Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is an opera more heard about than seen. The facts of its notoriety are well known. After opening in 1934 in Leningrad and Moscow, the opera catapulted the 29-year-old composer to superstardom. Within two years, it had been performed 83 times to sold-out houses in Leningrad, nearly 100 times in Moscow, and reached the stage in New York, London, Stockholm, Zürich, and Copenhagen.
Then on Jan. 26, 1936, Stalin showed up at the Bolshoi to see what the fuss was about -- and all hell broke loose. The Great Leader, entourage in tow, stormed out of his box before the show was over. Two days later an editorial on Pravda's front page condemned the opera and its composer. Lady Macbeth soon disappeared. Shostakovich, declared an Enemy of the People, feared for his life.
After watching Mariss Jansons conduct Lady Macbeth with Eva-Maria Westbroek in the title role in this 2006 Amsterdam staging, the surprise is not that Lady Macbeth upset Stalin, who slaughtered millions on a whim but was a prude on matters sexual. The surprise is that Shostakovich wasn't marched out and executed on the spot -- which I don't doubt would have happened had Stalin witnessed this particular production.
I've seen my two-Blu-ray set from start to finish three times, and I can hardly take in the daring performance Westbroek delivers. I believe there are times she forgets where she is, forgets who she is, so complete is her commitment to the role, so white-hot is her involvement in realizing the multilayered character of Shostakovich's Katerina Ismailova.
Katerina is a bored, rich housewife stuck in a provincial backwater. Her impotent husband has not been able to consummate their marriage, and while he is away on business, she takes as her lover a wandering rake named Sergey who has just begun working in the family factory, then murders the abusive father-in-law who catches her with Sergey. When her husband returns, she and Sergey murder him, then try to flee with the family's fortune before they are arrested and sent to Siberia.
Somehow, Westbroek overcomes our revulsion at Katerina's crimes and, without absolving her of guilt, evokes pathos for her suffering, her isolation, her own betrayal by Sergey with another female prisoner. Katerina wants Life. She wants to be kissed hard, to taste blood, to know what is it to feel truly alive. Actualizing Katerina on stage as this true-to-life woman is no small achievement. Westbroek does it.
Describing the virtues of this overwhelming production could grow to Dostoyevskyian proportions. Christopher Ventris polishes his muscular portrayal of Sergey in Barcelona's 2002 Lady Macbeth Shostakovich - Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk / Secunde, Ventris, Kotcherga, Vas, Clark, Nesterenko, Capelle, Anissimov, Barcelona Opera. The whole supporting cast deserves praise, including Alexandre Kravets, who enacts Shostakovich's version of the drunken porter who gets up in the night to relieve himself in Shakespeare's Macbeth. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra plays as only this world-class orchestra can play. On the podium, Mariss Jansons is so absorbed that the sweat is dripping off his chin within 15 minutes. The camera work, directed by Thomas Grimm, is dazzlingly right.
That camera work is notably effective when Katerina and her Seryózha first make love, as runaway music throbs from the orchestra and pulsating strobe lights heighten the entire episode, right down to its descending trombone glissando denouement.
Which brings up a major caution. On the back cover is printed a warning: "This production contains stroboscopic light effects, nudity and scenes of a sexual nature." To which might have been added: graphic violence and bloodshed. If such elements offend you, avoid this.
Shostakovich's orchestration is modern but accessible. Some people shy away from Russian opera because they say the language doesn't sound musical, but Westbroek does indeed sing. Beautifully. She shreds the heartstrings. Listen to her moan, "Seryózha, Seryózha," toward the final moments of the opera, and you'll understand as you never could otherwise the mournful motif that rises in the final pages of Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8, composed 24 years after Lady Macbeth was crushed.
The strongest recommendation for this Lady Macbeth perhaps comes, by accident rather than design, from Westbroek herself. At the end, when the curtain rises to reveal her standing alone to receive the ovation she is due, she puts her hands on her head with a look of astonishment on her face, as though she herself cannot believe what she has done. She has laid it on the line, body and soul, heart and voice, given every ounce of her being to this performance. She barely holds back the tears.
It's a feat Westbroek might not be able ever to duplicate. She doesn't have to. Thanks to Opus Arte's stunning Blu-ray, the whole world can hear it and see it.