Friday, January 18, 2019

Dmitri Shostakovich, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1934)


The entirety of my knowledge of Shostakovich came from William Vollmann's novel Europe Central, where he's one of the main characters. But I read that kind of a long time ago, and I can't say I remember it very well. I guess I was mostly interested this because Verdi's Macbeth is so bangin,' and here was another opera with the word "Macbeth" in the title even though it bears absolutely no similarities to the other one, so boy, THIS sentence sure is turning out great; I'm glad it's over now. Anyway, I saw this production.

Actually, the title's a bit of a misnomer, really: the protagonist, Katerina, is absolutely nothing like Lady Macbeth in terms of circumstances, character, motivation, or anything. The plot: she's in an unhappy marriage to a rich merchant, feeling bored, trapped, and sexually frustrated, and boy, you just know THIS is going to turn out well.

It is, indeed, almost certainly--hell, strike the "almost"--the grimmest opera I've ever seen. Not even the slightest hint of redemption here, no matter how hard you look.  No remotely sympathetic characters other than Katerina herself, sort of, and she's mainly just sympathetic in an Emma Bovary sort of way.  Certainly not a positive outlook on humanity. But it's absolutely electrifying, is what else it is. Eva-Maria Westbroek is really great as Katerina, bringing across the character's ennui punctuated with moments of passion and violence. The tenor Christopher Ventris is fine as Katerina's lover, Sergei, but the real standout among the secondary cast is bass-baritone Vladimir Vaneev as her satanic father-in-law. Vaneev doesn't have much of an international reputation (I mean, no wikipedia page, even in Russian--though he seems to be rather prolific in Russia), but man, he's mesmerizing (it would be hella cool to see him doing Scarpia), and you're kinda disappointed when he's killed off midway though, not because he doesn't have it coming, but because you want to see more of him.

As I said, I wasn't really familiar with Shostakovich before now, but holy god is his score ever intense. I'm dumbfounded. And the production really complements it. I mean, I suppose it's good enough that almost any production would work, but well, this is what it is and what it is is intense as anything. It was banned for many years in Russia, after having been condemned possibly by Stalin himself, and fuck that guy, of course, but you can see why if you were gonna ban any opera, it would be this one. There's a scene near the beginning where a chorus of workers are sexually humiliating a workwoman which is particularly disturbing, and mention surely must be made of Sergei's initial rape of Katerina, which in this production is accompanied by strobe lighting such that you can only see the action in a series of disconnected images. I'm feeling short of breath just thinking about it.

Now, fair's fair, and I have to say, man, operas often have scenes that just break the momentum, and this is no exception: near the end, after a very intense climax, we have a too-long interlude with a chorus of police officers complaining about not being invited to Katerina and Sergei's wedding--in a humorous sort of vein--that I have to say, I did not love (although, fair's fair's fair, it may indeed be necessary to have the odd bit of connective tissue to make the story work). That's about all though, man. As a whole, the thing is some great damned work, and it's a fucking tragedy that, due to oppressive Soviet censorship, Shostakovich didn't write more operas (he did write one based on Gogol's story "The Nose," which sounds bizarre but hey, I'm up for anything). I'm definitely going to check out more of his music, though.

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