In the long chronicle of stressful, even cataclysmic nights in the operatic world, it's doubtful any have surpassed one particular evening in January, 1936, at Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre for sheer terror: at least for the composer. Two years before, the 27-year-old Dmitri Shostakovich had premiered a much-anticipated opera in his native Leningrad: Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Critics and even officials of the still-new Soviet Union praised the new work, which played in a number of cities around the world, entertained by the blend of tragedy and satire drawn from a 19th-century novel about a housewife who commits adultery and murder. The composer's previous operatic experiment (1930's absurdist The Nose) had left them largely befuddled. The new opera, though, was clear, dramatic, and delightfully racy (one reviewer in New York, struck by the score's frank eroticism, called it "pornophony"). Now all that was needed was the approval of the supreme arbiter of all aspects of life in the new Communist Russia: Joseph Stalin.
The approval was not to come. The same night Shostakovich was in the Bolshoi audience, Stalin himself was also there, along with the Politburo, the central committee of the Communist Party. Shostakovich later told a friend of the agonies he endured watching Stalin shuddering at the music, laughing at the dramatic moments, and exuding disgust. Two days later, Pravda, the Russian Communist Party's official newspaper, published an article under the headline "Muddle Instead of Music." It denounced the new opera as "formalist" (a typical Soviet accusation implying too strict an adherence to traditional forms), primitive, and vulgar. Apparently, it was both too high-brow and too low-brow, simultaneously. People widely believed Stalin himself authored the critique (never proven nor disproven), and Shostakovich's services as a composer were suddenly unwanted. Some reviews close a show; this one seemed sure to end a career: or worse. These years were the "Great Purge," Stalin's campaign of terror and repression scarcely paralleled in history's most barbaric epochs. Official censure could mean the elimination of one's family and even acquaintances.
Shostakovich survived, somehow, and eventually so did Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which returns to the Met stage this month in Graham Vick's vivid production. Soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, who has given such memorable Met performances as Wagner's Sieglinde and Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini, will play Katerina Ismailova, the adulterous leading character, opposite Brandon Jovanovich as her conspiring lover, Sergei. James Conlon, who conducted the opera for its Met premiere in 1994, will be on the podium once again.
When Stalin died in 1953, Shostakovich revised Lady Macbeth as Katerina Ismailova, which successfully played in Moscow and elsewhere. The original version was rehabilitated in the late 1970s and has since been acclaimed internationally. "This opera represents a quantum leap in the growth of Russia's greatest 20th-century composer," Conlon says. "Shostakovich's genius for social commentary was already in evidence in The Nose. But in Lady Macbeth he shows the breadth and depth of his perception into human emotions on a new scale."
Westbroek agrees. "To sing Katerina is like going on a journey full of the most extreme emotions and feelings," the soprano declares. "The music is phenomenal and the psychology so deep and close to real life. The role is written so fantastically that we can all relate to her."
Similarly, Vick's remarkable production follows the cues provided by Shostakovich's brilliant score. Like the music, the staging is brash and insistent, featuring disco balls, prisoners in all their grungy suffering, and even sex behind a refrigerator (the intensity of which sometimes causes the door to fly open and cabbages to roll around the stage). And yet, for all this, the true focus remains on the human drama at stake. The opera also provides, in Conlon's words, "an ideal showcase for the Met's brilliant and virtuosic orchestra."
The maestro credits Lady Macbeth's musical and dramatic variety as key to its unique appeal. "It has passionate love scenes, jealousy and murder, arias of longing, monologues and love duets, ghostly apparitions, an interrupted wedding feast, lamenting choruses and a drinking song, but used and sometimes misused for an overarching dramatic design." As a result, there are familiar points of entry for the operatic audience, though their deployment is anything but conventional. Though novel, the score engages rather than excludes the listener, with a vast range of provocative musical effects.
With his "masterpiece of tragedy and satire" (as Conlon calls it) in the hands of the Met's orchestra and soloists, Shostakovich would surely be well pleased with the result. And no less significantly, we can also imagine that Stalin would still be disturbed, disgruntled, and generally disgusted by it.
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk opened on November 10 and runs through November 29.