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Arthaus Musik must think a large audience wants a PG-13 version of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, issuing this Blu-ray from the Teatro del Maggio Musical Fiorentino only a couple of years after the blistering 2006 Amsterdam production Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk [Blu-ray]. To judge by a few reviews, some opera lovers are in fact glad to have a Lady Macbeth whose thermostat is turned down a few degrees.
But if the sex and violence are taken out, what's left? Satire -- a trait whose presence in Lady Macbeth this Italian show seems blissfully unaware of.
When the 29-year-old composer's second opera premiered in 1934, Shostakovich was already recognized as a master satirist. His first opera, The Nose (1928), was taken from the satirical story by Gogol (whose name is dropped in Lady Macbeth). Shostakovich's 1930 ballet The Golden Age centers on a Soviet soccer team that travels to a Western city to encounter characters and situations outlawed back in the USSR. His second ballet, The Bolt, revolves around shoddy, subversive work in a Soviet factory.
Lady Macbeth's satire, though, was just a secondary reason the opera brought the fear of death down on Shostakovich's head.
In two years, Lady Macbeth ran up a remarkable box office record. It received 83 sold-out performances in Moscow, nearly 100 in Leningrad. It was staged in New York, Cleveland, London, Stockholm, Zürich, Copenhagen, Argentina, Czechoslovakia. Tickets were in such demand that when Stalin went to the Bolshoi on Jan. 26, 1936, three Moscow productions were running simultaneously.
Stalin didn't stay around to see the end, however. Furious, the butcher of millions who was a prude about sex stormed out, and two days later, an editorial appeared on Pravda's front page denouncing the opera and stigmatizing its composer as an Enemy of the People. For Shostakovich, the fun times were over. And Lady Macbeth was sent to Siberia.
Watching Fiorentino's Lady Macbeth, you could fail to realize any satirical intentions are in play. One opportunity after another is missed, and the lack of bite in the too-polished orchestra doesn't help. Instead, the scenes meant to be satirical must be head-scratchers for an audience not familiar with the opera.
For example, Shostakovich's version of the drunken porter in Shakespeare's Macbeth doesn't stagger in alone to relieve himself in the middle of the night. Instead, he is joined by a chorus line of peasants, who aren't drinking but are still having a gay old time. In this presentation, you'd have to know the joke beforehand to get it. Even if you do, it's a stretch here.
Further, the chief of police is a (literally) moustache-twirling Keystone Cop cartoon who belongs in a farce, not a satire. Plus, the humor of the police apprehending a socialist who insists he does believe in God sails right past.
As for the sex and violence hardwired into the score, the scene of Katerina's adultery with Sergei is demurely hidden behind a wall, and their murder of her husband when he returns from a business trip takes place out of the audience's line of sight. Wearing a white shirt, Sergei emerges from a lengthy whipping by Katerina's father-in-law without a spot of blood showing. Portraying the two lovers, Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet and Sergej Kunaev lack the stage presence and vocal prowess of Eva-Maria Westbroek and Christopher Ventris in Amsterdam. Katerina's falling-off-the-boat suicide is so anticlimactic we hardly notice.
The Italian production has its merits. Vladimir Vaneev reprises his dual role from Amsterdam as Boris the abusive but lecherous father-in-law and as the old convict whose monologue opens Act IV. As Boris, Vaneev makes a good villain and chews up the scenery as he's dying from Katerina's poisoned mushrooms.
One noteworthy feature of the performance is that during some of the orchestral interludes, the floor of the pit rises to stage level, enabling the orchestra to assume its proper role as a character in the action. A nice touch, that.
Because the opera is presented complete on one Blu-ray, there's no room for extras. But it is complete and in much better video and sound than the 2002 Barcelona DVD set Shostakovich - Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk / Secunde, Ventris, Kotcherga, Vas, Clark, Nesterenko, Capelle, Anissimov, Barcelona Opera. So for those who prefer not to see and hear raw humanity in all its ugliness and aspirations, this Fiorentino Lady Macbeth might serve its purpose. If you want the full monty, you'll have to go to Amsterdam.