Concert, DVD, Film & Theatre Reviews 15

DSCH Shostakovich

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

15_CHAN 55001 (DVD-ROM) /

DSCH Shostakovich
Chandos Cultural Heritage Series, Vol. 1, 2001
CHAN 50001 (CD-ROM); CHAN 55001 (DVD-ROM)
Fully documented in English, French & German
PC/Macintosh compatible

Art director – Oksana Dvornichenko
Art producer – Valentin Olshvang
Designers – Natalia Solodoukhina & Dmitry Chesnokov
Project managers – Sergei Tolstokhlebov & Alexander Prouzhinin
Idea and script – Oksana Dvornichenko
Development and design – ‘Autopan’

My father was absolutely thrilled to bring home this CD-ROM – he simply couldn’t believe that there was actually an entire computer program devoted to Shostakovich! I too was absolutely thrilled by the idea, though more than a little surprised that there might be enough people as obsessed with a certain composer as I am to justify a commercial production and international distribution. But the fact is that Chandos Records’ DSCH Shostakovich CD-ROM does exist, and I explored it for several hours upon opening its box.

The software – or illustrated database – consists of an “all you ever wanted to know” series of audiovisual documents, covering more aspects of Shostakovich’s life and works than the average enthusiast might possibly think of. A fairly detailed biography, chronicling on average a year to a page, is accompanied by appropriate pictures, documents (including letters) and quotes, interview clips, and excerpts from works. Elsewhere there is also a complete list of works, a list of recordings, as well as commentary by and biographies of other leading individuals who worked with the composer or performed his music. Perhaps one of the most striking and fascinating aspects of the disc is the film archive, which includes 15 different movie excerpts (33 on the DVD-ROM) dating back to 1933. Clips showing Shostakovich in newsreels, playing the piano, or composing may be regarded as predictable, but it’s still wholly fascinating to have the opportunity of seeing Shostakovich in situations I’d previously only read about or seen stills of.

The CD-ROM also has over 600 photographs of the composer, from infant pictures to color pictures taken in the year he died; from family albums (one of which had a hammer and sickle on the cover) to official photos. I looked through every single one of these photos, and I found that they also served to personalize my mental image of Shostakovich through their depiction of him doing ‘ordinary-person’ things, such as playing with Galya and Maxim, or sitting and reading, or holding a kitten – this, rather than the rather ‘standard’, haunted expression of the more official portraits.

Also quite extraordinary, visually-speaking, are the various documents which are presented along with the biography and works list. There are images of the original ‘Muddle Instead of Music’ and ‘Balletic Falsehood’ articles, as well as more favorable newspaper writings. There are also various passport-type documents and programs from concerts (including one that appears to be in Chinese). More interesting than these, however, are the images of Shostakovich’s original letters and manuscripts. I don’t know why I was so fascinated to see his handwriting, but I was, and this disc includes many examples. (Fortunately, translations are included for those who don’t read Russian.) Regardless of your opinion in the never-ending Testimony debate, there is no doubt that these letters were penned by the real Dmitri Dmitriyevich.

Looking at the manuscripts, too, gives a hint to how Shostakovich dealt with the creative process-what the actual notes look like, what’s crossed out and how, as well as the various commentaries the composer often included on the pages. Looking also confirms all I’ve read about his writing with bright purple ink (and proves, much to my delight, that my favorite fountain pen uses the EXACT same color of ink!)

The works list, or grid, covers each of Shostakovich’s opuses with varying levels of description, including, for some, sound clips (not always accurately labelled – take the clip for opus 110: this is the fifth movement, not the first). The discography section is also impressive. It claims to list every existing recording of any piece by Shostakovich. The software links directly to a website with newly updated information and links.

The program is compatible for use on both Macs and PCs, and it can be run in English, French, or German. Be warned that it is difficult on a Mac to look at another program while this application is running: perhaps this is just a hint that Shostakovich is someone who demands full attention, not multitasking…

But if your full attention in the composer is one of plain curiosity, scholarly research or mad obsession, this CD-ROM will serve equally well as an introduction, a supplement, or a reference.

