Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, Shostakovich 


Eva-Maria Westbroek (Katerina), Carole Wilson (Aksinya & Female Convict), Lani Poulson (Sonyetka), Christopher Ventris (Sergey), Ludovit Ludha (Zinovy), Alexandre Kravets (Shabby Peasant), Nikita Storojev (Chief of Police), Alexander Vassiliev (Priest & Guard), Valentin Jar (Teacher), Vladimir Vaneev (Boris Timofeyevich & Old Convict)

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera c. Mariss Jansons, p. Martin Kusej d. Martin Zehetgruber & Heide Kastler video director Thomas Grimm 

Opus Arte 0965 D (2 discs 236 minutes) 


Katerina Ismailova, Shostakovich 


Galina Vishnevskaya (Katerina), Tatiana Gavrilova (sung by V.Reka) (Sonyetka), Artem Inotemstev (sung by V.Tretyak) (Sergey), Nikolai Boyarsky (sung by V.Radziyevsky) (Zinovy), Roman Tkachuk (sung by S.Strezhnev) (Shabby Peasant), Alexander Sokolov (sung by A.Vedernikov) (Boris) 

Chorus and Orchestra of the Shevchenko Opera and Ballet Theatre c. Konstantin Simeonov. A Lenfilm production d. Mikhail Shapiro 


Decca 074 3137 (112 minutes) 


The Gambler, Prokofiev


A.Evdokimova (acted) Irina Poliakowa (sung) (Paulina), L.Yudina (acted) A.Matiushina (sung) (Mademoiselle Blanche), S.Fadeieva (acted) T.Antipova (sung) Babushka), V.Babatinski (acted) V.Makhov (sung) Alexei, N.Afanasiev (acted) A.Sokolov (sung) (Marquis), A.Grusinskiy (acted) V.Zarskiy (sung) (Prince Nilski), A.Larionov (acted) B.Dobrin (sung) (Mr. Astley), G.Avramov (acted) G.Troitsky (sung) (General), N.Svetlovidov (acted) I.Budrin (sung) (Potapych) 

Chorus and Orchestra of the USSR National Radio and Television c. Gennady Rozhdestvensky. Gostelradiofond Moscow d. Y.Bogatirenko Capriccio 93 510 (84 minutes) 



Martin Kusej, in the extra documentary about this production of Lady Macbeth posits that the essential theme of the opera is ‘orgasm and death’. Well, obviously an opera with the most celebrated orchestrally depicted sex act in opera (the pornophony bit in Act 1) must reflect this, but it is not the whole story of this multi-faceted, ambiguous theatrical masterpiece. That scene, in this production is in fact very successfully dealt with, a strobe lighting effect enhances the manic insanity and shields the performers from anything too compromising and indeed suggests much athletic jiggery-pokery, if only such ingenuity informed the rest of this flawed production. Orgasm and death seems to equate with underpants – we see rather a lot of Katerina and Sergei, Aksynya is gang-raped in Act 1, the Shabby Peasant pulls down his pants to reveal battered briefs, the entire police force in their scene are outfitted in Calvin Kleins, the factory workers surrounding the drunken priest at Boris Timofeyich’s last rites and finally all of the convicts in the final progress through Siberia scene. The hyper pictorial quality, even cartoonishness of much of the music doesn’t function when realities are fudged: why does the Shabby Peasant tell the police chief there is a body in the cellar, when he is carrying it on his back? - why does Katerina have to bribe the prison guard to see Sergei, when all sexes are mingled in their underwear? – why is he cold and requires stockings? - and so on. The shame is that there is a powerhouse cast, in particular Vladimir Vaneev as ageing lothario, Christopher Ventris who is truly callous and slimy, and Eva Marie Westbroek who produces voluminous tone and sensitive phrasing, even if the production requires her to wear one expression all the time. The score is conducted with great impact by Mariss Jansons, but the video direction is at fault here, instead of filming nothing (as required by the director – in the theatre the interludes were unstaged) we get a fixed camera on the conductor, which further lowers the dramatic voltage – even unbelievably during the magical postlude to Act 2 on harps and trumpets, after the murder of Zinovy, we cut to Mariss Jansons conducting. And why is the opera spread over 2 DVDs with the break in the middle of Act 3? 


