Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
Conductor: James Conlon
Producer/Director: Graham Vick
Katerina: Eva-Maria Westbroek
Sergei: Brandon Jovanovich
Boris: Anatoli Kotscherga
Zinovy: Raymond Very
I first came across Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk several years ago at the Kennedy Center, where Valery Gergiev conducted the Kirov Opera in a ferocious concert version of it that blew critics and audience away in one fell swoop, and made us all forgive and forget the rather pedestrian productions of Falstaff and Viaggio a Reims they had put us through earlier in the year. Sometimes all it takes are the shenanigans of a hot and bothered housewife of the Russian countryside to spice up an otherwise humdrum residency.
Stalin, on the other hand, did not appreciate the popular opera back in the days. Apparently more disturbed by the unapologetically dissonant music than by the explosive cocktail of a dysfunctional family, bare-faced sexuality and grisly crimes, he had the Pravda roundly condemn it, effectively depriving the Russian public of it for the next three decades. Just like that. Fortunately, times have changed and these days the world can indulge in the work's musical and dramatic values again in the full original version.
Nevertheless, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is still not one of the frequently performed operas, so I was overjoyed a few months ago when I saw it in the Metropolitan Opera's line-up for the 2014-2015 season. And this was with great expectations that I walked down Broadway yesterday, while being definitely conflicted between the disheartening sight of so many cut Christmas trees and the unavoidable enjoyment of their captivating fragrance, to spend my afternoon with the woman who decided to get a life at all costs, and paid the ultimate price for it.
Although he drew inspiration from Nikolai Leskov's horror story Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Shostakovich made sure to somewhat sugar-coat the plot for his own opera, which incidentally gives a fair warning about the original. But not to worry, there's still enough bitter satire, surreal decadence and loud raunchiness, not to mention a thrilling score, to make it the delicious guilty pleasure it has become, and yesterday afternoon the buzzing full opera house was eagerly looking forward to it.
The starting time was slightly delayed by malfunctioning lights in the orchestra pit, but once the performance got going, it kept on boldly going, and so did Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, a truly fabulous Marilynesque Katerina from beginning to end, which was no small feat considering that she was onstage almost the entire time. From hopelessly bored housewife to jealous and suicidal murderess, she made her heroine a complex, and ultimately rather sympathetic, character through her superb singing and acting skills. She is blessed with an intense, beautiful and versatile voice that she assuredly plied to the tiniest nuances for maximum effect. From the title role of Anna Nicole to Die Walküre's Sieglinde and many others, this fearless artist evidently has an incredible range and seemingly limitless potential.
I cant' wait to hear her again.
Her worthy partner in crime was American tenor Brandon Jovanovich. A first-class opportunist, his lover boy Sergei confidently strutted his impressive stuff, which included a strong, expressive voice and an unmistakable physical presence à la young Marlon Brando. Whether playing rough with Katerina or smooth talking her into killing her husband, he clearly knew how to get his way and took full advantage of it.
Ukrainian bass Anatoli Kotscherga did wonders with the thankless part of Boris, Katrina's authoritative father-in-law, whose purpose in life was apparently to be the most uncouth dirty old man of them all. His voice had the wide range needed to be starkly effective, and he wholeheartedly embraced the juicy part.
There were myriads of smaller parts that were filled with excellent singers like Raymond Very as Zinovy, the hapless impotent husband, Michael Kolelidhvili as the comical priest, Dmitry Belosselskiy as the old convict, Oksana Volkova as the shameless floozy.
The Met Chorus, which has to be the hardest-working vocal ensemble in show business, has proven once again that it is also probably one of the best ones too. They constantly changed costumes and circumstances without ever missing a beat or letting their terrific singing falter ever so slightly, even as they were running all over the huge stage.
Graham Vick's production is a couple of decades old and has understandably undergone a few updates, but it is still an eye-popping delight. Placing the action in the fifties or so, the colorful (Was that bed hot pink or what?!) and minimalist (A few pieces of furniture, a car and the occasional prop) set was easily adjustable and therefore succeeded in keeping the logistical fuss at a minimum. The background consisted of a slanted cloudy sky mural with an upper gallery on which the chorus would sometimes appear and a series of doors which were put to clever use as well. As for the all-important refrigerator, I wondered if I should look for a Freudian association or something like that for a little while, then I gave up.
The ingenious set-up combined with imaginative lighting allowed to create some memorable scenes such as Katerina's fantasizing about men in various states of undress, her ambiguous first confrontation with Sergei on the testosterone-filled worksite, her violent seduction by Sergei which immediately brought to mind The Postman Always Rings Twice, the cartoonish music hall number by the police force, the nightmarish running of the bloodied brides, or the disco-ball-enhanced wedding party from hell.
The singing and staging may have been of the highest quality, but it is the music, a compellingly jarring hodgepodge of various styles, that expertly brought everything together. The Met Orchestra, which has never met a score it could not masterfully handle, delivered a superb performance of Shostakovich's endlessly inventive yet always accessible composition. Under the baton of Met veteran James Conlon, the musicians, with a special nod for the brass, brilliantly emphasized not only the darkness, but also the grotesque, the humor and the occasional tenderness of the story, with intensity and precision.
As I was leaving my seat after the performance was over, I heard the young guy in the row behind me confide to his buddy that he felt he needed to "take a shower". I bet Shostakovich would have been thrilled.