Sketches and above article by Julia L., Virginia USA

After a painless initialisation process (2 clicks on my Macintosh, 3 on my PC, followed by a hasty hammer on the space bar to skip the dreaded sponsor): Welcome to the opening screen of the new DSCH CD-ROM! Navigation couldn’t be simpler and is effected through standard hypertext links whilst a clock ticks… (see note on the DVD-ROM at the end of the page).

The accompanying booklet’s editing team proclaim:”From letters written by the nine-year-old Shostakovich to those written shortly before his death, his personal story […] is supplemented by fragments of interviews with Shostakovich’s wife Irina, daughter Galina and son Maxim as well as Mstislav Rostropovich, Krzysztof Penderecki, Yevgeny Mravinsky, Rudolf Barshai, Pietro Argento, Van Cliburn, Komei Abe etc. Most of the letters and interview fragments are being published for the first time.”

An ingeniously conceived grid system allows access to the 147 opus numbers; subpages lead to detailed descriptions of where and when each work was written or completed; in some cases there are extracts of letters or articles by Shostakovich relating to the work in question, extracts from manuscripts and in (too few!) cases, audio extracts, some performed by the composer himself. “Among eighty-seven musical fragments, preference is given to these and to the archive recordings of […] Sviatoslav Richter, David Oistrakh, Yevgeny Mravinsky, and the Beethoven Quartet.” Non-opused works are listed separately, albeit with a less refined presentation.

A comprehensive chronology of the composer’s life is accessed via hypertext links contained within a rotating wheel. Therein lie photos and a huge variety of documents: “Official portraits as well as those showing the composer among family and friends comprising the first photographs of Shostakovich.” Throughout the CD-ROM’s pages are links to the ‘Commentaries’ section, which offers biographical summaries of 150 individuals: the leading performers of Shostakovich’s music, relatives and friends, as well as writers and poets.

Probably the most impressive chapter of this multimedia tool is Film Archives, which features thirty-three film fragments on DVD-ROM (as opposed to fifteen on CD-ROM): the first of these dates from 1933, and the latest from 1974 where Shostakovich attends the rehearsal of his Michelangelo verses.

So, folks – pros and cons?

– Fabulously rich source of photographic and documentary archive material.
– Previously unedited film, photographic and documentary material available – and all on a domestic computer!
– Complete Oeuvre cross-check.
– High quality interactive interface.

Less Great:
– Variable level of detail supplied in the “works” section; for example no extracts of opus 11 or opus 111 are offered.
– Churlish though it may seem to say, the sound quality (CD-ROM only) on the film extracts is often quite appalling, with added sound effects aggravating the problem.

– Relatively high cost (around 60USD – depends where you shop).
– Numerous errors (see Julia’s review, plus missing illustrations, misspellings and mistranslations).

Conclusion: if you can play the DVD-ROM, buy this – more film clips are offered and the overall reproduction quality is far, far better. Access times, too, are significantly shorter (although much depends on the state of your PC).

But, if it’s a CD-ROM or nothing at all, BUY the CD-ROM, and treat yourself to a view of Shostakovich you will never have enjoyed before.

Nigel Papworth

15_Image Entertainment ID5655CLDVD /

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
Scriptwriter and director Petr Weigl

Mstislav Rostropovich (cond.), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Ambrosian Opera Chorus, soloists.
Image Entertainment ID5655CLDVD. DVD video. Dolby Digital Stereo. NTSC. All Regions. Not rated. Running time 100 minutes.

