Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Metropolitan Opera, New York - review

James Conlon
Financial Times

The Met revives Graham Vick's brilliant production of Shostakovich's murky masterpiece 

By Martin Bernheimer 

The year was 1935, and the august critic of the New York Sun was shocked. Really shocked. He had just made the acquaintance of Shostakovich’s lavishly lascivious Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, then a year old. Blushingly he described the new challenge as “pornophony”. Somehow the quaint coinage stuck.

The work does deal unabashedly with sex. No surprise there. The music dabbles in valiant variations of humping-thumping climaxes, not to mention suggestively expressive trombone-slides. The text, which managed to offend none less than Joseph Stalin, blithely delineates lusty acts that teeter nonstop between amorality and immorality.

This murky masterpiece has survived nicely on countless European stages over the decades. The timid Met, however, mustered only nine introductory performances back in 1994 plus six in 2000. That was that, until Monday when the same brilliant production, cleverly conceived and imaginatively focused by Graham Vick, returned in a semblance of triumph.

James Conlon, who had led the company premiere 20 years ago, brilliantly juggled passion and pathos, tragedy and satire in the pit. Paul Brown provided daring decors, even occasional touches of comedy, for this bizarre tale of murder, adultery and revenge. His toy parade, remnants of veristic expressionism, included a painterly skyscape punctured with 17 symmetrical doors, a huge crane, a 1950s automobile, a disco ball, a mountain of cabbages and, probably most symbolic (ask not why), a constantly opened fridge that kept nothing, and no one, cool.

The splendid cast was properly dominated by Eva-Maria Westbroek, dramatically uninhibited, emotionally wide-ranging and vocally overpowering in the title role (aka Katerina Ismailova). Brandon Jovanovich conveyed the lust and languor of her sometime lover, Sergei, with savage bravado. Anatoli Kotscherga barked brusquely as Boris, her nasty father-in-law. Exceptionally worthy cameos were contributed by Mikhail Kolelishvili (a basso-blustery quasi-priest), Vladimir Ognovenko (a compellingly corrupt policeman) and Dmitry Belosselskiy (a crusty old convict).

With luck, we will not wait another 14 years for our next dose of Shostakovich’s wondrous pornophony.