Snap, Crackle, and Pow! Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth Sulks and Sizzles at the Met
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This week, the Metropolitan Opera revived Graham Vick’s production of Dmitri Shostakovich’s, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the 1934 opera that infuriated Stalin, and nearly cost the composer his livelihood and his sanity. The opera is a dark tragic-comedy, about a bored and brutalized housewife who murders her father-in-law with rat poison, and strangles her husband with the help of her hot young lover. Strange as it may seem, the opera was initially approved by Communist Party censors and hailed as a masterpiece of the new Soviet culture — largely because it lampooned and eviscerated the bourgeoisie.

Then, in January 1936, Stalin saw it. The composer, attending the same Bolshoi performance as the dictator, reportedly turned white watching Stalin’s visceral, negative reactions. Two days later, Stalin’s official verdict appeared in an unsigned Pravda article entitled, Chaos not Music.” It hurled the worst possible accusation at the composer — accusing him of “formalism,” i.e., succumbing to Western tendencies in art. Stalin — the man who murdered millions of people with no remorse — was apparently a prude where sex was concerned. He was offended by the sexual content of Lady Macbeth’s libretto and hated its music, which was denounced as “quacking, hooting, panting, grinding, squealing” noise.

Censorship was deadly business in the Stalinist era. According to the New Grove Dictionary of Music, the Communist Party used the opera as a pretext to crack down on all Soviet artists and composers. They were required to take indoctrination training on proper Soviet aesthetics and recant the error of their ways. Shostakovich’s son, Maxim, was forced to denounce his father in school. The composer’s mother-in-law was sent to a labor camp. His sister and brother-in-law were also arrested. Shostakovich and Stalin played cat and mouse with each other for many years afterwards, which took a toll on the composer’s health and mental state. Needless to say, the opera was banned and Shostakovich never completed another one.

Seeing and hearing Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk eighty years later, it seems amazing that it managed to get by Soviet censors at all before being attacked and suppressed. I was immediately struck by the freshness of the music, which sounds very contemporary, and the modern, anti-hero conceit of the libretto. The Graham Vick production updates the opera by changing the time period from pre-revolutionary provincial Russia to the Soviet era, circa 1950-ish. This is particularly ironic, since the composer was a committed revolutionary who meant to lacerate the bourgeoisie, not his fellow comrades. But the scenario fits the latter all too well.

The first act opens to a tipped proscenium stage, on which the “heroine,” Katerina Ismailova, struts around her spare Soviet living room in red patent leather stiletto heels and a low cut, skin tight yellow dress. She sulks and complains of boredom, sparring occasionally with her lecherous father-in-law, Boris. He complains that after five years of marriage, she has yet to produce a child. She snaps back that it’s not her fault, but rather her impotent husband is the problem. Just in case you weren’t following the libretto, Shostakovich punctuates Boris’ sexual taunts with trombone glissandos. This is one of the so-called grotesque elements in the score, which contains many musical references to what’s going on in the libretto.

The plot thickens as a flood devastates the family’s factory, and husband Zinovy is dispatched to deal with it. But not before Boris forces Katerina to swear she will be faithful while he is away. Strangely, and probably deliberately on the composer’s part, one of the loveliest passages in the opera is the all-too-short, lyrical farewell the ineffectual Zinovy sings to his wife. As he leaves, groveling workers — dressed in drab Soviet gray and red bandanas — file in and proclaim the unctuous chorus: “We’ll be lost without our dear master! Life without you in not worth living. Our work, too, without you, won’t be real work. Come back quickly!”

To characterize the plot as sex-saturated is not an exaggeration. In the libretto, the next scene is described as a group of workmen who are “having some fun” by trapping a servant girl in a barrel and groping her breasts. In this production, the scene is far more graphic. The woman is caught up in the net of a construction crane, lowered into a group of jeering men, and assaulted from behind by a naked man who has just come out of the showers.

Katerina intervenes, only to be accosted by her sulky body double, Sergei. He is everything her husband is not: tall, handsome, virile and aggressive. She tells the men to stop. Sergei laughingly challenges her to a wrestling match. She melts in his arms. They are interrupted by father-in-law Boris, who promises to squeal to her husband. Later that night, Sergei sweet talks his way into Katerina’s bedroom. This production portrays their rendezvous with lots of faux copulation — on the red silk-covered bed, on the table, behind the refrigerator, all rendered in time to the churning, fevered music.

Later, Boris fantasizes about taking over his son’s marital obligations with Katerina, sung to the lilting tune of a Strauss-like waltz. But before he can act, Boris discovers Sergei climbing down the side of the house from Katerina’s bedroom, seizes him and flogs him. Katerina retaliates by putting rat poison in Boris’ food. As he dies, Boris names her as his killer to the local, bumbling priest. But Katerina’s wailing protestations convince him and everyone else that this could not possibly be true.