Mikhail Shapiro’s version of Katerina Izmailova is probably the best-known film adaptation of either Leskov’s story Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk or Shostakovich’s opera, though there have been several others. Versions of the Leskov story include one directed in 1926 by the now almost completely forgotten Cheslav Sabinsky: “[i]t was roundly criticised for being unscrupulous but it was vivid and engrossing” says Testimony. Obviously Sabinsky’s was a silent film, but in 1962 Andrzej Wajda made Sibirska Ledi Magbet (Siberian Lady Macbeth, known in the USA as Fury is a Woman) and this uses fragments of Shostakovich’s music. In 1989, Roman Balayan made a version under Leskov’s original title, and in 1993 Valeri Todorovsky updated it as Podmoskovnye vechera (released in the West as Katia Izmailov), though neither of these use Shostakovich’s music.

In 1992, Petr Weigl filmed the opera for television using Rostropovich’s recording (EMI Classics 7243 567776 2 or Angel Records 7243 567779 2 7) as the soundtrack. It is cut by about a third, but even in this state it’s obviously hugely to the film’s advantage to use this classic recording. Some sound effects are added, though these are few and discreetly done (footsteps and the like). The producers also seem to have taken the opportunity to tone down some of the occasionally forwardly-balanced voices, perhaps when Dolby-processing the recording for the DVD.

Miming to existing recordings in opera films is not unusual: physically appropriate actors who don’t suffer from “opera-acting” can be more active as they don’t have to worry about voice production. The technique began to be used in the Soviet Union in the late 1950s with Tikhomirov’s Yevgeny Onegin and Prince Igor and, of course, Stroyeva’s Musorgsky opera-films. Weigl is no stranger to the technique, having also adapted Yevgeny Onegin and The Turn of the Screw in this way. Funded by television companies in Prague, Germany and France, Weigl’s Lady Macbeth had limited distribution and, so far as I can tell, never saw the inside of a cinema. However, it is now available on DVD.

The film opens with a view across the Izmailovs’ estate, an image that sums up Katerina’s isolation and that, with the furrows taking our eye to the buildings at the centre, is reminiscent of photographs of railway lines leading to concentration camps. We enter Katerina’s cloacally red bedroom and the camera moves languorously as she sings of her boredom.

But what’s this? According to the subtitles, she sings “Oh, how depressing. You could hang yourself”, mistranslating the complaint about sleeplessness and bringing forward the later reference to suicide. We might as well get it out of the way now, the uncredited translation is not always accurate and is sometimes even misleading. Quite why Joan Pemberton Smith’s translation (the one used by EMI) was overlooked I don’t know, but it is to the DVD’s disadvantage. Having said that, it’s not too great a problem in this scene, as Markéta Hrubesová certainly conveys the heroine’s frustration. She is a strikingly vivacious redhead, and photographer Petr Hojda has no qualms about exploiting her beauty with some adoring camerawork.

When Boris arrives, he isn’t so comic nor so threatening as his music implies; rather he seems just a regular grumpy father-in-law. Later in the film, the subtitles will go a long way to exonerating his hypocrisy. Meanwhile, Katerina’s defence of their childlessness, “It’s not my fault”, is rendered as “I yearn for a child”, particularly problematic as the musical motif reappears later and the incorrect translation garbles its meaning at those points. Moreover the translations coyly pass over the accusations of Katerina’s frigidity and Zinovy’s impotence, themes that are central to the plot and character development. Indeed a veil is discreetly drawn over some of the more explicit parts of the libretto, puzzling in a film that has few hang-ups about its stars’ bodies.

If the character of Boris – in reality, little more than a lecherous, hypocritical tyrant – is tamed, Zinovy gets more attention. With his spectacles, he is portrayed more as an ineffectual quasi-intellectual (he is, of course, the member of the household who reads) and his parting glance to Katerina shows real love, making the character much more than the mere wimp he can sometimes appear to be.

Next we move to the bathhouse as the men spy on the women washing. After watching through (conveniently large) gaps in the wooden wall, they attack and violently rape Aksinya. Perhaps the visuals are enough here (little is left to the imagination) but the whole text goes untranslated. Were lines like “What boobs, oh what boobs!” behind this decision?

