Concert, DVD, Film & Theatre Reviews 57

The Taming of the Shrew (DVD Review)

The Dissonance of “The Seventh Symphony” (Film Review) /

The Taming of the Shrew

La Mégère Apprivoisée (The Taming of the Shrew)
Les Ballets de Monte Carlo Ekaterina Petina (Katherine); Matèj Urban (Petruchio); Katrin Schrader (Bianca); Jaeyong An (Lucentio); April Ball (Housekeeper); Daniele Delvecchio (Gremio); Anna Blackwell (Widow); Simone Tribuna (Hortensio); Christian Tworzyanski (Baptista); Adam Reist (Grumio); The Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra/
Lawrence Foster and Kalle Kuusava; Jean-Christophe Maillot (director and choreographer); Augustin Maillot (costumes);
Louise Narboni (director). Recorded live at Grimaldi Forum on 23, 24, and 25 July 2020; a co-production by Telmondis and Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo.
TT: ~84 minutes.
Audio: LPCM 2.0 + Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles (extra feature only): English, French
Extra features: “De L’amour” (“All About Love”)—a 60-minute documentary

The first adaptation of Shakespeare’s play as a ballet dates from 1969 and was a work in two acts choreographed by John Cranko to keyboard works by Domenico Scarlatti. This 21st-century version, revisited by dramaturgist Jean Rouaud, was premiered in Moscow on 4 July 2014, by the Bolshoi Ballet. The production proved to be a huge success for the company, with three Golden Mask National Theatre Awards in Russia’s prestigious 2015 Performing Arts Festival, in the categories of Best Choreographic Show, Best Male Dancer, and Best Female Dancer. The version presented on this DVD/Blu-Ray was first performed by Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, on 28 December 2017, at the Grimaldi Forum in Monaco.

In his précis, Jean Rouaud goes to considerable lengths to elucidate the core attributes of his two hot-headed protagonists, Petruchio and Katherine (the “shrew” of the original play). Their impetuousness and their self-inflicted solitude are irreconcilable to the external world: they are “Two albatrosses in a flock of sparrows.” Just as in the Shakespeare original, the scheming Petruchio courts his headstrong, obdurate bride-to-be. After they marry, Petruchio forces Katherine into a series of tests to ensure he hasn’t made a mistake—rather, that he has indeed met his match. As it transpires, neither has made a mistake. Rather, Katherine recognises in Petruchio something of herself. In reality, the two lovers recognise each other’s strategies, Petruchio in no way being fooled by her new and superficially docile nature. Shakespeare’s Petruchio successfully proposes a wager (with Lucentio and Hortensio) based on wifely obedience: a wager he wins. In Rouaud’s scenario, those who warily viewed Katherine as a ferocious woman are able to breathe a collective sigh of relief, convinced that even the most errant rebels eventually submit to convention. Petruchio has, it would seem, truly tamed the shrew. Maillot: “The Taming of the Shrew conveys the idea that there’s someone for everyone, irrespective of who or what you are. Who can judge a relationship with an outside eye? Love works in mysterious ways, and it isn’t for us to question it.”

This Monte-Carlo version includes many changes to the original Moscow production, Maillot reworking and developing the choreography to tailor it to the style of his own dancers. He also expanded the role of the corps de ballet, adding additional couples to his storyline, and reworking some of the group scenes. For Maillot, “bringing The Taming of the Shrew to Les Ballets de Monte Carlo was a chance to push [his] dancers to explore that side of their technique, without compromise.” In his notes, Maillot also explains that minor changes aside, the Monaco dancers were expected to emulate the Bolshoi-style virtuosity that informs the ballet. Petruchio, for example, combines the vim and virility of Spartacus, “albeit with more than a hint of irony.”

The role of Katherine also reflects the dazzling magnificence of the Bolshoi dancers. Several ballerinas, including Russia’s Ekaterina Petina, who recently joined the company, and Alessandra Tognoloni, took up the mantle in Monaco, in roles Maillot considers among the most complex and powerful in his repertoire. Coincidentally, Petina danced Bianca in Cranko’s version of the story at the Bavarian State Ballet.

