By: David Sheward
Dmitri Shostakovich’s rarely-performed 1934 op
era Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is probably best known as the object of censorship in the former Soviet Union. After an unsigned Pravda review denounced it as elitist (some allege that Joseph Stalin himself turned music critic and wrote the scathing article), the work was banned in Russia for 30 years. But the daring piece is much more than an historical curiosity. Shostakovich’s modernist score offers intense wit and passion as well as dynamic opportunities for the right cast.
Graham Vick’s electric production for the Metropolitan Opera has such a stellar ensemble and doles out equal portions of sex, humor, and pathos. It also incorporates elements of Soviet-era imagery in the broad staging and Paul Brown’s cartoonish sets which include huge propaganda-like images.
Vick transports the love-triangle story from the Tsarist 19th century to the 1950s, switching capitalist overlords for tyrannical bureaucrats. The central character, Katerina Ismailova, is now a bored housewife, staring at the TV and pulling snacks from a refrigerator with a glaring lightbulb, as her vapid husband Zinovy and his brutish father Boris run what appears to be an arms factory. Like many opera heroines, Katerina turns to a young lover, the laborer Sergei, and together they murder Boris and Zinovy. The killers are caught-on their wedding day-and sent off to Siberia to meet an unhappy fate (to put it mildly).
Shostakovich’s intense music full of trombone slides and crashing percussions conveys the seething turmoil the characters barely conceal. Vick further complements their sexual frenzy with a wild chorus acting out their inner torments and lustful yearnings. As Katarina complains of her domestic oppression, a crazed mob of women enters dressed by Brown (who also designed the costumes) in stylish wedding gowns maniacally pushing vacuum cleaners and then mounting them like dogs in heat. After the killings, the same chorus enters. Only this time, their ranks are augmented by males in drag and all are splattered with blood. Each frantically attempts to wash out the offending stains, much like the Shakespearean character of the title.
Eva-Marie Westbroek’s soaring soprano perfectly imparts Katerina’s desperate hunger for love and excitement as well as her crushing guilt for her crimes. She manages to make us feel sorry for this murderess or at least to understand her actions. Even in Siberia, she is betrayed and her final act of vengeance is bloodcurdling. Frank van Aken is a dashing Sergei with a solid tenor. The rumbling bass of Anatoli Kotscherga dominates the first act as the thuggish Boris as he mercilessly browbeats Katerina. Following his poisoning and a spectacular funeral scene with ascending angels and an endless parade of mourners, the stage is littered with bags of garbage, presumably to indicate the growing mountain of deceit and sin caused by Katerina and by extension the male-dominated society which warps her morality. Another stunning coup de theatre in Vick’s intriguing production.
Nov. 11-29. Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, 165 W. 65th St., NYC. Schedule varies. $25-$220. Running time: three hours and 15 mins. including intermission. (212) 362-6000 or www.metopera.org.
Photos Courtesy Metropolitan Opera Ken Howard
Follow Us On Facebook