With the third night of the new Met season arrived Graham Vick’s fabulous production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. It shows up every few years for a handful of performances since its 1994 inception and always attracts a loyal, passionate crowd and a bunch of newbies who arrive scared, are shocked and titillated, and leave wanting more. 

John Relyea (Boris Ismailov) and Svetlana Sozdateleva (Katerina)
© Evan Zimmerman | Met Opera

Paul Brown’s sets and costumes for Vick’s 1950s Soviet concept are a riot of pop-art and surrealism. We open with Katarina, lounging and bored into front of the TV, refrigerator at the ready, and across the stage, a dirty Soviet-era car. The room is surrounded with doors – more than a dozen – painted like a blue sky with puffy, white clouds. You’d think the bright sky was a good omen. But through these doors and on this set will come, at sudden moments, a dozen men dressed in bridal gowns, vacuuming the floor, a wedding party (ugliest print dresses ever; low-rent drunken, lecherous men) and the police department. A very explicit sex scene, two murders, a cover-up and a wedding will take place. The car winds up with a wrecking ball on it, and a disco ball lights up the stage and opera house. The brilliantly colored kitsch disappears for the final scene, a prisoner’s march to Siberia (Katerina still in her wedding dress), where in her final moment Katerina drags a rival prisoner into a filthy sewer after being  pushed into it herself. Both drown; the march continues.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
© Evan Zimmerman | Met Opera

Stalin banned the opera in 1936 for its overt sexuality, portrait of the police, immorality and unrestrained grossness; now, almost a century later, it is still raunchy, but its satirical content is more clear. We’re more permissive, and let’s face it, it’s very funny. A drunker priest you’re not likely to see. Vick’s direction makes merry voyeurs of us all. Can music itself be gaudy, vulgar, sexy? You bet.

But our eponymous heroine, Katarina Ismailova, is sympathetic. She is bored to a point of aimlessly wandering around her apartment, fighting off the advances of her filthy old, father-in-law, made to grovel in front of her husband and defending the cook who’s being molested by the workers in the family company. When she poisons her father-in-law, we revel. We want her to get away with it.

Brandon Jovanovich (Sergei), Nikolai Schukoff (Zinovy) and Svetlana Sozdateleva (Katerina)
© Evan Zimmerman | Met Opera

Shostakovich’s music is mostly rambunctious – including the big sexual encounter between Katerina and Sergei, a hot member of her husband’s crew – his brassy fanfares have hidden meanings; Katerina’s boredom registers through both music and text (a sad oboe follows her in her opening scenes), the wedding is a musical free-for-all, the music for the police is straight out of the Keystone Cops, and the death march is a dirge.

Alexey Shishlyaev (Police Sergeant) and chorus
© Evan Zimmerman | Met Opera

Russian soprano Svetlana Sozdateleva was making her debut with the company, having stepped in to replace Eva-Maria Westbroek. Her big, edgy voice was perfect for Katerina, whether in a rage or in the throes of lust, and at her most bored, she could drag a phrase almost to death. More compelling than spellbinding, her voice is far more useful than stunning. Brandon Jovanovich, a fine, all-purpose tenor (he sings Italian repertoire as well) was Sergei (as he was in the 2014 revival) – tall, smooth, sexy, unrelenting, appalled by and hungry enough for Katerina to abet her murders. Superficially charming, but a thorough cad and opportunist, Jovanovich made it work.

Alexander Tsymbalyuk (Old Convict) and Svetlana Sozdateleva (Katerina Ismailova)
© Evan Zimmerman | Met Opera

The fine bass John Relyea was suitably disgusting as Boris, Katerina’s licentious, bullying father-in-law, his grand voice almost at war with Shostakovich’s score early on. As his son, Zinovy, Nikolai Schukoff cowered properly. Felicia Moore’s potent appearances at the abused cook, Aksinia, were memorable and Goran Jurić's Priest was just distorted enough. The Police Sergeant who longs for bribes was Alexey Shishlyaev, and he almost stole the show. Maria Barakova’s over-the-top, slutty Sonyetka (she who winds up in the sewer with Katerina) was dazzling, and Alexander Tsymbalyuk’s Old Convict added, believe it or not, dignity.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
© Evan Zimmerman | Met Opera

Making her controversial and brilliantly successful Met debut, was conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson. She is the wife of Met GM Peter Gelb, and any talk of nepotism was crushed at the downbeat. This is not an opera where things just move along – the suggestive moments, the fierce satire and sarcasm, the massed brass fanfares, the monstrous rhythm changes. Wilson brought great, controlled work from the soloists, orchestra and Donald Palumbo’s exquisitely trained chorus.

Cheers galore from the Met audience, whose bread and butter tend to be Puccinian, told the tale.

*****