This scene sets up voyeurism, secrecy and seeing things that shouldn’t be seen as one of the themes in the film, and when we return to Katerina’s bedroom we begin to be implicated ourselves. As with the first scene, the camera prowls the room, but when Katerina goes into the bathroom to undress she steps out of sight. However a conveniently placed mirror allows us to continue to watch her. This kind of voyeurism is a standard of mild pornography and popular incarnations of it such as Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Lynch’s Blue Velvet, so is this the area we are entering? In those films, James Stewart and Kyle MacLachlan are our proxies, and our reaction to unfolding events is coloured by our reactions to their voyeurism and their situations. Here, we ourselves are the viewers but, distanced from events, we are totally safe, not risking discovery like Stewart and MacLachlan. The acting emphasises Katerina’s unsatisfied sensuality and her vulnerability, perceived characteristics that she shares with filmic victims of voyeurism. It also introduces the idea that she may be an unknowable character, someone we can only look at without truly comprehending.

With its more functional photography, the love scene itself pulls no punches. Some might argue that another advantage of using actors rather than opera singers is that, at least until recently, the latter were less willing to strip off in the name of art! Ms Hrubesová’s filmography shows no inhibitions in that department. These scenes are among the most passionate in the opera but the translations are correspondingly misleading. Katerina’s plea for “strength and kindness” rather than “passionate embraces” is an unfortunate toning down, but the line “I have no husband but you” is transformed into “I made a vow to my husband – don’t ruin me”, almost the complete opposite of what she actually says!

This might also be a good moment to mention the image quality of the film. Made in 1992 for television, it obviously can’t emulate some big-budget Hollywood films’ fascination with smoothness of surface – the grain is apparent, though hardly intrusive, and some would argue that it actually enhances the film. However, during the love scene there is a sudden close-up on Katerina’s face when the grain becomes even more prominent. Did the film-maker decide for some reason to reframe the shot more closely and zoom in when printing it[1]? Of course it could be a positive decision by Weigl to shoot it that way, but, as a single moment in the film rather than a consistent signifier of “high emotion”, it doesn’t really work, merely drawing attention to itself. Tiresome to report, but meanwhile, in the courtyard, Boris’ “She’d have it hot from me” becomes the far more anodyne “It’s a shame”.

Up to this point the opera has been presented more or less complete, but with a third of it to lose there have to be some severe cuts and they are about to start. Appropriately enough, the first victim is Boris Timofeyevich, almost all of whose death scene is removed, after which the Priest simply comes in to administer the last rites. There is no mention of Boris’ suspicions of murder or any comic element in the Priest’s part, though later on we do have a glimpse of him drunk at the wedding. Most of the music edits are well done, but unfortunately this one sounds like a real clunker.

Next to go are the following entr’acte (surely one of the highlights of the score) and the ghost scene. Admittedly this is a fantastically tight opera with little to trim (perhaps the police station scene, which both Shapiro and Weigl cut), so our sympathy must be with the film-makers, but the appearance of the ghost helps paint Katerina as much more human, suffering guilt rather than being a mere psychopath. Yet the severity of this cut has its own logic of shock as we leap from the last rites to Katerina and Sergei in the merchant’s bed (“where all problems are solved”).

I said I wouldn’t go on about it, but when Zinovy returns, Sergei’s reaction is not “Now we’re really in the soup” but a braver “So, let him in”, before he and Katerina throw themselves into the murder with real enthusiasm and dump the body in the cellar. Zinovy’s comments hardly appear in the subtitles, a harsh decision given how comprehensively he loses the argument. “Now you are my husband,” says Katerina, and Sergei looks at her in terror before succumbing to her sexual advances. Afterwards, in a shockingly rare instance of seeing from her point of view, we see Sergei’s horrified face and then, through his eyes, we see her glacially stare into the abyss of what they have done. Their passion made them forget their actions and they realise their fates are inextricably interlocked, explicitly placing Leskov’s story as a proto-noir.

