lady_macbethThe life of Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is almost as melodramatic as that of its heroine.

Composed in the early 1930’s, the opera was well received at its 1934 Leningrad premiere, and was also a success in Moscow a couple of years later. Then one evening Stalin came to see it and walked out mid-performance.

Shortly after, a now infamous diatribe entitled “Chaos Instead of Music” appeared in Pravda. Legend has it that the article was written by Stalin himself but regardless of who wrote it, Shostakovich became the victim of an unprecedented smear campaign. Performances of his music ceased altogether and he lived in fear of his life for many years. He made revisions to the score in 1963, but it is the original version that is usually performed today.

Based on an actual case, the opera tells the tale of Katerina Izmailova, a lonely, frustrated young woman who is ignored by her weak husband and dominated by her abusive father-in-law. She eventually resorts to adultery and murder to escape her virtual imprisonment. Unlike her more famous namesake, Katerina is not depicted as a larger-than-life monster; rather, Shostakovich affords his heroine a great deal of sympathy and understanding. In light of the violence and cruelty she confronts on a daily basis, her actions seem almost justified.

There is a lot of sex in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Early in Act One, the men working in the Izmailov factory try to gang bang one of the female workers. After giving in to adultery at the end of Act 1 – underscored by a notoriously explicit orchestral interlude – Katerina develops an almost insatiable appetite for her lover, Sergei. At another point in the story Katerina’s father-in-law attempts to rape her while his son is away and in retaliation, Katerina poisons the old man. Her husband is later murdered by Sergei after catching them in bed together.

At the subsequent wedding, the priest and the guests goad Sergei and Katerina to kiss repeatedly in an almost voyeuristic frenzy. Even after being convicted of murder and on their way to deportation, Sergei uses the promise of sex to get the woolen stockings he needs from Katerina in order to spread the legs of his next conquest, Sonetka. Is it any wonder that one American critic referred to the opera as “pornophony?”

Interspersed between the bouts of sex and violence, Shostakovich pokes fun at communist society, the church, and the police state itself. (I suspect this is where Stalin walked out.) The contrast of melodrama and satire, tragedy and absurdity, is brilliantly reflected in the score. Arching melodies give way to simple folksongs. Complicated harmonic structures morph into off-kilter, almost grotesque drunken brawls. How do you pull all of that off in the opera house? The truth is that I don’t think it happens very often. And that brings me to the DVD at hand.

This 2008 performance (Arthaus Musik 101387) was ostensibly taped live at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Let me begin by saying that conductor James Conlon and the orchestra are superb. Conlon is in complete control of this complex masterwork, and the virtuostic playing of the orchestra brings it to vibrant life. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the singers.

In the central role of Katerina, Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet is, quite simply, a mess. Her vocal production is effortful and throaty, her vibrato wide and intrusive, and her top notes are more like pitched screams. She is a decent actress and manages some nice dramatic moments, but all to often she is simply trying to get the notes out. She succeeds most of the time, but it is nerve-wracking to watch and hard to listen to. In her defense, she clearly knows every note of this difficult score, but she simply doesn’t have the vocal chops to do anything with it. Though an attractive enough woman, she is also hampered by her matronly appearance in a role heavily dependent on sexual allure.

As her lover Sergei, Russian tenor Sergej Kunaev is better, if not really distinguished. He is a good-looking man with what sounds like a decent-sized lyric tenor voice that he uses with solid, workmanlike efficiency. He also takes his shirt off a lot.

In the much smaller tenor role of the ineffectual husband Zinoviy, it is Vsevolod Grivnov who impresses vocally. He does not have Mr. Kunaev’s looks or physique, but his gleaming, well-produced tenor makes you sit up and take notice.

Baritone Vladimir Vaneev is also very good as both Boris, the dominating father-in-law in Acts One and Two, and the “Old Convict” who appears briefly in Act Four. He uses his large, not particularly beautiful voice with skill, providing both musical and dramatic insight.

Bass Julian Rodescu is simply dreadful as the Priest. I can’t think of one redeeming thing to say about his performance or his singing. Neither could the chorus evidently: one member is caught on camera clearly making fun of him during the Wedding Scene.

As the Police Chief, bass Vladimir Matorin overacts and sings with a voice so dark it is almost a caricature. I’ll concede that may be the point. Mezzo Natascha Petrinsky is lots of fun as Sonetka, Sergei’s last conquest and Katerina’s last victim. She is beautiful, sexy and vivacious, with a compelling dramatic presence.

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In order to create a successful performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the director must have a firm grasp of both the tragic and the satiric elements woven into the libretto and the score, and must also have the technique and the skill to differentiate between the two, while still creating a dramatic whole. Director Lev Dodin gets about half or it right. He manages to convey most of the tragedy in a fairly straightforward manner, but he is woefully out of his element with the satire. Too often those scenes devolve into farce, with both the chorus and supporting players shamelessly overacting, lending an embarassing and unprofessional look to the whole show.

Also compromising the dramatic integrity of the performance is the need for many of the principals, particularly Ms. Charbonnet, to stare directly at Maestro Conlon during difficult musical passages, in effect “checking out” of the scene entirely. This is a perfect example of how the realities of a live performance do not always coincide with the needs of the camera. In the theater it was probably not that noticeable but on the DVD it is very distracting.

David Barovsky’s unit set is suitably grim and drab, with a large, wooden enclosure serving as the playing area for the whole opera. My one big problem with the set is that Katerina’s bedroom is only visible through a large, second-floor window. Every time someone goes to sleep, is told to go to sleep or talks about going to sleep they inexplicably bring pillows and comforter to the window sill, lean over and put their heads down on them. Very odd. It also creates moments of visual/logistical confusion. For example, in Act Two Katerina and Sergei are supposed to be in bed when her husband returns unexpectedly and walks in on them. But here, Katerina and Sergei are lying on a pallet center stage, she wakes up hearing footsteps “outside the door,” and then everyone has to run upstairs to be in the “bedroom” so Zinoviy can appear there and be strangled by Sergei.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is a brilliant and difficult piece of musical theater. As is the case with so much 20th century Russian opera, we seldom get the chance to see it performed or hear it sung with beauty, intelligence and dramatic integrity by world class singers. Hopefully that will not always be the case but in the meantime, I’d stay away from this particular example.