Yet unlike their Bolshoi peers, the dancers of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo have the advantage of knowing Maillot’s work and approach by heart. This is fortunate, given that the soloists rarely have time to breathe, as events tumble over each other. For example, Bianca dances three successive pas de deux in Act I, and as Katherine and Petruchio’s relationship evolves, they embark on an emotional roller coaster that lasts for much for Act II. Maillot demands unconditional commitment from the dancers, with a favourite question in rehearsal: “What can you do to make it more interesting?”

As for the music, Maillot uses extracts from Shostakovich’s film scores and symphonies, woven into the choreography in a way that functions as if created for the ballet. It culminates with the hugely familiar Tahiti Trot (better known as Tea for Two), this eminently popular music accompanying the final scene in which Katherine proves that she is the most obedient wife.

Maillot emphasised prior to the premiere at the Bolshoi that he wanted it to be a performance danced to the music of Shostakovich. He considered that it was a way to forge mutual understanding with dancers. “Not being Russian, I don’t know the philosophical meaning of Shostakovich’s music,” he had admitted, “but like any person, I have the right to feel emotion in it. Shostakovich himself belongs to Russia, but his music belongs to the whole world.”

So how does the combination of Shakespeare’s controversial play, the eclectic selection of Shostakovich’s music, and Maillot’s reworked choreography fare? As has been mentioned, Maillot has added depth and movement to the Moscow production for this revised Monte-Carlo version. The essential counterpoint between Katherine and Bianca is facilitated through gesture, posture, and costume. The combative nature of the relationship between Katherine and Petruchio as they battle to find true love is at once erotic, energetic, and always quick-witted. The balletic style itself is not particularly original in concept, or contemporary in execution, with tightly choreographed ensemble and highly physical, corporal interplay between principal characters. Much of the effectiveness of the ballet relates to
the costumes, characterising protagonists with temperance and elegance. The décor is minimalist, efficiently structuring the various locations in the piece, constantly coloured by the lyricism of Shostakovich’s music.


Act I

Scene 1: In the spacious home of wealthy burgher Baptista, the servants mock their master in his absence, mimicking his desperate attempts to marry off his ill-tempered eldest daughter Katherine, while rejecting potential suitors for her younger sister, gentle Bianca. Baptista’s sudden appearance puts an end to his servants’ antics.
     Moscow Cheryomushki, opus 105: A Spin through Moscow (Allegretto).

Scene 2: When Baptista’s two daughters enter, all eyes are on Bianca. She is as gracious as Katherine is unpleasant, spurning everything and everyone: she is the Shrew.
     Counterplan. opus 33: Presto.

Scene 3: Three suitors attracted by Bianca’s beauty go to Baptista’s house: elderly Gremio, pompous Hortensio, and handsome Lucentio. They strut in front of Bianca, trying to draw her attention. Her preference goes to Lucentio, but Baptista is careful to respect the rules of decency: he will accept no request for Bianca’s hand until Katherine is duly wed.
     Alone, opus 26: Altai (Adagio).
     Hamlet, opus 116: Palace Music (Moderato).
     Alone, opus 26: Barrel Organ (Andantino).

Scene 4: Katherine clearly does her best to discourage suitors, obviously preferring to remain alone with her father rather than playing this marrying game. Hortensio remembers he has a carefree friend, Petruchio, who is as ill-mannered as Katherine is obstinate, and who should be inspired, by the prospect of a generous dowry, to do his utmost to beguile this unappealing woman. Petruchio arrives.
     Pirogov Suite, opus 76a: Vivo.

Scene 5: Petruchio begins outrageously courting Katherine, whose repeated rebuffs only encourage him to persist. Despite striving to be disagreeable, Katherine yields to reverie in a moment of abandon that implies that, for this guarded reason, this recent glimmer of hope, she is led to accept this assiduous boor’s marriage proposal.
     Hamlet, opus 116: The Ball (Allegretto).
     Hamlet, opus 116: The Ball at the Castle (Presto).
     Counterplan, opus 33: Song of the Counterplan (Andante).

