Welcome return of Shostakovich Lady Macbeth oif Mtsensk with Eva-Maria Westbroek and Christopher Ventris, conducted by Mariss Jansons, available for a limited time on Opera Platform. All good stagings connect to the music and ideas in an opera but in this famous classic, from 2006, Jansons' conducting is so powerful that the physical settings seem to dissolve in the abstraction so the music dominates. This production (Martin Kušej, Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam) won't please those who think opera "must" be decorative, but it's an excellent example of how abstract musical ideas can find visual expression. The violent staccato and dissonaces in Shostakovich's score come alive, bristling with tension and violence. In orchestral passages, the stage disappears in a thunderstorm of flashing bright lights against darkness, replicating the angularity in the score. You wouldn't want to be prone to seizures.
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is not a decorative opera. It's a savage cry of protest, against the oppression of women, against closed-minded communities, against repression of all types. Staccato passages scream and low brasses and winds moan with baleful malevolence. Even while Katerina lives in comfort, chill winds from Siberia blow invisibly around her. The Ismailov business is built on tight control. When then workers are left to their own devices, they break into mob violence. The rape scene comes almost right at the beginning - violence against women symbolizes weakness, not strength. Real men don't need to beat up on others to get ahead. Shostakovich's testosterone thrusts are indictment, not glorification. These men are scum because they can't be men in any healthy way. In the libretto, it's clear that Sergei fancies Katerina because she stands up to bullying. Trolls aren't constructive: they need to destroy because they can't create. Zinovy Borisovichs is impotent but he's a good man. He doesn't play games. Hence the bittersweet anti-romance in the cocky flute melodies round Sergey and the distorted bombast in Boris Timofeyevich's music. Thus, too, the maddening, circular rhythms when the mob intrude, thrusting in every direction. The solo violin, in contrast, suggests demented resolve. And so Boris dies in slow diminuendo. The crowd scenes are meticulously choreographed, suggesting a kind of orchestrated turmoil.
Nothing much seems to happen in the long orchestral passage in the second act, but the music functions as an invisible backdrop. As we watch Jansons conduct, we can "hear" the events which are unfolding after Boris's death. Katerina's still in a box, trapped in a frame without walls, yet there's strange beauty in the orchestration, suggesting wide open spaces, small, twinkling figures shining like starlight. The staccato now trudges grimly forward. The scene where Boris's ghost curses is shrouded in darkness, so we pay attention to the elusive violin melody. Although Westbroek and Ventris spend time groping each other in their undies, there's more desolation here than lust. Zinovy lies dead, out of sight. Shostakovich's music for the police officers is brilliantly malevolent, underlining the anti-authoritarian message implicit in the opera. When the police invade the wedding, Jansons conducts the multiple cross-currents with clear definition. No partying for Sergey and Katerina. We're off to Siberia. Now the whole cast are stripped to their undies. Everyone's exposed. If the chant of the chorus sounds vaguely like religious chant, there may well be a reason for that.
Jansons' conducting was matched by the high standards of singing. Westbroek "owns" parts like this. When the Royal Opera House did Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 2004, Katarina Dalayman sang the part very well, but on balance I think Westbroek's hapless earthiness extends characterization. In London, Ventris exuded sexual magnetism, effectively stealing the show. Unfortunately in this Amsterdam production, filmed two years later, he's not called on to do much. It's a wasted opportunity since he can do the role extremely well when called on. Anatoli Kotsjerga sings Boris. Kušej's production isn't nearly as visual as Richard Jones's production for London. Without Jansons, Westbroek and Ventris, I wonder how effective it would be? Yet it's been revived several times since 2006. So it's nice to hear the original again. (It's been on DVD for ages.)