Dmitri Shostakovich wasn't a loyal servant of Soviet orthodoxy, as was once thought, but a supremely gifted musician who had the misfortune to be born in the USSR. His Lady Macbeth of Mtensk is a major operatic masterpiece from the 1930s, yet productions of it have been rare, and this is its first appearance on DVD. Quite simply, it's a triumph.
The opera has little to do with Shakespeare's Macbeth -- instead, it takes Lady Macbeth as the prototype of any female murderer. But this tale of a wronged woman who tries to fight her way to independence and happiness, killing three times in the process, actually presents her sympathetically, and as a symbol of Russia's sufferings. It proved too much for Stalin, though, who had its hugely successful run closed down the morning after he attended a performance.
The story was originally set in 19th century Russia. This production moves the action to the era of the music's composition, and as a result we see Soviet factory workers and a perhaps inappropriately raggle-taggle police force, all in 1930s dress. The style veers from stark tragedy to broad comedy and back again over its three hours' length (it comes on two DVDs). Some critics have seen the work as coarse-grained, but this is wrong. Early on Katerina (the "Lady Macbeth") has a soulful aria about how lonely she is without a lover, and later there's a lament by the Old Convict about the vast Russian steppes and their implacable winter. Both are somber, heart-wrenching and musically superb.
Brutality and farce, however, do feature some of the time. Katerina takes part in animalistic sex with Sergei, the handsome new worker at her feeble husband's factory, and after being discovered in her bedroom Sergei is subjected to a savage flogging. The comic police contingent merely want more and bigger bribes, and in the grim detention camp where Katerina and Sergei end up, everyone is out for themselves. Sergei betrays Katerina just for a pair of warm leggings for his new-found partner.
Nadine Secunde (who sang Isolde in Taipei's Tristan and Isolde in 2003) couldn't be bettered as Katerina. She combines immense vocal strength with remarkable acting ability as the sensuous, bored wife. Christopher Ventris, too, is perfect as Sergei -- sexy, opportunistic and callous. Anatoli Kotcherga makes an unforgettable Boris (Katerina's brutal father-in-law) and Yevgeny Nesterenko a marvelous Old Convict.
Many scenes are exceptionally memorable -- the virtual rape of Katerina, the scene following her killing of Boris with rat poison, the wedding party broken up by the police, and the ending in the bleak prison camp. Some changes proved inevitable - Katerina is supposed to push Segei's prison girlfriend, Sonyetka, into the icy river at the opera's close but instead she smothers her with a plastic bag. It doesn't matter -- the overall effect is extremely powerful as well as musically subtle, inventive, often grand and all in all endlessly absorbing.
Alexander Anissimov conducts Barcelona's Symphony Orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu with vigor and precision, and they respond in kind. There isn't a dull moment in this long opera -- it's a neglected masterpiece that's finally getting its due. This video recording, of a live performance in 2002, is both timely and very highly recommended.