Scene 6: This leaves Bianca’s suitors free at last to woo her. Old Gremio is the first to take action, with the gift of a splendid necklace to grace Bianca’s décolletage, but she spurns him. Seeing he has no chance to win her hand, the housekeeper sets her own sights on the wealthy old man.
     Symphony no. 9, opus 70: III. (Presto).

Scene 7: Arrogant Hortensio also tries his luck with Bianca: he need not bring a gift; his very presence is a gift in itself. Bianca remains unmoved by his conceit. This time a widow, a family friend, imagines she could vie for his love and tries her luck with the dandy.
     Counterplan, opus 33: Andante.

Scene 8: Finally, Lucentio, born into a well-to-do family and gifted with all the charm of youth, manages to win Bianca’s heart. As a token of his love, he offers her a book of poems. Opening it to the page he has bookmarked is enough to convince Bianca that her feelings for the young man are requited. If all goes well for her elder sister, they will be able to marry.
The Gadfly Suite, opus 97a, Romance.

Scene 9: Katherine desperately awaits her betrothed, the boor who somehow set her heart on fire. Baptista tries to comfort his eldest daughter’s distress at her suitor’s defection, to everyone’s amusement.
     Sofya Perovskaya, opus 132: Waltz.

Scene 10: Grumio arrives at last and launches into an unhinged performance: his master will arrive when he sees fit and has had enough to drink.
     Moscow Cheryomushki, opus105: Polka; Galop (Allegretto).

Scene 11: When Petruchio does appear, totally drunk, instead of going to his bride, he makes her wait, seemingly reluctant to tie the knot. He is more unpleasant than ever. Katherine is humiliated and slaps him in the face. After being tempted to return her slap, Petruchio changes his mind, forcefully catching hold of her and carrying her off, to the horror of the guests. After a painful adieu, Baptista abandons his daughter to her husband.
     The Gadfly, opus 97 (Original Orchestration): The Slap in the Face.

Act II

Scene 12: The newlyweds’ strange honeymoon begins with a journey through a fearsome forest, all the way to Petruchio’s home. Katherine is distraught and begs for mercy, but her husband spurns her, ready to abandon her in the middle of nowhere if she refuses to follow him. Katherine is attacked by a gang of thieves who assault her and steal her necklace. Petruchio seems unresponsive to his wife’s appeals for help. He eventually intervenes and fends off the assailants, seemingly including his valet Grumio. Could this aggression actually be nothing more than a simple ruse?
     A Great Citizen, opus 55: Funeral March (Largo).

Scene 13: When the couple reach Petruchio’s home, Katherine yields to despair and swoons. Petruchio rushes to carry her to bed. As she apparently comes to her senses, he sits on a bench and behaves strangely, pretending to light an imaginary fire. Intrigued by her husband’s ploy, Katherine gets up and approaches him; after observing there is no fire, she joins in the game, blowing on the embers to reactivate non-existent flames and even offering Petruchio a cup of tea. Thanks to this little game, the newlyweds discover each other, shedding the masks they wore for show. Love finally draws Katherine and Petruchio together.
     Alone, opus 26: Storm Scene (Presto); Calm after the Storm (Largo).
     Chamber Symphony, opus 110a: I. Largo; II. Allegro molto.

Scene 14: Next morning, the lovers wake up peacefully. The valet Grumio brings a letter inviting them to return to celebrate Bianca and Lucentio’s wedding. Before they leave, Grumio returns the stolen necklace to his mistress. Katherine suspects her husband has fooled her and reacts aggressively.
     Alone, opus 26: In Kuzmina’s Hut (Largo).

Scene 15: In Baptista’s house, preparations
for Bianca and Lucentio’s wedding are in full swing. Hortensio and the widow, and Grumio and the housekeeper take this opportunity to officialise their own bonds. Recalling the fiery lovers’ chaotic departure, everyone eagerly awaits with great curiosity the return of the Shrew and her unruly spouse.
     Alone, opus 26: Galop (Allegro).
     The Gadfly Suite, opus 97a, Barrel Organ Waltz (Allegretto).
     The Gadfly Suite, opus 97a Prelude (Andantino).

