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Director Martin Kusej keeps the narrative moving inexorably to its fatal ending while indulging in broad satirical portraits of the symbols of society's power to crush the individual. Katerina is a tragic heroine trapped in a cage-like structure that serves as the merchant's house, her bedroom (bare but with a collection of shoes that would satisfy Imelda Marcos), and later the prison transport where she meets her end. Some of the satire is broad--the policemen are out of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. And there's abundant acreage of human flesh on display, along with a near-rape and enough consensual sex to warrant an "X" rating. But it all fits a tale where the orchestra is often in porno territory, as in the famous trombone glissandos so prominent in Katerina and Sergei's first coupling. Kusej's only serious flaw is at the end, where he has Katerina lynched by her fellow-prisoners though the text clearly has her committing suicide by drowning.
This production has the advantage of one of the world's great orchestras, the Royal Concertgebouw, and its conductor, Mariss Jansons. They do everything brilliantly, whether it's a yearning string passage or a coarse depiction of on-stage brutality. As Katerina, Eva-Marie Westbrook is compelling, singing well and acting with convincing authority. Christopher Ventris' Sergei looks, acts, and sings like a burly seducer should. Boris, the dirty old man, is Vladimir Vaneev, whose ample bass and acting present a fully-rounded figure that goes beyond the part's stage villain aspects. Video director Thomas Grimm makes it all lucid on disc, the cameras rarely venturing away from what must be seen. It all adds up to a powerful performance of a powerful opera. --Dan Davis