The first staged version of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk to be issued on DVD, this 2002 two-disc video from Barcelona's Gran Teatre del Liceu features an energetic performance by Christopher Ventris as the snake Sergey, strong singing by Nadine Secunde in the title role, a luxury cameo appearance by legendary Russian bass Yevgeny Nesterenko, and a rather lurid cover photo of Ventris planted between Secunde's legs.
Sadly, that one shot, taken in passing, does not typify the Liceu production and is as close as this show comes to the heat and heart of Lady Macbeth.
I say sadly not because I'm a fan of gratuitous sex and violence, but because those elements are not merely integral to the opera whose libretto Shostakovich himself helped write -- they're vital.
Many people are more familiar with the historical events surrounding Lady Macbeth than are familiar with the opera itself. After premiering in 1934 in Moscow and in Leningrad, Lady Macbeth racked up a record over the next two years that's darn nigh impossible to imagine a new opera achieving today. It received 83 sold-out performances in Moscow, nearly 100 in Leningrad, and reached the stages of New York, London, Stockholm, Zürich, and Copenhagen.
Enter Stalin, stage left.
On Jan. 26, 1936, the Great Leader went to the opera, didn't like what he saw, and marched out of his Bolshoi box in high dudgeon, full entourage in his wake. Two days later, the state newspaper Pravda condemned Lady Macbeth and its composer in a front-page editorial ordered, of course, by Stalin. Ironically, for the butcher he was, Stalin pretended to be shocked by the opera's violence. And though he could order millions to death with a Wotan-like wave of his hand, Stalin was a prude about sex. Which mattered little to Shostakovich at this point. Declared an Enemy of the People, he feared for his life. Lady Macbeth, of course, soon disappeared.
From watching the Liceu production, you might wonder what the fuss was all about.
What we are given here, at a slogging pace, is a sanitized version that literally covers up the sexual encounters and lessens the violence that are necessary for the portrayal of the heroine, Katerina Ismailova. Without the full effect of Katerina's adultery and murders being presented, what should be Graham Clark's comic relief as a counterpart to the drunken porter in Shakespeare's Macbeth flops because there's nothing for Clark to play off of.
Furthermore, at least two production decisions mar the proceedings. Inexplicably, a section from the first movement of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 6 is added between Acts III and IV. The accompanying scene adds nothing but time to a performance that already moves too slowly. More importantly, instead of drowning herself in despair at the opera's end, Lady Macbeth simply sits staring at the audience as the curtain falls.
Neither the packaging nor the technical aspects of the Barcelona release recommend it. The flimsy insert gives the cast and what tracks can be accessed, but not a word about the opera or its performers. In contrast, the 32-page booklet in the 2006 production of Lady Macbeth from Amsterdam Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk [Blu-ray] provides essays and a host of glossy photos. In addition, the picture from Barcelona is often grainy or blurry. The sound is worse -- sometimes shrill, sometimes overly reverberant, frequently shifting its focus from too distant to too close. The Barcelona DVDs include no extras, whereas the Amsterdam set has a 65-minute documentary film, The Tragedy of Katerina Ismailova, by Reiner E. Moritz that includes interviews with stage director Martin Kusej, conductor Mariss Jansons -- who has a complete cycle of the Shostakovich symphonies to his credit and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at his disposal -- and leading members of the cast.
Ventris would go on to improve his Sergey in the more vigorous Amsterdam production, which stars a dynamic Eva-Maria Westbroek. If you can take Lady Macbeth undiluted, that's the one to go for.