Scene 16: Hence everyone’s surprise when Petruchio and Katherine, jovial and elegantly dressed (Petruchio almost respectable and Katherine apparently submissive), make their appearance. Everyone approves of this metamorphosis, which seems to fit with what should be expected from a couple belonging to polite society.
     Hamlet, opus 116: In the Garden (Moderato ma non troppo).

Scene 17: At teatime, however, the situation takes an unexpected turn. While Petruchio and Katherine display true loving complicity, the other couples reveal the limits of their mutual understanding: the husbands are exasperating, and their wives irritated. By choosing each other mutually beyond convention and decorum, Petruchio and Katherine have found true love.
     Tahiti Trot (Tea for Two), opus 16 (Moderato).

Alan Mercer


Alexey Kravchenko as NKVD Lieutenant Anatoly Seryogin, ©

The Dissonance of “The Seventh Symphony”

Sources: Federal Aif, MKRU and Newsrealtime, Radio Liberty, Sobesednik

As featured in DSCH 55 (p. 68), in late 2021, the national Rossiya TV channel finally aired the much-vaunted series “Седьмая симфония” (The Seventh Symphony), supposedly based on the events leading up to the famous Leningrad premiere of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony on 9 August 1942. It provoked much discussion online and in the press.

“Our film is not about Shostakovich… Our film is about the people who performed it. The story of Karl Eliasberg, the conductor who was entrusted with assembling the orchestra after the first winter of the blockade of Leningrad,” emphasised Alexander Kott, the film’s director and co-screenwriter, in countless interviews.

One might argue that Eliasberg’s name has been neglected for too long, overshadowed by that of the composer’s. Indeed, the 1957 film Leningrad Symphony, which fictionalises the premiere, omits Eliasberg’s name altogether, probably for reasons outlined below. Alexei Guskov, the actor who plays Karl Ilyich in the new film, considered that: “It seems to me that his achievement is undeservedly underestimated. I want as many people as possible to know about him, and to bow down to him.”

If the filmmakers’ desire was to generate interest in the conductor, and in the time leading up to the Seventh Symphony’s premiere, the task was handled well enough. However, in terms of what might be termed the “extra-musical” aspects of the plot, the audience was in for a surprise. Indeed, one of the more controversial aspects of the film was the presence of a second main character, an NKVD Lieutenant by the name of Anatoly Seryogin, played by Alexey Kravchenko. The clear implication was that Seryogin was being “directed” by the authorities—ostensibly to assist with the task in hand, but equally to scrutinise Eliasberg, an artist of dubious German-Jewish descent…

The action begins with an air raid in which a member of Lieutenant Seryogin’s family is killed. From that moment on, the protagonists begin their struggle for survival, while trying to fulfil a seemingly arbitrary order to perform Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in the besieged city—this to ensure that both sides of the front line be made aware that Leningrad was still alive and was not about to surrender. Ironically, the Leningraders are fearful of what might kill them first: a German bomb or a neighbour’s denunciation to the NKVD. The result is that individuals’ actions often appear motivated solely by personal interests; stoic heroism is seemingly banished to the rubble. Various principal characters are portrayed as weak, bent exclusively on their own survival. They are not very bright people, they cower, feature in petty squabbles, steal and forge ration cards, and sell dangerous foodstuffs on the black market. They also indulge in hysteria, in adultery, in cowardice, and avoid any willingness to help, any notion of compassion… The people portrayed are not people, but some kind of homunculi, degenerates. And an orchestra is made up of them. These are all people who, in normal times, one would not choose to shake hands with…

Ultimately there is only one hero in this film: Senior Lieutenant Seryogin.
     “Let’s do something for art,”
declares Eliasberg, and his orchestra begins playing Beethoven immediately after the bombing ends. History attests to Eliasberg’s superhuman efforts in assembling eighty half-dead musicians for a performance of Shostakovich’s hugely challenging work. In this semi-fictionalised version of events, we are told that one of the prime motives that prompted Eliasberg to undertake such a herculean task was to have his wife released from captivity: she had been denounced and arrested.