Shostakovich’s abrupt cut to the wedding is made even larger as we go straight to the following interlude and the shabby peasant discovering Zinovy’s body and going to the police. We pick up the action with Katerina, wearing blood-red gloves, noticing that the lock is broken and deciding that they must leave. The police arrive and the audience is treated to a crane shot over the Izmailovs’ gate, granting us a view that Sergei and Katerina can’t have, diffusing the tension as we see too early what we know will arrive. We don’t see the guilty pair’s reaction to it. Perhaps if we had, it would have explained Sergei’s slightly half-hearted attempts to escape – maybe he thinks there’ll be time for that later.

And so to Siberia and the most uneven part of the film. Given the isolation and difficulty in escaping, perhaps the police really did think there was little point over-manning the convicts, but there are precious few officers around and their charges seem to wander about at all-but liberty. I am ambivalent about Hrubesová’s performance here; she seems incapable of showing Katerina’s emotional exhaustion, and the sudden radiance of her great aria (quoted in the Eighth Quartet) is dulled. Her ability always to show Katerina’s inner light is almost counterproductive. But there is a marvellous moment when, still hopelessly attached to Sergei despite his ill-treatment of her, she hands over the stockings and seems to half-sense that something is amiss.

With a limited running time, the decision to cut the scene where Katerina is mocked by the other women prisoners is understandable, but this loses the faint echo of the rape of Aksinya from the beginning of the opera, a mildly Formalistic plot device that parallels Katerina’s final fate echoing the first scene’s suicide reference. But then the determination in Katerina’s face as she goes after her rival is truly frightening, and we seem to see Sonyetka through Katerina’s eyes as they face off. This is a passion we can understand, a conviction that echoes Shostakovich’s beloved Wozzeck and his desperate “Ich nicht, Marie! Und kein Anderer auch nicht!” In fact, it’s an illusion of the editing, and Katerina attacks Sonyetka from behind. Even as she approaches death we are made to feel we understand her, yet ultimately we don’t see the world from her perspective. It’s left only for the officer, who seems unnaturally distraught at the loss of two prisoners, to urge the rest of them to trudge wearily off to a distant freeze-frame.

One of the criticisms that has been made of the opera is that, other than Katerina, the characters are little more than ciphers, crudely drawn to highlight her “goodness”, but this can hardly be said of Weigl’s film, which plays down the satiric in favour of the satyric. Sergei is a convincing lady-killer, but other than that he gets off lightly – more a semi-willing dupe, a victim of his own passion, who gets in too deep and realises too late, in typical noir style. And, as a mirror image to some characters being beefed up, Katerina herself is sometimes objectified and we’re made to feel she is incomprehensible, or driven only by passion.

The music editing is mostly intelligent and sensitively done, removing nuance more than substance. In common with most classical music/opera DVDs, the extras are extremely limited – just the division of the film into 16 chapters and the option to turn the subtitles on and off. Given the provenance of the film and the fact that the credits are in German, it’s odd that these are provided only in English, but from what I’ve said you may want to use the off facility! DVD extras is an area where the music industry should be looking to mainstream films which regularly supply added features such as multiple-language subtitles and even additional material like deleted scenes, trailers, interviews and “making of” documentaries. Of course, that entails extra expense in a limited-sales market, and such material may not be available, but it should have been possible to put more of the EMI recording on (licences allowing) or some further details about the careers of the main actors and technicians. Weigl has made a number of these opera films, and it would be interesting to hear what he had to say about the technique in general and this film in particular.

This is not the overwhelming all-out assault of the production at English National Opera (reviewed elsewhere in this edition), which I’d be more than happy to see on DVD; it was broadcast on BBC TV so perhaps there’s hope? But to say that is to criticise Weigl’s film for what it isn’t. This disc carries a calmer, less poster-ish, more domestic vision of the opera, with compelling portrayals of Katerina and Sergei – and, after all, they’re what you’d be most interested in.

John Riley

[1] A similar effect is seen in British-release prints of Nagisa Oshima’s Ai no corrida (Empire of the Senses) when the censor insisted that one shot be reframed to exclude a detail that contravened British law; odd, given the explicit – even hard-core – nature of much of the rest of the film.