Turning to the Soviet film of Shostakovich’s revision Katerina Ismailova, the priorities are somewhat different, the sex has to be suggested rather than poured in.  This is a historical document, the filming of which is compellingly told in Galina, the prima donna's memoirs and it has never before been released in the west. Though the revision has been discredited and the original version now holds the stage, this is compelling viewing, if you can get over the extremely forward recording of the voices, which does Vishnevskaya’s committed no-holds barred brand of vocalism some disservice. Admittedly the seduction scene, shorn of its orchestral rudery is a non event, and there are extensive cuts, notably the whole scene in the police station. Vishnevskaya is the only cast member who both sings and acts, arguably Boris looks a little too decrepit. But how well and slyly the director captures those moments when the music undermines and sends up characters and situations, Vishnevskaya’s sly smile to herself when Sergei’s posturing‘I’m bored’ speaks volumes, Sonyetka’s tolerating Sergei in the last act and her very misguided attempt at rapprochement with Katerina which results in her murder, the shabby peasant is genuinely funny and that whole sequence matches the keystone cops lunacy of the music, with a brilliant split scene montage of wedding party and advancing policemen’s feet. The last act, which is a real progress through Siberia, seasons and venues is particularly successful. Highly recommended. Extras include a tantalizing taster from a 1960’s film version of Shostakovich’s housing estate operetta Moscow, Cheryomushki, complete with Soviet Danny Kaye look-a-like tenorino, which is promised a release from Decca in the future.


Even though the film of The Gambler dates from the same year as Katerina Ismailova, its black and white photography and oppressive use of close up dates from a previous era. Interestingly, the film predates the landmark 1971 production at the Bolshoi that marked the rehabilitation of this piece. Like Katerina, it is dubbed, with actors miming to playback. Aficionados of those fish-glue smelling Melodiya box sets of LPs from the ‘70’s will recognize a vintage cast here.  Unfortunately the soundtrack is very crudely recorded, recessed and distorted and the whole enterprise is not very involving. The direction is enigmatic to a fault, close-ups on actors just looking blank, and crucial roles seem underplayed, in particular the Baron, whose mini mad-scene is underwhelming, and the larger than life Babulenka, the supposedly half-dead granny who appears and squanders all on the gaming tables, does not quite have the presence required. Underplaying these grotesques means that too much weight is put on the music, which is fleeting, mostly parlando and really not very memorable, and often none too audible. Lip-synching and subtitles are crude. A curiosity.

© Julian Grant 2006  

Cherry Town (Moscow Cheryomushki) Shostakovich 


Olga Zabotkina (Lidochka), Marina Khotuntseva (Masha), Svetlana Zhivankova (Lyusya), Marina Polbentseva (Vava), Vladimir Vasilyev (Boris), Grigori Bortnikov (Sasha), Vladimir Zemlyanikin (Sergey), Vasili Merkuryev (Drebednev)

Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra c.Nikolai Rabinovich, d. Gerbert Rappaport, 

A Lenfilm Production. Decca 1475 (87 mins)


This is the first western release of the 1963 Soviet film version of Shostakovich’s housing estate operetta Moscow Cheryomushki (‘Cherry Town’, as ubiquitous a misnomer as Springfield is in the USA) - a highly sanitized snapshot of Soviet urban regeneration. Fun is poked at the bureaucratic ineptitudes of an oppressive system, but with a bantering, even affectionate tone, light-years from the biting satire that one tends to associate with Shostakovich. The production values are fun, there is much slapstick and everything, even the housing estate under construction, looks squeaky clean and brightly coloured. The music is inevitably heavily cut, and even though Shostakovich later dismissed his own confection, several of the tunes are catchy, if rather blander than one might expect from his populist early film and ballet scores. The mono sound is forward and bright, the singing voices are not so oppressively forward as in the contemporary film version of Katerina Ismailova (also available on Decca). The three young couples are all easy on the eye and ear, and though in some cases the disparity between singing and spoken voices seem implausible, there are no separately credited singers, as if often the case with Soviet opera films of the same vintage; thus I assume we are seeing and hearing real singers, without the aid of Soviet Marni Nixons. Only some dodgy lip-synching, a few technical oversights and close-ups revealing mouthfuls of less than perfect teeth differentiate this from standard 1950’s Hollywood fare featuring the likes of Doris Day or Bing Crosby, though the lunacy of some of the set pieces is more reminiscent of the pre-code musicals of Lubitsch or Mamoulian. This is not so surprising, as the intriguing career path of the Viennese born director Herbert (later russified to Gerbert) Rappaport takes in assistantships to Pabst, then Hollywood, before being tempted to the Soviet Union to make anti Nazi films, where he stayed, becoming a prominent director with the Soviet state-funded production company Lenfilm. A highlight is a preposterously costumed dance number in a half built apartment, a construction site and on a crane that lurches through various historical periods. Inevitably the work disappoints; as recent stage versions have demonstrated by attempted to shore-up the weak ending with rewrites, there is no denying the book implodes badly at the end. Here, the device of a bench, which forces the truth from anyone who sits on it, is as tiresome as one of W.S. Gilbert’s lozenges. 


Highly recommended all the same: a fascinatingly manipulated counter-glimpse of an epoch we inevitably associate with extreme grimness.


© Julian Grant 2009