Notwithstanding this blatantly political angle, as the action unfolds it finally become clear that the conductor’s motivation does relate to art after all. “Karl Eliasberg was absolutely a man of art, he understood nothing else,” says Alexei Guskov, the actor who played the role. “Mstislav Rostropovich’s oft-quoted phrase: ‘Between life and death there is nothing but music’ is the most accurate description I can give of my hero.” In Guskov’s interpretation, the famous conductor hears notes rather than sees people, and in his icy gaze one might read contempt for those who don’t really understand what he is trying to achieve, to some extent à la Mravinsky.

TV or cinema projects that are presented as “historical” are inevitably scrutinised by industry insiders, as well as querulous outsiders. The Seventh Symphony predictably took a beating from critics, and there were some good reasons for exasperation.

In fact, the creators never claimed their project was an accurate reconstruction of events, nor did it necessarily intend to depict the biographies of the main characters faithfully and accurately. All the same, certain storylines, particularly those relating to the arrest of Eliasberg’s wife, were clearly contrived, as was the manufactured hostility between the conductor and the NKVD lieutenant who was appointed to “help and control” his creative intelligence.

Criticisms flared around an array of details regarding the unspeakably tragic episode that was the Siege of Leningrad: “The characters were too well-fed, the men were too smooth-shaven, the women’s hair too impeccably brushed”; Alexei Guskov’s suits gleamed against the backcloth of city ruins; Yelizaveta Boyarskaya, who played the orchestral flautist, could not help her beauty and elegance; and more than anything, there was the stark absence of “hunger in the eyes.”

The film shows Eliasberg being visited by his brother’s wife (Nadezhda Dmitrievna Bronnikova) in the autumn of 1941 in besieged Leningrad. From his features, he is clearly the younger sibling. “You are in exile. You cannot be here. The city is cordoned off. How did you get in?” The presence of an exile in Eliasberg’s flat is quickly denounced. Boots rattle down the stairs. The brother manages to escape by the back door. Chekist Seryogin takes Nadezhda Bronnikova “to the place” as the sister of a possible spy. It is assumed that there is no coming back from there.

In reality, Mikhail Bronnikov was nine years older than his sister Nadezhda. In 1932, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “counterrevolutionary organisation of fascist youth circles and anti-Soviet gatherings.” After four years in the camps, he was exiled to Kirovsk, Murmansk region. Bronnikov came to Leningrad legally before the war, at the very beginning of June 1941. On leave, he asked to register at his sister’s place (there is a record in the house book). He was refused. On 5 July, he was arrested again without notice. Then all traces of him are lost. Most likely he died.

So, what about Bronnikov’s sister and Eliasberg’s wife, pianist-concertmaster Nadezhda Bronnikova? According to the film, she is languishing in an NKVD prison. Eliasberg is alone on New Year’s Eve 1942, remembering how glorious the holiday seemed a year ago when he wanted to surprise his wife but carelessly burned a goose in the oven…

This may be entertaining, but it contradicts reality. Eliasberg was known as a man who was precise to the point of pedantry. According to the memoirs of Yuri Temirkanov, the director of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, this was also evident in his cooking: “With visible pleasure, and always with his apron fastened (the apron was incredibly tidy, and was put on with the same care as a tailcoat before a concert), he would approach the cooker and he would ‘perform a work’ of three eggs, always mindful of the task …” Could such a man have burnt the holiday goose? Hardly.

In the film, Lieutenant Seryogin assists Eliasberg in tracking down musicians who have been drafted into the army and are serving in frontline units. Shortly before setting off in a shared truck, the lieutenant declares, “I have been instructed to assemble an orchestra, and I will assemble it—with or without you.” Such a statement is beyond credibility, given the absence of any conductors of Eliasberg’s experience in Leningrad at that time. So “without you” would have equated to no performance. And Karl Ilyich did not ride in a car but rode instead on a Latvello bicycle (manufactured in independent Latvia), which he had been issued specially by order of the City Party Committee. And the order in Eliasberg’s pocket was not from some abstract Chekist, but from Major-General Dmitry Kholostov, who was then head of the Political Department of the Leningrad Front. French horn player Nikolai Dulsky, who was then in the 351st Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiment, recalled how the conductor rode 15km along gunpowder depots under German bombardment, simply to hurry Dulsky to join the orchestra.

