I waited 30 years to see this and was not disappointed - only happy to have lived long enough to finally have this opportunity.
First off: Vishnevskaya. For those, like me, who'd only experienced this artist in concert or at the very end of her operatic career, to finally witness her in a complete role as tailor-made for her as this proves to be overwhelming. She opens the film with Katerina's boredom" aria in a voice entirely unrecognizable one that harkens back more to her jazz and nightclub singing roots than the world of opera. It as though she were channeling Billy Holiday while imitating Rosa Ponselle.
Visnhevskaya's face is unbelievable. Forget about expressions changing over the course of a film - her face becomes some great mask which frequently in less than the blink of an eye can transform her from appearing angelic, saintly, demonic, tortured, and instantly go from looking like a teenager to a run down, broken old woman. Likewise, she presents as stunning and beautiful one second and grotesquely haggard the next. To call watching her "fascinating," is an understatement.
Though she insisted she performed her own stunts in the film's tragic and violent ending (which here, are bone chillingly horrifying) they simply HAD to use a stunt double in one scene (though you can't really tell), when Katarina violently kicks out her bedroom window (which IS clearly Vishnevskaya) leaps out about 8 feet - (and almost 3 stories in the air!) dropping to a landing beneath her, then tears down the stairs like a madwoman possessed. I rewound it about 5 times to try and detect where the switch was made . . . but coult not.
Mikhail Shapiro's film is gorgeously grotesque. 1966 Soviet cinema wasn't among the technically best the film world had to offer, and yet Shapiro's techniques, seems comprised of equal parts Hitchcockian hyper-realism and the surrealstic spookiness from the earliest days of film like Wiene's "Dr. Caligari." There is a visible pulsating quality in the transfer (in the original, too? I couldn't know) a sort of silent movie "flicker" in the washed out, oddly green/blue hued sepia toned color. Ingeniously, Shapiro sometimes layers image over image, such as the opening scene where we watch Katerina, sitting in a window looking out as the images she describes are projected, like home movies, against the exterior walls of her home. It is a brilliant device that early on pulls us directly into the mind of Katerina and how later, despite her brutal actions, retains our sympathy for her.
With the score so severely cut to fit within the framework of the film, we loose some truly great music, but the film version points up the very limits of ennui and violence of the tale into a nearly unbearably vivid relief.
Those unfamiliar with Shostakovich's score - or scared of it - will here get some of the most tuneful and beautiful music from this opera and, as cast here, one practically revels (whenever possible) in its "Fiddler on the Roof" nightmare quality.
For the lovemaking music that begins the second act , Shostakovich draws on the romantic Russian tradition with music of ineffable sweetness, which in this context becomes as jarring and unsettling as everything that comes before or after it.
Unafraid to combine horror and hilarity, Shapiro adds yet another amazing sequence to the film when Katerina, first hears the ghost of her freshly murdered father-in-law. Onstage, this scene usually means Boris belting out his lines in white theatrical "ghost" make-up, etc. In the film, Shapiro preys on Katerina's nightmarish guilt as, truly ghostlike, he bursts through a set of doors, a nearly cartoon-like head 50 times larger than life hovering and singing over Katerina and Sergei's sleeping bodies. I found myself simultaneously laughing cringing in horror. Yes, I loved it.
The final scenes of that endless march through Siberia is enough to chill one right to the marrow. As a big fan of Vishnevskaya, I've read her account innumerable times, but even that had not prepared me for those final, violent plunges as she takes Sonetka down with her into that horrible, icy death. Vishnevskaya's Katerina has become absolutely unhinged, ratcheting the horror even even further in an image I won't divulge, but can honestly say I did not see coming.
I can honestly state I am (for more than obvious reasons) delighted to be alive right now, but also to have lived live long enough to be able to indulge the senses with the visionary work of unknown masters of yore coming to light, like the nearly forgotten Mr. Shapiro.
Anyone on the fence about this one should just climb right over to the other side. This is truly amazing operatic filmmaking . . . vastly unlike anything on is likely to ever see before or since.
Labels: 20th century opera, Galina, Galina Vishnevskaya, Katerina Ismailova, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Mikhail Shapiro, Opera Movies, Rostropovich, Russian cinema, Russian Opera, Shostakovich