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At The L. A. Opera, Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District" is a thrilling production performed by The Kirov Opera of St. Petersburg. From Valery Gergiev, to the entire cast and orchestra it's all Kirov, and about as Russian in every aspect as you can get. It's a strange mix of melancholy, satire, and high drama that only a Russian can pull off. The characters are intensely personal and the music wrings every drop of emotion,. whether it's the solitary Act 4 Aria of Katrina to oboe accompaniment, the passionate crescendos of the Act 2 scene with Sergei and her making love, to the satirical comedy of the police brass band in Act 3. That scene is hilarious as Shostakovich pokes fun with the Police Commander complaining that the pay's poor and the bribes are hard to find. That's probably the scene where Stalin walked out of the premiere.

The production has beautiful costumes with Danica House modern sets. These are slats of wood with gates, doors, and windows all worked into the same flat motif. It's very effective, though, for the most part. It's done in black and white with touches of red that give some extremely powerful accents.

Katerina is trapped in a terrible marriage. In her first aria she sings of her boredom. Her husband is a merchant who completely ignores her. She wants love, a child, something or someone to whom she can have an affectionate relationship. Her father-in-law, Boris is the only one there, and he treats her as something between a servant and a prisoner. Into this mix comes the workman, Sergei, just as the husband is leaving to repair a dam. Sergei flirts with her, they wrestle, laugh, and Boris comes in and chides her for it, while sending all the workers away. Later, he demands that she go to sleep so she doesn't waste a candle, since her husband's gone. Sergei knocks on her door, they play around, and end up making love behind the blood red curtain in front of her bed. Boris laments the impotence of his son, and fantasizes about what he would do with Katia if he was ten years younger. Sergei and Katia sing a beautiful duet at her window. Boris hears, sees, and hides, capturing Sergei when he climbs down. He whips him and has him locked in a store room so he can beat him again tomorrow. He then orders Katrina to make him some mushrooms which she laces with rat poison, killing him, and freeing Sergei.

Sergei and Katia have a passionate affair, as she plots the death of her husband. The ghost of Boris appears to her in terrifying red flashes with the figure projected from the floor to the top of the red curtain. It's one of the most powerful scenes in the opera. When Zinovy returns and catches them, Sergei kills him.

The Macbeth theme is not terribly obvious, but it's certainly there and brought down to the level of Russian peasants. There's nothing grand like wanting to be a powerful monarch, but rather she does what she does out of the desire for love. She wants to make him a merchant, and for the two of them to be able to live comfortably and happily, loving each other. That's her motive from start to finish. She kills Boris, then Zinovy, and is consumed by guilt and fear of discovery. She stands at the cellar door where her husband's body is, and that proves her undoing at the wedding celebration. The drunkard has noticed how much time she spends there, and thinking there may be good wine, breaks the lock and finds the body. The police have been looking for a reason to crash the wedding party, and now they can. They make their entrance by kicking down the back wall, and the captain jumps up on the table and lifts a glass of wine.

The final act is the road to Siberia. It's almost a dirge, very reminiscent of Dostoyevsky's "House of the Dead." The old convict sings of "the road to Siberia, dug with chains, bones, and blood." When Katia bribes a guard to let her go the mens' section to see Sergei, he says she's ruined his life and she's nothing but trash. All she's ever wanted was love, and now in her poignant aria, she contemplates how hard her life has become. The oboe accompaniment is like the desolation at the beginning of Act 3 of "Tristan und Isolde." She says she hasn't the strength to bear the hatred in Sergei's eyes.

Sergei has found himself another lover, though, and he goes to Sonetka. They laugh and he says he was only with Katia for her money. To prove it she wants Katerina's stockings. He gets them for her and she teases Katia. The other women tease, kick, and hit her. When the guards break it up, Katia's in a heap at the side of the stage as Sergei and Sonetka return, disheveled. She's crushed, she faces her down, and backs her up to the edge of the rise, and drags her off the bridge to their deaths.

Shostakovich wrote "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" when he was twenty-four years old, and he captures all of the emotion, energy, sexual passion, and pathos of a young man contemplating these and the social sensibilities and revolutionary aspects of the Soviet Union of the early 1930's. While it was never officially banned, Stalin walked out of the first performance in 1936, and it was not performed in it's original version for over thirty years.Valery Gergiev leads the Kirov Orchestra, Chorus, and Soloists in this spectacular production of Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District" at the L. A. Opera.

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