[Met Performance] CID:318440
Metropolitan Opera Premiere
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk {1} Metropolitan Opera House: 11/10/1994.
 (Metropolitan Opera Premiere)
(Debuts: Vladimir Galouzine, Dennis Petersen, Vladimir Ognovenko, John Russell, Alexander Anisimov, Graham Vick,
Paul Brown, Nick Chelton, Ron Howell

Metropolitan Opera House
November 10, 1994
Metropolitan Opera Premiere


Katerina Ismailova......Maria Ewing
Sergei..................Vladimir Galouzine [Debut]
Zinovy..................Mark (W.) Baker
Boris...................Sergei Koptchak
Aksinya.................Janet Hopkins
Millhand................Charles Karel
Coachman................Meredith Derr
Peasant.................Dennis Petersen [Debut]
Steward.................Philip Cokorinos
Porter..................James Courtney
First Foreman...........David Frye
Second Foreman..........Glenn Alpert
Third Foreman...........John Person
Priest..................József Gregor
Chief of Police.........Vladimir Ognovenko [Debut]
Policeman...............John Russell [Debut]
Teacher.................Philip Creech
Old Convict.............Alexander Anisimov [Debut]
Sentry..................Bradley Garvin
Sonyetka................Victoria Livengood
Convict.................Nina Warren
Prison Officer..........John Fiorito

Conductor...............James Conlon

Production..............Graham Vick [Debut]
Designer................Paul Brown [Debut]
Lighting designer.......Nick Chelton [Debut]
Choreographer...........Ron Howell [Debut]

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk received nine performances this season.

[Alternate title: Katerina Ismailova (later version).]

Review of Paul Griffiths in The New Yorker of November 28, 1994


The stage is full of machines. This is the first presentation of Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth of
Mtsensk" at the Met since 1935, and a huge crane rears up at the back of the set. There are scenes featuring gantries, an earthmover, an automobile for the hapless husband to drive off in, a crushed replica of it to store his body in. And all the while we see, cavorting and killing, those other machines: human beings.

"Lady Macbeth" is a savage piece, a hysterical piece. It's been remembered in the history books as the opera that soon after Stalin saw it (or most of it), in 1936, by which time it had been playing in Russia and abroad for two years - was fiercely condemned in a Pravda editorial, removed from the stage (two productions were then running in Moscow), and taken as the occasion for a crackdown on the composer. Now, at the Met, we can hear the alarm bells that must have rung in the Great Leader's ears, and we can hear, too, that the anonymous Pravda writer wasn't such a bad music critic in remarking how "snatches of melody, embryos of a musical phrase drown, struggle free, and disappear again in the din, the grinding, the squealing." That's pretty much how the score sounds - if we interpret "melody" to mean any kind of lyrical cantabile, as opposed to the perky little tunes on which Shostakovich based what James Conlon, conducting at the Met, reveals indeed as mostly din, grind, and squeal.

Soulfulness is all but extinguished because, in the gallery of bullies, villains, and hypocrites who make up the cast, souls are all but extinguished: the rare visions of a less driven, riven world arise around musical reminiscences of "Boris Godunov," and they're generally slammed shut fairly fast - perhaps nervously fast, as if they were temptations that had to be rejected. For Shostakovich, the notion of human aspiration singing itself out in G minor had been revealed as an illusion by the great revolutions of his time: Stravinsky's and Lenin's. "The Rite of Spring" had asserted that music's business was not with the expression of an individual psyche but with the structure and action of society, and to that extent its composer had shown himself a faithful follower of Marx; at least, that was the way his message was understood and transmitted by Shostakovich.

"Lady Macbeth" is a post mortem on Romanticism. What had been the great sustaining metaphor of Romantic music - love - is in this opera displaced by brute sex. The only character who makes any attempt to reveal an inner life is the antiheroine of the title, Katerina Ismailova, and what she shows of herself is a wasteland of Chekhovian boredom, musically voiced in a kind of Soviet blues. Maria Ewing's performance in this role is a key element in the Met triumph. She starts out slumped in a flabby armchair, singing with a passionate disdain - the passion in the occasional attack or gleam on notes that otherwise come out of her mouth and pass her by, almost as if they belonged to someone else. And that's how she goes on. She doesn't get excited by her serial murders: of her father-in-law, her husband, her sexual rival. The only moment when her voice is thoroughly, violently present and engaged comes in the yelping of the first bedroom scene with Sergei, the laborer with and for whom she goes on her track of homicides. Life for this Katerina is either orgasm or nothing. And mostly, of course, it's nothing -though this nothing, as Ms. Ewing expresses it, never for an instant ceases to fix attention on her singing and her person.

