust throughout the opera's four acts, with a bracing and biting ambience that almost reaches out and grabs the listener by the ears. Some of the other, more comical, effects are also brilliantly rendered, with absolute clarity and precision. I did have some occasional qualms with the balance between the singers and orchestra, as with Piergiorgio Chiavazza as the Drunken Guest, whose lower range is completely subsumed by the orchestral accompaniment.
Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
No extras other than trailers and an insert booklet essay are offered.
Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
This largely successful production would make a great double feature with the Shostakovich Keeping Score I recently reviewed for Blu-ray.com. This piece holds a very important place in Shostakovich's oeuvre. If it's disturbing and frankly more than a bit smarmy at times, it gives the composer ample opportunity to exploit the brilliantly acerbic vocabulary he developed for voice and orchestra. Katerina may not exactly be a heroine you root for (she in fact is sort of a distaff Wozzeck), but she's one of the most unforgettable characters in 20th century opera.
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