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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Recollection of the Met’s 2013-14 Season

Hi, followers!

I know I have not blogged in a long time, since November in fact, but I am hoping to get back on here this summer with more posts and reviews. I have had a lot going on with the obligations (complications) that come with junior year in high school, such as AP exams, SATs, ACTs, and the rest of the alphabet. I have also been doing a lot with music, including studying both voice and French horn at Manhattan School of Music Precollege this year, taking piano lessons, singing and playing recitals, and continuing to see performances at the Met, as well as at l’Opéra Bastille (My family and I took a trip to Paris for Spring Break). This year has been a great challenge for me, however, I have enjoyed it thoroughly because of the more rigorous environment in which I have been placed to prepare for senior year and college, musically and academically.

This year may have been exciting, however, I have not had time to talk about all that I saw at the Met last season! I was very impressed with the performance level last year, and was not expecting to enjoy it as much as I did. There was no Wagner last season, which is my absolute favorite, and I am not as big a fan of Donizetti and Bellini, which came in abundance. However, I enjoyed going to the opera last season not only as a relief from the constant studying that came with junior year, but also how great the singing was! My top three favorite performances last season were Die Frau ohne SchattenWerther, and  La Cenerentola.

Die Frau ohne Schatten:

Before last season, I had never sat down and listened or watched a Frau in its entirety. I knew that it was by Strauss, and that I loved Strauss, so why wouldn’t I love it? I also never knew that it would become my favorite opera, and that I would return to the Met to see it three more times after the final dress rehearsal. From listening and seeing most of Strauss’ operas, I have found that each one has its own unique tone and style. For example: I feel that Elektra is just the craziest of the crazy, Der Rosenkavalier features a lot of personifications of both people and objects in the orchestra, such as trilling clarinets for candles, and Capriccio is very talky and light. Last season, I determined that Frau is my favorite style of Strauss: Wagnerian. The way in which the motif for Keikobad kept returning in its natural form or arrangements, as well as the repetitive C sharps to signal the Falke, reminded me a great deal of the style of my favorite composer: Wagner.

The music of Frau not only struck me, but all of the performances just drew me in and left me in awe at the end. I had never heard Christine Goerke live before, but boy did I ever hear her whenever she opened her mouth as the Dyer’s Wife. She had such control and maintained her superb vocal quality throughout her entire range. She also brought energy and personality to each of the performances I attended, I especially loved how hilariously she treated Barak’s three brothers by spraying them with water, and how she acted lavishly whenever the Nurse conjured up the paradise she would live in if she gave up her fertility. Through all of the performances of Frau that my dad and I attended, we found each other constantly turning to each other with our mouths gaping open, later saying, “Could you believe how freaking amazing she sounded?!”

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra also outdid itself in this Strauss masterpiece. The swells and waves of sound that constantly emerge from this piece came off as magnificent, yet natural for an orchestra of that level. Even at the relatively fast tempi that Maestro Vladimir Jurowski took, the Met Orchestra went right along and produced big, magnificent, perfect Strauss sounds.

Photo: Die Frau ohne Schatten, production by Herbert Wernicke

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Finally, I also absolutely fell in love with the Met’s production of Frau, designed by Herbert Wernicke. There were two main elements of the productions: Mirrors and stairs. Colorful lights and crystal-bedecked costumes yielded extraordinary reflections on the mirrors. The stairs were a key element of the production, because they were constantly used to move between the spirit world and the real world. I found that this abstract, colorful design really worked for Frau, as it is a magical fantasy more than a relatable story. I truly wonder why the Met decided not to feature Frau as an HD broadcast in movie theaters around the world. The mirrors may cause problems with camera reflections, and the opera is also lengthy, but it is an absolutely beautiful production that people around the world should see! This production really caught my eye and drew me further into Frau.

Werther:

I decided to watch Massenet’s Werther on DVD (the 2010 one with Jonas Kaufmann from the Bastille) last summer in preparation for the Met’s coming season. I think I went through one box of tissues through watching the short fifteen-minute fourth act in which Werther (spoiler!) shoots himself. My dad came upstairs and asked why I was sobbing and I said, “You told me it was sad, not this sad!” Yes, I did cry over how sad the plot is, but I also enjoyed Massenet’s music, the French style, and of course, Jonas Kaufmann.

I attended three performances of Werther at the Met last season, all of which left me moved to tears, not only because of the plot, but the unbelievable level of singing. As much as I like Kaufmann in heavier German repertoire, I loved his lush and sensitive portrayal of the fragile Werther. His dark tone worked especially well as he sorrowfully sang “Pourquoi me réveiller”, as well as the duets with Sophie Koch as Charlotte. Just as he does in every role I have seen him perform, Kaufmann inhabited the role of Werther, conscientiously displaying his despair and desperation. Sophie Koch was a magnificent, reserved Charlotte, who worked with Kaufmann very well, possibly because they did the same opera together in Paris in 2010. Lisette Oropesa was a delightful Sophie, she truly held up the only joy and happiness that emerges from the opera. Werther has a very easy structure: If Sophie is on stage, things are going fine, everything is beautiful, life is grand; If Sophie is not onstage, and either Werther, Charlotte, or others are onstage, things are depressing and melancholy. Oropesa’s voice soared when she sang about the sun and flowers and all of the delightful things that Sophie sings about, and kept a healthy balance between the happiness and the gloominess of the opera. Finally, the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus did a fantastic job, both the seven solo roles for the siblings of Charlotte and Sophie and the chorus that sings “Noël! Noël! Noël!” at the end.

