The negative spiral of evil at the core of Shakespeare’s drama inspired Leskov to retell the story in prose for Russian readers of the nineteenth century and it, in turn, became the basis of the libretto by Alexander Preis Shostakovich, who gave it a contemporary setting. In telling the story of Katerina Ismailova, Shostakovich portrayed the woman, his Lady Macbeth, with perhaps more sympathy than his nineteenth-century predecessor. The comments by Shostakovich quoted in the notes that accompany this DVD give a concise statement of his intentions:
Leskov finds no moral or psychological justification for murder. I [Shostakovich], however have portrayed Katerina Ismailov as a strong, talented and beautiful woman who succumbs to the bleak surrounds of a Russia populated by merchants and serfs. For Leskov, she is a murderess; I depict her as a complex and tragic character. She is a loving woman, a deeply sensitive woman, by no means without feeling. . . .
In this opera the dissonant idiom Shostakovich used is effective as a sonic foundation for the passionate, if angular, vocal lines. The sometimes harsh orchestral accompaniments not only support the vocal lines, but also offer cues to the audience about the emotional pitch of the scenes, and the sensitive conductor Mariss Jansons offers a perceptive reading of this score. By no means an simple work. Jansons is clear in his interpretations, which offers a clear shape in each scene. At the same time the staging of Martin Kušej offers an appropriate foil for the story, with its outline-like structures of glass and metal that support the work. This DVD is based on the televised version of that staging, which Thomas Grimm directed for film. As a filmed opera, it preserves the sense of being on stage, yet reproduces some of the necessarily intimate blocking for some scenes, with close-ups that would be difficult to capture from a live performance of the work.
The staging itself is realistic and sometimes brutal in depicting murder or sexual longing, thus bringing out further the modernist aspects of Shostakovich’s work. As Kušej is quoted in the booklet that accompanies the DVD, “Orgasm and murder are two diametrically opposed poles, two extreme amplitudes of love and hate, the two fundamental relationships between human beings. This climactic and yet unfathomably deep essence of human behavior is the linchpin of my production. . . .” On this basis, the production brings out the sometimes primal striving of characters to survive both the situations in which they find themselves and also their or drives. Such a perspective is, perhaps, what makes the heroine Katerina intriguing, and Eva-Maria Westbroek succeeds in depicting the character as someone who is at once victim and perpetrator. She is the match for Sergei, whom Christopher Ventris plays convincingly. Early in the opera, a member of the crowd warns that Sergei is troublesome, but that does not deter Katerina in her liaison with him. It is too simple to make Sergei the scapegoat for Katerina’s actions. He is, rather, the enabler, whose passion for Katerina is at the root of her fateful response to her father-in-law’s discovery of their affair.
In performing their roles, the two principals display a command of the music and its nuances. Westbroek is as compelling in her solo numbers as she is when her entrance heightens the ensemble numbers. As much as the performance requires physicality, her voice matches those demands well, and remains inviting and vibrant. Ventris, whose own presence balances that of Westbroek, is equally adept at the role of Sergei, whose brutality is convincingly offputting. Yet his singing is, on the contrary, what makes Ventris’s Sergei memorable.
The chorus serves a actor and commentator, and the members of the Netherland Opera offer a vivid sense of the crowds when necessary. The involvement of the crowd in the sexual attack is stark, and the staging stops short of being graphic. Yet the rendering of Sergei’s liaison with Katerina benefits from the stop-action clips of the performers at various angles that suggests, rather than tells. As such, the stage action balances the musical content without overwhelming it.
Beyond the sensuality associated with Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the opera conveys a sense of the starkness that affects the characters in different ways. In interpreting the score Jansons is sensitive to that aspect of the music and maintains the intensity throughout the performance. This, in turn, drives the work to its conclusion, which is at once fitting and tragic.
This is a powerful production that makes available on video a fine production of the opera by performers who know the work well. The first two acts fill the first disc, with the third on the second. In fact, the latter contains a documentary about the film by Reiner Moritz, which offers some details about the production and the film itself. Recorded in 2006, this recent release is an impressive contribution to opera on DVD, and serves Shostakovich’s work well.
James L. Zychowicz