Shostakovich’s The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District has become a modern classic but only after it was the cause, or at least purported cause, of his disgrace under Stalin in which the work was criticised both for the subject matter and the “bourgeios formalism” of the music. A revised version of the work was made into a film under the title Katerina Izmailova in 1966 as part of Shostakovich’s formal rehabilitation in the Soviet Union.
It’s different from the original, which is pretty much what one sees on stage nowadays, in a number of ways. Principally it’s much shorter. The film runs under two hours versus the 3h15m that seems about typical for a staged performance. The overt sexuality has been toned down and the music seems to have lost some of its dissonant edge. Perhaps too the aspect of Sergei as intelligent and strong worker versus Zinovy’s effete bourgeois merchant is stressed more. It makes for a piece that’s somehow more romantic and maybe a bit less brutal though there’s no shortage of violence.
Mikhail Shapiro’s film treatment is very Russian. Visually it’s quite painterly and slow. The cinematography is lovely and no expense has been spared on location shooting. Sets and costumes are late Tsarist period but it’s not “realistic” in a Merchant Ivory sort of way. There’s a strange admixture of slapstick and violence that is very Russian and quite disturbing. The transfer to DVD retains a slight soft focus, ever so slightly washed out filmic quality. It’s also presented in a widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The sound is mono but it’s pretty good and enhanced for the DVD.
It’s one of those productions where actors act and singers provide the sound track with the notable exception of Galina Vishnevskaya who both sings and appears as the title character. The singing and orchestral paying is very Soviet sixties. Anyone familiar with Melodiya recordings from the period knows what to expect; declamatory singing and blaring brass. It’s authentic but not always easy to listen to.
Vishnevskaya is an amazing actress and a unique singer. She’s at the heart of this and is always compelling, if sometimes very strident. There’s some very nice singing from the Sergei of V. Tretyak, who is also very well acted by Artem Inotemstev. The rest of the singing and acting is rather good with a nice cameo at the end from the Sonetka of Tatyana Gavrilova (sung by V. Reka). The Chorus and Orchestra are from Shevchenko Opera and Ballet Theatre of Kiev with Konstantin Simeonov conducting.
There are a handful of not very useful extras on the disk. There’s a chronology of Shostakovich’s career plus excerpts from a contemporary film of Cheryomushi (no subtitles) and the documentary Shostakovich against Stalin. On the feature, subtitle options are English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Chinese.
This is pretty much a must see for Shostakovich or Vishnevskaya fans. It’s different from The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as well as marking an important milestone in Shostakovich’s career. It’s also a very interesting example of both Soviet film style and Vishnevskaya as an actress.