Photo: Werther, Metropolitan Opera, © Ken Howard

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This production of Werther was a premiere for the Met, directed by Richard Eyre. From my first time setting eyes on it, I truly loved it. It focused very much on nature, greenery, and simplicity, and left enough of the stage alone for more attention to be drawn to the singers. I felt that because of the tremendous amount of focus on nature, as trees, various landscapes, skies, birds, snow and other elements were shown, this production could easily be used again for Siegfried! The production also enabled Werther to really stand out from the other characters, in that he was dressed in a long black coat, while the others were adorned in colorful dresses, hats, and suits. By standing out physically, Eyre allowed Werther to be perceived as an extreme outsider to the world of Charlotte and her family. My preference in opera productions is for the singers and the music to be my primary focus, and the sets and possible director’s concept to be secondary. I felt that this production matched my preference perfectly, in that it focused on a simple theme: Nature, and let my attention be drawn to the outstanding singing of Jonas Kaufmann, Sophie Koch, and Lisette Oropesa.

La Cenerentola

Cenerentola was outstanding for only one, but one very important reason: The singing. As most bel canto operas go, many people go for the thrilling coloratura and the light, happy music, rather than for the (usually) simple and uncomplicated plots. For those who attended performances of Cenerentola, including me, we were not disappointed. Joyce DiDonato, Javier Camarena, and Juan Diego Florez all outdid themselves as the leads, as well as Luca Pisaroni and others in smaller roles. From the flying coloratura and forte spots, to the precise, staccato, piano spots such as “Questo è un modo avviluppato”, the Act II ensemble, the performances of Cenerentola were extraordinary.

This run of Cenerentola included Joyce DiDonato’s last run singing the role of Angelina, as she is retiring the role. She may have been retiring the role, but she left it with a bang. Her coloratura is simply unmatched by anyone on today’s stage, as it soared through the house and made each performance I attended absolutely exciting and thrilling. In whatever she is singing, DiDonato always displays acute breath control and electrifying dynamics that always define her performances. It is always an incredible opportunity to hear her live simply for her very conscious effort of maintaining breath control while simultaneously giving a solid, thrilling performance. DiDonato also displayed fantastic acting techniques as the poor, barred, yet hopeful Angelina, as she bounced around the stage the entire evening showing a mix of annoyance and scattered-attitude as she assisted her step-sisters, and absolute starry-eyed, whimsical movements whenever she was in the presence of the Prince. I absolutely loved DiDonato’s Angelina, vocally and acting-wise.

Photo: Joyce DiDonato and Javier Camarena in La Cenerentola, Metropolitan Opera, taken by © Sara Krulwich/New York Times

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Javier Camarena had made his Met debut in the 2011-12 season in another leading Rossini tenor role in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Juan Diego Florez was scheduled to sing all six performances of Cenerentola, however, he canceled the first three performances, allowing Camarena to fill in. I was blown away. I found that Camarena had the same flourishing, thrilling coloratura that Florez has, but he actually had a bigger voice. His voice especially rang when he sang his top Cs and Ds in “Si, ritrovarla io giro”. The audience, in fact, was so impressed, that he did an encore of the aria for the second and third performances in which he sang! It was incredible to hear him sing this aria, one or two times per performance, and I look forward to hearing more of his incredible coloratura in future seasons: Camarena is scheduled, according to Peter Gelb’s comment in the New York Times, to sing the lead tenor role in Rossini’s Semiramide opposite Joyce DiDonato at the Met in the 2017-18 season.

Juan Diego Florez, in the last three performances, was also outstanding. Even with his slightly smaller voice compared to Camarena, Florez played his usually incredible coloratura game. Florez, unlike a lot of singers, is virtually flawless vocally each time he performs. It is amazing. Very rarely, if at all, does one hear that Florez cracked this note or that note, or was sloppy in this or that passage of coloratura. For Cenerentola, Florez showed his elite vocal accuracy, precision, and consistency.

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra were also wonderful in Cenerentola. It is amazing how each of them can sing heavy, Strauss operas one night, and sing light-Rossini the next. Fabio Luisi did an incredible job keeping light tempi throughout, and leaving me on the edge of my sight throughout each of the performances I attended.

The Metropolitan Opera’s 2013-14 season was fantastic, and I especially enjoyed it through each of my top three operas. I am anxious and excited for the 2014-15 season to begin in the Fall! I am also looking forward to preceding the Met’s 2014-15 with a fulfilling summer of writing, playing music, watching performances, traveling, and relaxing.

