Stalin’s Loss: A Review of the Met’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Eva-Maria Westbroek, Brandon Jovanovich, and the Metropolitan Opera Chorus in the Met's Act II © Hiroyuki Ito, New York Times

Eva-Maria Westbroek, Brandon Jovanovich, and the Metropolitan Opera Chorus in the Met’s Act II
© Hiroyuki Ito, New York Times

Joseph Stalin attended Dmitri Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk on January 26, 1936 in Moscow. Luckily he was able to stay and see most of it, but unfortunately he stormed out, along with the rest of his Communist friends, before the final scene. He must have had something better to do. Two days later, an editorial appeared in Pravda, the Communist Party’s official agent of communication, denouncing the opera for “tickling the perverted taste of the bourgeoisie with its fidgety, screaming neurotic music” (Ashley). Many claim that this article was, in fact, written by Stalin himself. For the next 30 years, the score of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk would remain closed, and Shostakovich would remain fearful of the secret police. He managed to tastefully revitalize himself through “A Soviet Artist’s Response to Criticism”, or his Fifth Symphony, one of his most well-known pieces.

Stalin let the Soviet Union down in numerous ways: This was one of them. Denying his people the opportunity to see this magnificent work for thirty years was a mistake. He not only made it is his own loss, but the Soviet Union’s as well.

On a happier note, the Metropolitan Opera put Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, screaming neurotic music and all, on the stage this November. The cast included Eva-Maria Westbroek in the title role, Brandon Jovanovich as the sex-hungry Sergei, with James Conlon on the podium. Fourteen years have passed since the Met last put on this Shostakovich, as it was previously done with Catherine Malfitano as Katerina and Vladimir Galouzine as Sergei under Maestro Gergiev. Between those fourteen years, Met audiences were introduced to Shostakovich’s The Nose, which holds similar connotations of “thumbing one’s nose” at Communist society, no pun intended. The Nose acted as a stepping stone to Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, in that both the Met audience’s ears and the Met Orchestra and Chorus truly stepped up their game for this more colossal work.

Eva-Maria Westbroek has had the role of Katerina Ismailova under her belt for a number of years, as she made her Royal Opera House debut in the role in 2006, and sang it at the Netherlands Opera the same year. It was so obvious in her performance that she knew the role so well, in that she truly reflected her own representation of the Katerina she wanted to be. She was very passive, laid-back, and bored, especially around the crazy circumstances that occur in the opera. The way she kept plopping herself back into the armchair or walking away after Boris would criticize her was hilarious. Musically, she sustained her range magnificently throughout the entire opera, which is a true feat, as the part is tremendously long (along the lines of Isolde or Susanna).

Eva-Maria Westbroek and Brandon Jovanovich in Act I. © Ken Howard, Metropolitan Opera

Eva-Maria Westbroek and Brandon Jovanovich in Act I.
© Ken Howard, Metropolitan Opera

Brandon Jovanovich was a very strong Sergei. He came off as an overly-confident high school sophomore boy with a mental capacity small enough to fit only sex. He captured Sergei’s swagger so well that Jovanovich actually made the audience laugh when he claimed that he was not like the “other guys” and that he was all for “true love”. The role of Sergei requires stamina, not so much due to the length of the role, but due to the physical activity involved, which includes being whipped, making love, killing, hoisting bodies into cars, etc. He never shouted or belted; he managed to keep his line as lyrical as Sergei would allow, and he never forced. Much like his Don José, Jovanovich managed to keep his Sergei lyrical despite the physical demands required.

The Met Orchestra and Chorus seemed to honestly have fun in this work. From their acting drunk at Katerina and Sergei’s wedding ceremony to being nerdy police officers reading comic books, the Chorus had a great deal of fun on stage. The Orchestra truly brought out the snide, mocking sort of humor that Shostakovich depicted about the Communists. The percussion and extra brass gave it their all, and one only had to listen to the E-flat clarinet line just to get that sarcastic connotation. Conlon truly let everyone perform with no strings attached, no pun intended. The sound that rose from both the pit and stage was “screaming”, but in a good way, in that there was nothing careful or restricted about it.

It is a shame that the Met did not schedule Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk to be presented in movie theaters worldwide, as the production is just as insane as the plot. Graham Vick captured both the implicit and explicit sides of the housewife in the home: Explicitly through the television set, the refrigerator, the armchair, and the car; and implicitly through the dance of the vacuuming brides and symbolism pertaining to sex. Just as Sergei squeezes Katerina’s hand and points out that her “her ring of marriage is hurting”, Vick displayed the hardships of a housewife through a typical, boring household setting (she says she is bored right at the beginning), and the dances of unsatisfied wives longing for their husbands or entertainment while doing housework. Katerina fetches beer, mushrooms, and/or rat poison from the refrigerator while her father-in-law, Boris, acts as an ominous presence from the other room: A TV flashes on his face to give him an ominous glow. Between action, the wives dance in their wedding dresses with vacuums, chucking flowers on the ground to show their frustration with their dull futures and lack of excitement.

Out of this boring set emerges eroticism and sex through the hot pink bed with satin covers; a giant flower that symbolizes Katerina’s being “deflowered” in a way, and the car, in which she and Sergei place the dead Zinoviy Borisovich and on which they have sex. Through Vick’s production, it was made clear that both Sergei and Katerina are two bored people with too much time on their hands, with sex acting as both a highlight and an escape from the boring household atmosphere.

The disco ball was another great part of the production, in that it was formerly a wrecking ball used to crush the car in which Katerina’s first husband was stuffed. That same wrecking ball is later used as a party prop, a disco ball, as if Katerina and Sergei were using it to cover up their plot. Maybe if the production Stalin had seen had included a disco ball before the last scene he would not have left!

I truly hope that the Met does not go another fourteen years without doing this piece. This opera cannot be called a tragedy, in that it had everyone in stitches. This was absolute dark comedy.