Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Dmitri Shostakovich, libretto by Alexander Preis and the composer
Opus Arte (2 DVDs)
(2006)

Only a few months after treating us to De Nederlandse Opera's wonderfully inventive Love for Three Oranges, Opus Arte has made the same company's superb Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, directed by Martin Kušej, available on DVD. 2006 must have been an annus mirabilis for Dutch lovers of twentieth century Russian opera.

The libretto of Lady Macbeth is based on Nikolai Leskov's 1865 novella. Katerina Ismailova (Eva-Maria Westbroek) weds successful merchant Zinovy (Ludovít Ludha) to escape from a life of poverty, only to find herself trapped in an unconsummated marriage and surrounded by brutish peasants on her husband's estate. During Zinovy's absence Katherina falls in love with labourer and serial seducer Sergey (Christopher Ventris), but her overbearing father-in-law Boris (Vladimir Veneev) finds out about the affair, thrashes Sergey to within an inch of his life and threatens to tell Zinovy the truth when he returns. Katerina poisons Boris and manages to convince the authorities that he died a natural death.

When Zinovy returns she and Sergey kill him, bury the corpse and make plans to marry. The riotous wedding party is in full swing when Zinovy's body is discovered and Katerina and Sergey are arrested. In less time than it takes to say "folie à deux" the couple find themselves in transit to a Siberian labour camp. Sergey blames Katerina for his ruined life, and to make her degradation complete fools her into giving him her warm stockings - which he promptly gives to Sonyetka (Lani Poulson), his latest conquest. Finally, when Katerina and Sonyetka fall into a lake the prison guards make no attempt to save them; they simply aren't worth the effort.

Despite a rapturously received double premiere in Moscow and Leningrad in 1934 Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk soon fell victim to the purge of "modernism" from every branch of the arts. Only after Stalin's death did the opera begin to make a comeback in its original form. Martin Kušej's production, designed by Martin Zehetgruber and Heide Kastler, pulls no punches in its depiction of brutality and warped eroticism - the DVD case bears the warning that Lady Macbeth contains "nudity and scenes of a sexual nature" - and the entire cast, from the principals to the most humble chorus member, deliver performances of phenomenal vocal and dramatic power.

It is often claimed that Katerina is the only three-dimensional character in the opera, and in Kušej's otherwise modern-dress production Eva-Maria Westbroek is set apart by her 1930s costumes and Harlowesque platinum blonde hair. The home in which she spends so many lonely hours is a pristine glass box, a symbol of the emptiness of a life in which the only source of pleasure is her collection of dainty high-heeled shoes. It is surrounded by a sea of mud in which the estate workers launch a violent (and almost unwatchably realistic) sexual assault on the cook Aksinya (Carole Wilson), Boris dies an agonizing death and the strangled Zinovy is buried by torchlight.

It all sounds relentlessly morbid and melodramatic, but one of the opera's great strengths is the black comedy bubbling just below the surface. Zinovy's corpse is discovered by the inebriated Shabby Peasant (a bravura performance by Alexandre Kravets, possibly the first singer to take a curtain call with his trousers round his ankles), who spills the beans to the cheerfully corrupt Chief of Police (Nikita Storojev). Already peeved at not being invited to Katerina's wedding, the Chief of Police is only too happy to gatecrash the reception - not to administer justice but in the hope of pocketing a hefty bribe. The wedding feast is degenerating into a drunken free-for-all with Katerina being serenaded by the comically lecherous Priest (Alexander Vassiliev) when the police burst in, and Sergey is on the verge of handing over a handful of roubles when disaster strikes: the conscience-stricken Katerina blurts out the confession that will convict them both. From then onwards there is nothing for the lovers but imprisonment and death.

Kušej has made a drastic but dramatically effective alteration to Shostakovich's original ending. Katerina no longer drowns but is mauled by Sergey and the female convicts in a scene that mirrors the attempted rape of Aksinya earlier in the opera - and when the other convicts resume their march to Siberia Katerina's body is discovered hanging from a makeshift noose. It's a bleak ending to one of the most emotionally overwhelming productions I've seen for a long time.

Finally, despite the magnificent performances of Westbroek, Ventris and the other principals - and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra's handling of this most symphonic of opera scores under the baton of Mariss Jansons - they do not overshadow the remarkable contribution made by members of the De Nederlandse Opera Chorus. They are called upon to play farm labourers, peasants looting Katerina's house, drunken wedding guests, policemen and convicts, and every one of them gives a true acting performance - even in close-ups there are none of the blank expressions and stock gestures that sometimes mar videotaped stage productions. All credit to them for helping to make a good Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk into a great one.

Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson