Raunchy, Wrenching Mtsensk at the Met

Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, NY; November 17, 2014–Shostakovich’s outrageous Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is back at the Met after a 14-year absence. The production by Graham Vick, with sets and costumes by Paul Brown, is as brilliant, vulgar, funny, and nihilistic as the opera itself. Our first glimpse, as the curtain rises, is of an attractive woman, in a trashy bright yellow dress with a pattern of red roses, listlessly watching TV. In the room are a refrigerator, a table–and a car. The walls are comprised of 17 doors; the background walls are painted like the sky, with pretty white clouds. The music, from low brass, is limp, and the woman in question–Katerina–sings of her boredom and how much she loathes her husband and her life, a sad oboe mirroring her tedium.

Soon we meet the family: she and her wimpy husband, Zinovy, have no children, and her wealthy merchant father-in-law, Boris, is a lecherous, abusive bully and tyrant. Zinovy is about to go off on a business trip at Boris’ insistence. Some workers arrive, and one of them, a handsome guy name Sergei (with a reputation for being a womanizer), makes serious eye-contact with Katerina. And so the tale begins.

Soon Katerina and Sergei are in her purple satin-sheeted bed (in a sex-scene made explicit by the brass section, particularly the downward, de-tumescent slides on the trombones at the end), and when they are caught by Boris, he has Sergei flogged. Katerina kills Boris by putting rat poison in his mushrooms; when her husband, Zinovy, comes home, she strangles him with her belt, aided by Sergei. There’s plenty of body-hiding, a funeral and a drunken wedding, and finally the clown-like police find out and arrest Katerina and Sergei. On their way to Siberia with dozens of other convicts, Sergei finds a new girlfriend. As Katerina’s final act of despondency, she jumps into a lake or pit that has been used to empty slop buckets, and drags the girlfriend with her.

When, in 1936, Joseph Stalin attended a performance of the opera, he immediately banned it, and the ban stayed in effect for almost 30 years. (One might have thought that an opera that shows retribution for lechery and murder would have pleased him.) Too much sex, too much satire of church and police, and, as the Soviet critics said, too much “neurotic music”.

Watching the sheer inventiveness of Vick’s movement, which ideally mirrors Shostakovich’s music, is a treat. Characters appear atop the walls of the house, there’s a disco ball, men in bloody wedding dresses vacuum the floor to raucous accompaniment, there are strobe lights, piles of garbage bags, cops in comic-book T-shirts under their uniforms, people popping out of holes in the floor–it’s a feast for eye and ear, grotesque humor at its best.

The performances are grand: Eva-Maria Westbroek, famous for her Sieglinde, Minnie (in Puccini’s Fanciulla), and the title role in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, is stupendous in the long, difficult title role. The voice is a bright dramatic soprano, and the sensuous Westbroek manages to convey Katerina’s mad boredom, desperation, and short-lived joy all at once. Anatoli Kotscherga, singing the disgusting role of Boris, uses his huge bass voice almost as a weapon–a great performance. The studly, nervous, betraying Sergei is perfectly portrayed by tenor Brandon Jovanovich, and tenor Raymond Very is a straight-up, nerdy Zinovy. A bellowing police sergeant is gigantically sung by bass Vladimir Ognovenko, and Oksana Volkova shows up in the last scene with a big, smoky mezzo voice and a deliciously slutty attitude to steal Sergei from Katerina (and be dragged to her death). Tenor Alan Glassman mightily sings the role of a drunk who discovers the body of Katerina’s husband and alerts the police.

The Met chorus, under Donald Palumbo, is probably America’s greatest opera-house group, and they certainly prove it in this opera. Holding it all together is conductor James Conlon, who not only offers us the score’s raucousness but its sense of longing and its lyricism (there’s a funeral march that Mahler would be proud of).

There are three more performances at the Met this season–run to the box office.