The emptiness inside Katerina is one element of Shostakovich's autopsy; another is the ripe vitality of movement in his score. Rhythm here is, most frequently, mechanical repetition, and the musical forms that the nineteenth century made to seem agencies of pleasurable relaxation arid social intercourse - the dance forms of waltz, polka, plop - are pressed to the point where they suggest, rather, the tyranny of a military regime or the control of a circus whip. They don't swing hearts; they drill bodies. And bodies are what Graham Vick, the director, brings onto the stage, in a production that combines amazement with parodic self-deflation. Mr. Vick's sense of the outrageous is finely tuned. When Katerina's lascivious longings are answered by the advent of a set of hunks who could have stepped off jeans posters, together with a row of other men in shower cubicles, or when the double bed of adultery arrives - with sheets of shocking pink - in the embrace of a forklift, or when the funeral party goes off with candle-carrying mourners solemnly gliding up and down through the air, or when serried policemen show lurid T-shirts under their uniforms, the production is laughing at itself; so we're encouraged to laugh with it, and with the piece. And that laughter keeps us in there, keeps us mindful of the cynicism and the viscerality.

Mr. Vick and his production team -the designer Paul Brown, the lighting designer Nick Chelton, the choreographer Ron Howell - are making their house debuts, and they bring more life to this stage than it's seen in years. They use its space, by means of their machinery, their vibrant color, their aerial ballet, and their sense of spectacle as comedy. They also get around the chief problem of space: lack of immediacy. Partly because of the lighting, partly because of the way the set is tilted, and partly because of the effrontery of so much that's going on, this is a show that, emphatically, comes across. Apart from one early scene of happy peasants and workers casting down red roses, there's no totalitarian camp. By placing the action in the fifties, as it seems from Ms. Ewing's flaming dress of red-dashed yellow and from items of interior decor, Mr. Vick and his colleagues are able to give a quick image of the bourgeois dream anywhere. And the jumbling of the code objects is right for a piece so stylized: the eternal summer sky is painted across the walls and the many doors; the neatly rolled lawn is a carnet. The irruption into this environment of heavy industrial equipment is, again, a nice equivalent to the way the music goes, at the point where the [first] private scene, largely Katerina's, is invaded by the chorus (singing with excellent fullness and spirit) and by blasting ostinato.

The opera is mainly about this opposition between the vacant, unrooted, washed-out, frustrated individual and the vigorous commonality, and since Katerina is onstage almost throughout - and then always dominant - there's not much glory in most of the supporting roles. There are moments for a Shabby Peasant (Dennis Petersen, shambling well) and an Old Convict, who is the messenger of determination, if not of comfort, in the final act (his solo beautifully sung by Alexander Anisimov), but only the lover and the father-in-law have any more consistent importance. Vladimir Galouzine, the Sergei, has a very Russian tenor, which he uses to suggest not emotional fragility but a springing natural urgency and a zeal for sex. The dark-gray bass of Sergei Koptchak, in the part of the father-in-law, is all gloom and disapproval. Having these Slavic singers on board provides, I suppose, some justification for performing the opera in the original language, though here was a case for the Met to make an exception and translate. "Lady Macbeth" isn't about getting the right phonemes.

Its concern is, rather, as Stalin surely understood, with continuing the revolution by other means. The year 1917 had unthroned authorities; "Lady Macbeth" mocks everything except desolation. There's no reason to suppose that Shostakovich wasn't committed to the revolution. Several of his works of the twenties are overtly political, and if there are signs in them of bad faith the reasons are overeagerness and lack of precedents more than compulsion. "Lady Macbeth" perpetuates the overturning of the old world and the search for the new: it's in this search, as the convicts shuffle off, that the opera comes finally to a note of grim hope - of hope that might, at the1934 premiere, have included the hope of more Shostakovich operas to come. Two years later, that possibility ended, because Stalin wasn't interested in revolution and had a fair contempt for hope.

Hence the inevitable domino-fall of ironies. A revolutionary composer, among the first reared in a revolutionary society, was castigated by the leaders of that society. Forced, then, to write about the only society left to him - that of himself - he became the outstanding example of everything he'd earlier spurned and derided, the outstanding creator of music as individual expression. "Lady Macbeth" may leave us with little solace, but it does leave us with the irreverent, exuberant, fearless image of Shostakovich before that last long martyrdom.

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