 

“Chatting” about Two Boys

This fall the Met has featured many operas that many people call “typical”, such as NormaRigoletto, and Tosca on its stage. However, Two Boys is far from typical. It is like nothing the Met has ever done before.

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The story deals with, in fact, two boys (no, really?), one named Jake, age 13, and the other Brian, age 16. The opera deals with a murder mystery, a case assigned to Detective Anne Strawson, involving evidence posted on the internet through chat rooms, only it is difficult to know who is who in these chats. It is difficult, because Jake, at the tender age of 13, has several different personas that he uses to chat with Brian. There is Rebecca, a teenage girl/love interest around Brian’s age, the “Fake Jake”, or Brian’s imagination of who Jake would be, Peter, the “perv” gardner, Fiona, a friend of Jake’s who is responsible for telling Brian to kill Jake, eventually, and the real Jake eventually chats to Brian as himself. So why does Jake use all of these personas to chat with Brian? At first, Jake is interested in Brian for a relationship, but later on in the opera when the two boys meet each other in person, Brian rejects Jake’s love interest. After that, Jake twists the story and plans a murder plot…for himself. Through his personas, Jake tells Brian exactly where to get a knife and where to meet him and kill him, and Brian does exactly that, hence the first lines of the opera, “Help! Help! My friend has been stabbed!”

Nico Muhly, the composer of Two Boys, and Craig Lucas, the librettist, have something in common that no other opera composers and librettists have at the Met this year (unless you count Enchanted Island)…they are both still alive! When my mother rehearsed Two Boys on C-level and on the stage, Mr. Muhly would be listening intently, talk to orchestra members, and communicate with Maestro Robinson. Imagine if Mozart, Verdi, or Wagner could come back from the dead and do that today! My mother was even able to ask Mr. Muhly about a certain spot in the music, where the oboe was supposed to be playing in a certain way where the mouth surrounds the entire reed, or a shawm. My mother was able to play the passage a few times for Muhly, and he, (yes, the composer), was able to say “Yes, that is exactly what I want!”

Photo: Alice Coote and Paul Appleby in Two Boys

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When I walked into Two Boys, I was worried that it was going to be too modern and too eery for my taste, and that the music would sound like the work of some modern composers that I do not particularly like. I had nothing to worry about! When I first heard Two Boys I heard a lot of music that sounded like Wagner and Debussy, rather than random clinking and clonging. After the second time hearing the opera I was able to pick up on leitmotifs that follow characters around, such as the rhythmic ‘G’s on the timpani and low brass that follow Fiona around, or the chromatics that follow Anne Strawson’s mother around. The music was very interesting and indeed modern, yet I enjoyed listening to it!

The production by Bartlett Sher really caught the darkness and travesty that can occur on the internet. He used many projections of various prisms, shapes, lines, boxes, and other figures that we, as the audience, were supposed to interpret as the internet. Sher also used projections for the chat windows, where moving text could be seen line by line along with profile pictures, and even a video camera! The production also used dancers to express the randomness and complicated nature of the internet, and the chorus held laptops that produced light to glow on members’ faces. Overall, the production was very dark, except for the light of computers and projections, which captured the mysterious nature of the internet perfectly.

Photo: Act II of Two Boys, chatting between Fiona (Sandra Piques-Eddy) and Brian (Paul Appleby)

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The singing in Two Boys was magnificent. Alice Coote outdid herself as Anne Strawson. Her acting and her singing were amazing, in fact, if Two Boys ever comes back to the Met, I cannot imagine anyone else except Alice Coote singing that role! She became the detective! Paul Appleby played and sang a perfectly smug, stubborn sixteen-year old Brian. Jennifer Zetlan had a lovely lyric sound and some great high notes as Rebecca. Sandra Piques-Eddy was a very dark, evil Fiona, whenever she sang to Brian I was on the edge of my seat! Keith Miller sang a very evil Peter, in fact, he was so scary that when I told him that I was coming to see the show he said “Oh dear…”. The singing done by the chorus, and the orchestra under Maestro Robertson were also amazing! All of these roles must have been very difficult to memorize, because there are numerous short lines that characters sing when they are in “chat mode”, so bravi to everyone!

I thoroughly enjoyed Two Boys. When I first heard that this opera was coming to the Met, I honestly thought that it would be a piece that I would not like, and that I would first listen to on the radio to hear if I really would want to go see it. The complete opposite occurred. I saw it on Opening Night, and went back to see it again! Why did I like this opera so much? It felt so relatable to what I do as a teenager on the internet. First of all, I am on it all the time, just like Jake and Brian, and I love to use my blog, Twitter, and Facebook to chat with people, some I know better than others. Two Boys served as a reminder to me to be very careful on the internet, and remember that you never know who’s out there. As Fiona sang, “You don’t know me, but I know you. Choose your friends wisely”.