Shostakovich’s Lurid ‘Lady’ Still Drips Life at Met

The Metropolitan Opera is performing Graham Vick's production of Shostakovich's 'Lady Macbeth at Mtsensk.'  (Photo by Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera)
The Metropolitan Opera is performing Graham Vick’s 1994 production of Shostakovich’s ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.’
(Photo by Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera)
By Leslie Kandell

NEW YORK — Opera quiz: In Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, what was the tipping point that enraged Stalin? Could it have been the adultery? Poison? Strangling? Gang rape? Caricatured cops angling for bribes and drinks? A drunken priest? Brutal prison guards? Ferocious fortissimos of sulphurous characters over a wild, colorful orchestra?

Sergei (Brandon Jovanovich) with Katerina (Eva-Maria Westbroek).
Sergei (Brandon Jovanovich) with Katerina (Eva-Maria Westbroek).

Apparently that last one. In 1936, the opera had already been around for a season without event, but the performance that Stalin happened to attend generated an excoriating attack in Pravda — assumed to have been initiated by him — headlined “Muddle Instead of Music.” The opera, as biographer Laurel Fay wrote, “was transformed, overnight, from a symbol of optimism about the unique creative promise of opera in the Soviet Union to the official archetype of corruption in Soviet art.”

Its 29-year-old composer lived in fear — for his life, never mind his career — which in time settled into chronic worry. He may never have been happy again. How astonishing, then, that he could turn around and produce — possibly as a life-saving act of contrition — his Fifth Symphony, whose beauty is universally acknowledged.

The ugly mid-century living-room space in the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of Graham Vick’s 1994 production (the company’s first) has newly added dimensions. In the sky above its walls, the car with the strangled husband’s corpse in the trunk is lifted till it vanishes. A net lowers from a towering crane, dangling laborers and a cook in red bandanna (Holli Harrison), who shrieks as she is raped. Beneath the floor are trapdoors, and in the final scene, one of them represents a deep lake. Onstage atrocities are everywhere, stealing attention from the score’s soaring passion of love and loss arias, and the vodka-soaked revels.

Katerina is bored with her older husband, Boris (Anatoli Kotscherga).
Katerina and her lascivious father-in-law, Boris (Anatoli Kotscherga).

Katerina lives with her impotent husband, the merchant Zinovy (tenor Raymond Very), and his brash, seething father, Boris, sung with ringing machismo by Ukranian bass Anatoli Kotscherga. This guy lusts for Katerina, after berating her as a bad wife. In Zinovy’s temporary absence, he’s on his way up to Katerina’s room when he discovers that she has found a swaggering, womanizing, deceitful lover, the clean-toned American tenor Brandon Jovanovich, who portrays Sergei, the eventual cause of her suicide by drowning.

As Katerina, the Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek — who sang the title role in the premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole and whose performances in major opera houses include Wagner’s Sieglinde and Elisabeth — is here a voluptuous blonde. Her arias of loneliness and rejection are poignant and powerful. Despite her crimes, the audience sympathized when she dragged her strutting rival down with her to their watery death.

Katerina says she feels incarcerated. Without the bars of productions elsewhere, she’s trapped by walls with doors, through which other people, and the car, go in and out. She is also trapped by Boris’ threats of what will happen if she tries to run off, and she eventually feeds him rat poison.

Sergei arrives as Zinovy’s car leaves, and mourners for Boris carry the couple to a scarlet-spread bed. As they make love, a giant rose slowly ascends above the wall, and at their climax, the refrigerator door swings open to reveal a spotlight blazing at the audience. (The creative Nick Chelton did the lighting.)

The police in the Met production of 'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.'
The cartoonish police in the Met production of ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.’

This plot, period and style are James Conlon heaven. He had led the belated Met premiere, and on the conductor’s podium again he ruled the depictive passages of yearning beauty that underscore actions of shocking depravity (or realism, depending on one’s point of view). It’s true Shostakovich: nasty marches, low winds and brass, drunken carousing, steadily pounding bass drum, and bouncy tunes with non-traditional harmony.

Paul Brown costumed the men in jeans and gray shirts called wife-beaters. Choreographer Ron Howell and chorus master Donald Palumbo moved the chorus with assurance and vigor through varied bleak, cartoonish, and reveling roles — think (if you can) bearded brides in blood-stained gowns, wielding vacuum cleaners.

The older this work gets — it’s 80 years now — the truer to life it seems. Not true to these times, of course, because a wealthy woman would read and get on a cell phone. But “I alone am depressed” endures, as does “My life will pass without a moment of happiness.”

By the end (a frozen drowning on a forced march to Siberia), the beginning seems eons away, but the opera’s bitter essence stubbornly hangs on.

The final performances of the work this season are Nov. 21, 25, and 29.

Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times,, Musical America Directory, and The Daily Gazette.