At last, after Rostropovich's pioneering effort from the latter days of LP, this 20th century masterpiece seems to be getting wider dissemination, I presume this Shostakovich year perhaps has given it a good push. It truly is an outstanding work, perhaps amongst the composer's finest, along with the 1st violin concerto, the Michelangelo Sonnets, the 10th symphony, the preludes and fugues for piano, the late quartets or that other jewel of an opera, "The Nose". The contrast with his own watered-down version ("Katerina Ismailova") is revelatory and would explain Stalin's disgust with this original version (funny to notice how prudish dictators can be, no? no remorse from brutally having people killed or exiled to Siberia, but scandalised at Mme Ismailova's sexual frolics; it is said Hitler was quite prudish too, as is Castro, is said to have been Saddam Hussein and Kim il Sung as well as so many others of their kind) and his later satisfaction with the composer's 5th symphony.
Visually the production is stunning, a winner in all respects and I must congratulate Opus Arte for making it avaliable on DVD. I knew of Kusej only from reference, as not understanding german I have not attended any of his theatre productions. I don't know the work's EMI release on DVD of a Liceu staging, yet Gramophone's review of it is rather demolishing; I don't what they will say on this one.
Musically, there are two real "coups de foudre": one is of course the superlative playing of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, and the other the choosing of Mariss Jansons to conduct the work. Janson's key formative years at Leningrad under Mravinsky's wing assure us of a direct link not only to the composer via who was his most conspicuous and trusted collaborator, but also to the actual environment, politically and artistically, that hovered over the composer whilst composing this opera, which not only Mravinsky knew all too well but was a key player as he was able not only to survive it but also to excel within it. Singers-wise, top honours must go of course to Ms Westbroek, who sorts out an enormous task not only in vocal terms but also as an actress and stage presence (and she's also quite an attractive woman, if only she shedded a handful of kilos ...). She fully deserves every single bit of applause she gets in the courtain calls after the work's end. Ventris does not get an especially good comment in Gramophone's review of EMI's Liceu release, but as I haven't seen that one as I said above, I can't say if in this Amsterdam production he was better (or worse), I will only say that, from what I saw and heard in this Opus Arte release, he makes a powerful impersonation of what must be one of the most lustful characters in the history of opera, and he does so with unquestionable results; he not only does look the part, but sings it remarkably well as well. I did find the other important male singers rather low in volume, perhaps more than they should, the two Ismailovs as well as the drunken priest; they are in a league certainly different from Ms Westbroek's or Ventris. And let's not leave aside the chorus's outstanding contribution.
So in all, a most remarkable result, with the utterly realistic sound one has come to expect from the house and the very apt and interesting supplementary material that has contributed to place Opus Arte above most other publishers of opera on DVD (and miles away from US publishers such as Image or Kultur, whose in this respect very mediocre products tend to reach our shelves this side of the Atlantic more often than Europe-based ones like Opus Arte, Bel Air Classiques or Arthaus Musik).