Keith Bramich wrote:
> - an extract from Robert Anderson's illustrated review of the recent
>Netherlands Opera/Opus Arte DVD of Shostakovich's 'Lady Macbeth of
>Mtsensk' in today's Music & Vision Magazine
Here's another view of this DVD. It's easily the best version musically,
and the characterisation is extremely well thought through.
"Warning: This production contains stroboscopic light effects, nudity
and scenes of a sexual nature". So reads the cover of this new release.
To which I'll 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 it's 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, it's integral to the production because it's 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 deshabillee, there's a sound reason
for it. She may be a murderess, but the dishonesty all round her is far
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 doesn't 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. There's no room for pseudo-Russian sentimentality
in Jansons' reading - 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. It's claustrophobic, and yet it lends itself to being
adapted to show what must be the yard of the warehouse where the workers
operate. That's significant, too, because in this production, there's
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" - 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. It's 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 Katerina's blonde
curls. This characterisation is part of the narrative, not merely an
incident in the plot. Like Boris she'll 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
Katerina's body, kissing and touching her. It's 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, there's the sex. Obviously, it's integral to the whole plot,
but it's 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 - the lights are like thunder, like powerful electric surges
from nature. When the orchestra plays against this stage action, it's
painfully poignant and unsettling. Sex, however, is part of the power
struggle between nature and "civilisation". For Katerina, it's 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 - as it
should. In so many productions, it's quickly glossed over and used
merely as a ruse to get Katerina out of the house. But Shostakovich's
music is so powerful that it's clear he wanted to point up the parallel
between the rape and Katerina's symbolic rape, for she, too, will be
exploited and humiliated in her turn. It's 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. "We're bored", they explain, in a parody of
Katerina's "boredom" aria. But, as Katerina points out, women can be
stronger than men. Perhaps that's "why" they need to be suppressed.
She can see through the dishonesty of their claim topower. 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
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 he's 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. That's 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 don't
like the messages in the opera. Stalin famously condemned it, as it cut
a little too close for comfort. "
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