In the film, a certain highspirited man in an astrakhan collared coat is seen running around town, encouraging Eliasberg to keep going in rebuilding the orchestra: “This is the only way to help Nadezhda Dmitrievna.” Whether Bronnikova had to be helped escape from “the NKVD’s jails” (where in reality she never went) is an uncertain truth. But who is this man? Apparently, it is Boris Zagursky, executive head of the City’s Art Department. Was he really so cheerful at the beginning of March 1942? Here is what Eliasberg himself wrote from the hospital for people with respiratory problems: “On a bunk next to the table a figure lay covered, face down. The cold was relentless. The figure sat up on the bed with difficulty. It was Boris Ivanovich Zagursky.”

And in another deviation from reality, Lieutenant Seryogin, trying to establish a dialogue with the conductor, offers him a cigarette, flaunting the brand: “Our Brand.” He gets a dry reply—Eliasberg says he prefers Nord cigarettes.

Yes, the conductor had smoked since his youth. And he used to smoke a lot, which was noted in his medical records: “Now he is a restricted smoker. Suffers from having smoked very much. Bad general condition. Drowsiness, apathy. Lays in bed all day. Absence of tobacco is painful.” It seems that the person responsible for his nicotine addiction was a fellow student at the conservatoire: “Eliasberg got addicted to smoking early because Shostakovich, who started smoking even earlier, had explained that a cigarette dulls one’s hunger.”

But in besieged Leningrad, no one could afford to chain smoke as the heroes of the film do. And tobacco was not simply thrown around. The percussionist of Eliasberg’s orchestra Zhaudat Aydarov wrote to his father in February 1942: “Dad! How are you doing in Samarkand with cigarettes? The only cigarettes we can get in Leningrad are for 75–80 rubles a pack from pushers. We go around begging from each other …” Officially, a pack of Nord was worth 2 rubles, 60 kopecks. But the black market dictated its terms. In the summer, the price of a pack of cigarettes was 150 rubles. It is doubtful that a poor NKVD lieutenant could smoke and even offer “Nasha Marka” cigarettes, which, in addition, were produced in Rostovon-Don and not likely to appear so readily in the besieged city. Nord was produced at the Uritsky Factory in Leningrad, but even these cigarettes were most likely unavailable. As the writer Pavel Luknitsky wrote in his diary, “Everybody rolls using automatic cigarette kits, everybody has magnifying glasses instead of matches, and on sunny days almost the whole population can be seen using lenses of all kinds in an attempt to produce a flame.” Yes, matches were scarce, too…

History recalls that prior to the concert, an intensive spell of bombing of the German artillery positions began, identified with pin-point accuracy through weeks-long intelligence operations. This was Operation Squall, organised by General Leonid Govorov. The Germans had also been preparing—to bomb the Philharmonic Hall. Hence in addition to the musicians, it was thanks to the military that the concert took place. And not a single bomb fell in the city that day! Yet, amazingly, not a word or a frame about this appeared in the film.

Some 20 years ago a member of the orchestra, oboist Ksenia Matus, related, “When we started playing, suddenly there was a huge rumble. I realised that the bombing had begun, and I thought—what a shame if they won’t let us finish the concert.” It was more important for the musicians to finish the concert than to stay alive—the concert was that important to them. In the film, this sentiment is totally absent.

One of the few accurate historical moments in the picture, confirmed by the memories of the performers of the Seventh Symphony, relates to the distribution of seedlings and patches of urban land for residents to cultivate vegetable gardens. Another verifiable account concerns the “rescue” of the orchestra’s percussionist, Aydarov. He really did fail to show up to a rehearsal, and when the conductor asked what the reason was, he was told that he was in the “dead room.” Eliasberg went there and found the percussionist among the corpses. He was not dead, but had fainted from hunger and had been placed among the dead by mistake.

But a lot of things—from fundamental questions like “the NKVD’s assistant” to trivial things like cigarettes—on closer inspection turn out to be not just speculation, but a form of “well-edited reality” according to the principle of showing “history not as it was, but better, as it could have been, according to our own ideas.” As Stalin said to Chiaureli after watching The Fall of Berlin, “That’s the way it should have been.” An approach, but one that still lies in the realm of fiction rather than artistic truth.

Vladislava Shilina