The next murder occurs when the husband discovers the lovers in his bedroom — their love music sounds right out of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. Zinovy takes out his belt and starts to hit Katerina. But she is a big girl, and easily overpowers and strangles him with the help of Sergei. They dump Zinovy’s body in the trunk of the car (in the libretto, they hide the body in the wine cellar). Katerina removes the wedding ring from Zinovy’s dead finger, gives it to Sergei, and they resume faux copulation on top of the car. As the opera progresses, the inevitable happens: the body is discovered by a local drunk, the police are summed, the lovers are arrested, and they are sent to Siberia in chains.

The action scenes in Lady Macbeth are interspersed with several orchestral interludes. In this production, most of them are used for erotic dance sequences or burlesque pantomimes. Sometimes they are funny, and sometimes they don’t make any sense. In the first one, Katerina leans against a chair and daydreams, as shirtless, tattooed young male dancers appear, suggestively crawling around her and climbing on each other as they roll up the carpet and change the set props. During another scene change, a bevy of brides in wedding dresses storms onto the stage with vacuum cleaners, sweeping the set while mocking sex and birthing rituals to raucous music. During yet another interlude, the brides — some of whom are now men in drag — reappear in wedding dresses smeared in red, run around, change the set and leave. Are they lampooning Katerina’s murder of her husband? It is hard to tell. Then there is the inexplicable ballet of the woman mourners at Boris’s funeral, who enter on their knees, lugging huge crosses. They climb up a giant mound of trash bags filled with garbage, piled against the side of the house. The meaning of this sequence completely eluded me.

One of the truly astonishing things about the Metropolitan Opera is that it manages to find serious, mature, first-class singers who have the confidence to walk around the stage in their underwear and perform the explicit scenes required by this production. Soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, who has previously sung the role of Katerina to acclaim, was in fine voice — strong and never faltering in her difficult passages. At times, however, she seemed more like a pouty party girl than a tormented heroine. Brandon Jovanovich’s clear baritone voice was up to the demands of the role of Sergei, and he certainly looked the part as he paraded around the stage in his skivvies. But he couldn’t quite convey the heat needed to make his character sizzle. Anatoli Kotscherga stole the show as the nasty, brutish Boris. His dark bass voice sounded stressed at times, but his searing portrayal of the vicious father-in-law more than made up for any vocal issues.

For me, however, the vocal stunner was Raymond Very as husband Zinovy. He appears only twice in the opera, but his beautiful tenor voice rang out, providing welcome relief from the lower-register heaviness of the score. Another standout was Dmitry Belosselskiy, as the convict in the final scene who sings of the prisoners’ despair, as “Mile after backbreaking mile drag by in endless procession. Ah, you road of bitter suffering, road of blood, road to Siberia! Chains have worn you, tears have watered you, ghastly moans forever haunt you.” Finally, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, under the leadership of James Conlon, earned well-deserved ovations for its modulated performance — no small feat for a Shostakovich score.

It goes without saying that Graham Vick’s production is not for the squeamish. When it works, it is entertaining and visually arresting. But for me, many of the burlesque elements are over the top. A good example is the scene in the police station. A huge pop art fist, labeled “Pow!” hovers over a chorus line of cops who doze, dance, or read comic books. They twirl Charlie Chaplin-like canes and their chief does a soft shoe number as he fumes about not being invited to Katerina and Sergei’s wedding. It’s quite funny. But when the cops show up in riot gear in the finale, kicking down doors to arrest people, they elicit laughter from the audience in a scene that is supposed to be tragic. Similarly, the convicts in the last scene all wear identical yellow rain slickers over their clothes, looking clownish, rather than pathetic. And the sexy convict Sonyetka, whom Sergei takes up with after abandoning Katerina, looks just like Patsy from the British comedy Absolutely Fabulous: teased blonde hair, silver boots, a miniskirt, tight T-shirt, and bright red lipstick. It’s all very entertaining, but unfortunately it completely undermines the pathos of the last scene.

I first heard Lady Macbeth in 2007, performed by the Kirov Opera in a concert version. Despite the bare bones setting, it was more compelling. It hit the bull’s eye in conveying the anguish of the trapped heroine, and the despair of the convicts being marched off to Siberia. In that pivotal final scene, Katerina takes the easy way out — she drowns herself and her rival Sonyetka. But unlike their fictional counterparts, for millions of real people in the Stalinist era there was no way out. Musicologist Solomon Volkov, who chronicled the relationship between Shostakovich and Stalin, quotes from the secret diary of Lyubov Shaporina, a contemporary of Shostakovich and founder of one of the first marionette theaters in Russia. She summed up the terror artists faced everyday: “All these arrests and exiles are inexplicable, unjustified. And inevitable, like a natural disaster, no one is safe. Every evening at bedtime, I prepare everything I’ll need in case of arrest. We are all guilty without guilt. If you are not executed, arrested (or exiled), thank your lucky stars.”

Kudos to the Met for staging this rarely performed opera, which occupies such a pivotal place in the history of Soviet cultural repression. It may give those who complain about censorship today something to think about. But it’s a shame that for all its snap, crackle, and pow, this production couldn’t muster the full emotional force the composer intended.

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