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DVD: Katerina Izmailova

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Shostakovich, Katerina Izmailova, Galina Vishnevskaya, directed by Mikhail Shapiro (1966, DVD released on January 9, 2007)
Jens and I (for DCist) have both recently reviewed an extraordinary concert performance of Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, given by the Kirov Opera under Valery Gergiev at the Kennedy Center. After an initial success, Shostakovich's extraordinary work was condemned by Stalin, a decision that was to hang over the composer's head for decades until the dictator's death. This Soviet film, released in 1966 and not available outside Russia until now, used the revised version that the composer called Katerina Izmailova. In an attempt to rehabilitate the opera and save his reputation, Shostakovich toned down most of its shocking elements, cuts which add up to about 30 minutes of music. You can still recognize the outline of the work, certainly, but what is missing stands out when you know the opera. In particular, much of the humor that lightens the harshness of the story is gone, including the entire police scene showing the pettiness and criminality of the police force.

The composer oversaw staged performances of Katerina Izmailova in Moscow and other theaters. He most admired the one used as the soundtrack for this film, given by the Shevchenko Opera in Kiev, with Konstantin Simeonov conducting. A related performance (the Shevchenko Opera but with different singers) has been available, if not widely known, in the United States: it is one of the recordings that I had collected over the years, as I mentioned in another recent post. Mikhail Shapiro used actors to lip-sync the sung dialogue, in only one case having the singer act the part she sang -- the remarkable singer and actress Galina Vishnevskaya (wife of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich) in the title role. Much of Katerina's sung lines, which often read like internal dialogue in the opera, are treated as voice-overs, an effective adaptation. The film, even in this imperfect, somewhat rough print, has beautiful moments, although it is dated. The split-screen effects can be hokey, but just as often they skillfully advance the narrative, as when the drunkard runs along a street toward the police precinct in the upper part of the screen, while we see the wedding party of Katerina and Sergey emerging from the church in the lower part.

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Shostakovich, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, directed by Petr Weigl (1992)
The other filmed version of the opera, directed by Petr Weigl (reviewed here), uses even less of the full score. Its soundtrack is better, however, taken from the recording conducted by Rostropovich with the London Philharmonic, also with Galina Vishnevskaya in the title role. Weigl uses Czech actors (many of them, reportedly, were famous in Prague for making soft-porn movies) to lip-sync the sung lines, to mixed success. His movie captures the shocking sexual scenes much better, not least because it includes them in full and leaves nothing to the imagination. However, the Russian film is better at depicting the brutality of the petty bourgeois -- Alexander Sokolov's Boris Timofeyevich is a heartless bastard -- and the cruelty of the forced march across the Steppes in the final scenes is searing. Both movies are interesting options for a collector. However, if you are only going to buy one DVD of this opera, wait for something complete to be made.

Decca 074 3137

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