Lady Macbeth of the DVD Aisle

Before moving on from the opera, here’s an overview (from memory, so without much corroborating detail) of some versions of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk available on DVD.  These were pretty scarce for a while but happily proliferated after Shostakovich’s centennial year in 2006.  The audio-only EMI album I wrote about last week is the essential recording of the work, at least long term, but it’s easier to get a good sense of the work through a filmed production.

Eva-Maria Westbroek; Christopher Ventris; Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Mariss Jansons

The most preferable filmed version of the opera that I have seen is the 2006 Concertgebouw Orchestra release, with Mariss Jansons leading a powerful account of the orchestral score.  The principals perform their roles ably and the videography is handsome and lively enough, although, as with all stage productions, static by film standards.  The stage design and costumes didn’t make an impression on me, other than being hard-edged in a contemporary Continental-European style.

Nadine Secude; Christopher Ventris; Chorus and Symphony Orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Alexander Anissimov

The Gran Teatre del Liceu production is similarly well-performed, with a notable bit of (operatically speaking) celebrity casting, in that Evgeny Nesterenko, part of Shostakovich’s circle of trusted performers late in the composer’s life, plays the part the old convict.  This version suffers, however, from the misguided and momentum-killing interpolation of some funeral music from Shostakovich’s sixth symphony within Act 3.  The shabby peasant performs a pantomime to it following his trip to the police station, ostensibly demonstrating some remorse, but this move muddies rather than enrichens the original satirical intent of the character and, even less fortunately, resembles nothing so much as the goofy, one-man interpretive dance put on by The Dude’s landlord in The Big Lebowski.  Still and all, the disc’s not a bad choice.

Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet; Sergei Kunaev; Chorus and Orchestra of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, James Conlon

I haven’t seen this Maggio Musicale Fiorentino version, but it’s in the catalog as well.  That’s three contemporary stagings of the opera released on DVD in less than a decade, for those counting.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, directed by Peter Weigl, 1992 (Vishnevskaya; Gedda; London Philharmonic Orchestra, Rostropovich)

Peter Weigl’s 1992 film version of the opera features Czech actors lip-syncing to the EMI recording, which I find jarring — you have Galina Vishnevskaya’s mature, fiery soprano voice issuing from the buxom young Markéta Hrubesová, who seems to possess a merely phonetic understanding of the words.  Weigl preserves the opera’s original nineteenth-century setting, which is a plus, but he strips out the orchestral interludes and satirical third-act setpieces; what remains is an R-rated reenactment of the story’s most lurid elements in which the heroine, to borrow some phrasing from Peter Cook, every day gets more violent, and every day gets more nude.  But the biggest mark against the film is that it’s so stagey — Weigl’s use of so many long, medium-distance shots makes for a dull and flabby film, all the more disappointing since Shostakovich’s quick jumps in musical style seem ready-made for the editing room.

Katerina Izmailova, directed by Mikhail Shapiro, 1966; Vishnevskaya; Orchestra of the Shevchenko Opera & Ballet Theatre, Kiev; Konstantin Simeonov

I’ll use the 1966 film version of Katerina Ismailova as my main reference point when I get to his revised version of the opera from the 1960s.  But, in brief, despite some cuts of the orchestra-only music and, much more noticeably, its heavily bowdlerized libretto and score, the Soviet movie is well worth seeing for Vishnevskaya’s performance, in which she both sings on the soundtrack and acts opposite a number of lip-syncing actors, more than holding her own in screen presence.  Shapiro’s direction makes some efforts to bring film effects into the production — for instance, in Boris’ Act 2 reverie his youthful, merrymaking self is superimposed next to him onscreen — but there’s nothing too interesting there by purely cinematic standards.

Siberian Lady Macbeth, directed by Andrzej Wajda, 1962

Andrzej Wajda’s 1962 Siberian Lady Macbeth is worth half a mention, too, as a Polish adaptation of the original Nikolai Leskov story.  The soundtrack does borrow some of Shostakovich’s musical material, most notably the doomy music that opens Act 2, but in a musty and colorless arrangement.  The differences in plot are worth noting — Wajda preserves the supernatural elements, Katerina’s desire for a child, and her murder of her nephew — but for those I’d recommend reading Leskov’s novella itself.


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