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Reviewed by:
  • Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: Bleak Tragedy or Black Comedy?
  • Marina Frolova-Walker (bio)
Dmitry Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk?
Opus Arte OA 0965 D (2 DVDs), 2006
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera
Het Muziektheater Amsterdam
Production premiere date: June 3, 2006
DVD film dates: June 25 and 28, 2006
Conductor: Mariss Jansons
Director: Martin Kušej
Set Design: Martin Zehetgruber
Costume Design: Heide Kastler
Lighting: Reinhard Traub
  • Katerina Lvovna Ismailova: Eva-Maria Westbroek

  • Sergey: Christopher Ventris

  • Boris Timofeyevich Ismailov/Old Convict: Vladimir Vaneev

  • Zinovy Borisovich Ismailov: Ludovit Ludha

  • Aksinya/Female Convict: Carole Wilson

  • Shabby Peasant: Alexandre Kravetz

  • Chief of Police: Nikita Storojev

  • Priest/Guard: Alexander Vassiliev

  • Teacher: Valentin Jar

  • Sonyetka: Lani Poulson

  • Steward: Martin Vijgenboom

  • Porter: Jan Polak

  • First Foreman: Ruud Fiselier

  • Second Foreman: Jan Majoor

  • Third Foreman: Leo Geers

  • Millhand: Harry Teeuwen

  • Coachman: Cor de Wit

  • Sentry: Wojtek Okraskra

  • Drunken Guest: John van Halteren

  • Producer: Ferenc van Damme

  • Executive Producer: Hans Petri

  • Video Director: Thomas Grimm [End Page 150]

  • The Royal Opera Chorus and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

  • Production premiere date: April 1, 2004

  • Performance attended: October 14, 2006

  • Conductor: Antonio Pappano

  • Director: Richard Jones

  • Set Design: John Macfarlane

  • Costume Design: Nicky Gillibrand

  • Lighting: Mimi Jordan Sherin

  • Choreography: Linda Dobell

  • Katerina Lvovna Ismailova: Eva-Maria Westbroek

  • Sergey: Christopher Ventris

  • Boris Timofeyevich Ismailov: John Tomlinson

  • Zinovy Borisovich Ismailov: John Daszak

  • Aksinya: Carole Wilson

  • Shabby Peasant: Peter Bronder

  • Police Inspector: Roderick Earle

  • Policeman: Thomas Barnard

  • Priest: Maxim Mikhailov

  • Teacher: Nikola Matišić

  • Sonyetka: Christine Rice

  • Steward/Sentry: Krzysztof Szumanski

  • Porter: Jonathan Fisher

  • First Workman: Andrew H. Sinclair

  • Second Workman/Coachman: Andrew Sritheran

  • Third Workman: Donaldson Bell

  • Workman from Mill: Christopher Lackner

  • Drunken Guest: Andrew Macnair

  • Old Convict: Gwynne Howell

  • Female Convict: Miriam Murphy

  • Sergeant: John Bernays

Watching Valery Gergiev conduct a concert performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the London/BBC Proms in 2006, I was once again struck by the schizophrenic character of the opera's music. Gergiev's gestures registered each switch between two different modes, sometimes changing every few seconds between the serious and the ridiculous, the earnest and the ironic. On occasion, the switch was only for the sake of an isolated somber chord in the midst of unbridled parody, set in relief by different instrumental timbres. It is as if Shostakovich could not decide between Stanislavskian and Meyerholdian conceptions of theater, or between opera and antiopera. These ambiguities make the opera inherently problematic: Katerina and the authorial voice itself (through some of the symphonic interludes and through the part of the Old Convict) are presented seriously and can be touching or even tragic, while most of the other characters live and die grotesquely, to the sound of parodic waltzes, polkas, and [End Page 151] comic couplet songs drawn from popular sources. Richard Taruskin famously saw a moral issue at stake here: namely, that Shostakovich dehumanized the other characters so his audience would feel they were disposable ("the perennial method of those who would perpetrate and justify genocide"), and so that Katerina could remain a heroic figure in spite of the murders.1 The opera's twofold nature also leads to strikingly different results when directors choose the tragic opera over the parodic antiopera or vice versa.

The 2006 Dutch production by Martin Kušej, recorded on this DVD, shows a clear bias toward the opera's serious and dark side. Martin Zehetgruber's minimalist set, like a cage or fish tank, holds Katerina trapped in her unbearable situation; her lover Sergey unwittingly becomes trapped there too. In act 3, the fish tank is gone, as the lovers think they have found freedom, but a tall fence bordering the stage prevents their escape from the police. In the final act the cage is now literal—the prison that holds Katerina—and we realize that the merciless strip lighting that had lent the whole production its uncomfortable, claustrophobic atmosphere was prefiguring the prison set, where it now acquires associations with torture by sleep deprivation. Admittedly, the production is highly unified and stylish, but the sets are so oppressive that the comedy elements, including even the slapstick scene at the police station, have no oxygen to sustain them...


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