The Metropolitan Opera’s 2022-2023 season got off to a rough start with an uninspired company premiere production of Luigi Cherubini’s Medea, an opera about a murderous femme fatale from the realm of ancient myth. Two evenings later, however, the company bounced back with this splendid revival of Dmitri Shostakovich’s twentieth-century shocker Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, a modern horror tale based on a bleak 1864 short story by Nikolai Leskov.
Composed in the Soviet Union in the era of High Stalinism, Lady Macbeth is arguably more famous for its tortured performance history than for its music. This is unfortunate, for Shostakovich’s searing score daringly included elements of jazz, folk tunes, circus music, ballroom dance, blistering dissonance, and even moments of melody to put over a biting satire. It appears to have been directed equally at the Soviet society in which Shostakovich lived and the prerevolutionary old regime demolished by the Russian Revolution. “I have repudiated all old forms of opera,” the 28-year old composer declared, calling his work “tragi-satirical.”
Premiering in 1934, in Leningrad, the opera tells the spooky story of the dysfunctional Izmailov family. Katya, the bored young wife of the grain merchant Zinovy, lives abused and neglected on a provincial farmstead. When Zinovy leaves on business, she must deal with her lecherous father-in-law Boris and the family’s crude hired hands. One of them, the handsome ne’er-do-well Sergei, approaches her for ravishment. She enjoys the experience enough to fall in love with him. When Boris discovers the affair, he whips Sergei to within an inch of his life, provoking Katya to mix rat poison into her father-in-law’s evening mushroom dish. Zinovy returns to discover the adulterous couple, who then murder him, too.
Like the Macbeths to whom the opera’s title alludes, the new couple’s happiness doesn’t last. A drunken vagrant finds Zinovy’s corpse while searching the premises for alcohol and informs the corrupt police, who arrest Katya and Sergei at their wedding. Consigned to penal exile in Siberia, they join a convoy of convicts, whose pain is the opera’s only real authenticity. Sergei takes up with Sonyetka, another woman among the prisoners, and tricks Katya into giving him her last pair of stockings so that he can use them to win Sonyetka’s favor. Betrayed and abandoned, Katya drags her rival into an icy river—represented in this production by a latrine into which the convicts periodically dump buckets of brown liquid—where both perish. As the guards abandon them to their fate, an old convict indulges in a dirge about unending suffering.
Lady Macbeth triumphed at its premiere and was probably the most successful Soviet opera, if only for a brief, shining moment. After its premiere, it toured the entire country to rapturous critical and popular acclaim from sold-out audiences. The U.S. ambassador in Moscow, William C. Bullitt, was so impressed that he helped the Cleveland Orchestra’s music director, Artur Rodziński, secure the rights for the opera’s first foreign performances, including one that Rodziński conducted on tour in February 1935 with Russian soloists on the stage of the old Metropolitan Opera House.
Back in Mother Russia, Stalinist politics soon caught up with Lady Macbeth. In January 1936, when the opera premiered in Moscow, Stalin walked out before it was over. Two days later, an anonymous review in Pravda, probably written by Stalin himself, denounced it under the title “Muddle Instead of Music” and denounced its “deliberately dissonant, muddled stream of sounds.” “To follow this ‘music’ is difficult, to remember it is impossible,” the review continued, judging that its abstractions and moral relativism were too “bourgeois” to be of value in a proletarian society.
Lady Macbeth disappeared from performance. Shostakovich spent the rest of the Stalin era living in fear of arrest and suffered varying degrees of official disgrace. He never wrote another opera. His final work in the genre, Lady Macbeth only reappeared in 1962 under the title Katerina Izmailova, with the sex scenes expunged (according to researcher accounts, they are crossed out of the score with giant red X’s). The original score only resurfaced in 1979. That same year, the émigré conductor Mstislav Rostropovich produced a famous recording that is still regarded as definitive. The late British director Graham Vick staged the Met’s production in 1994, just after Russia emerged from communism. Russia itself, however, did not see the uncensored original version again until 2000, in a traditional production I attended at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater. Today, Lady Macbeth has bounded back from obscurity and stands as the fourth most commonly performed Russian opera, after Mussorgsky’s iconic Boris Godunov and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades.
Vick’s production updates the opera’s setting to a bland Soviet 1970s, an era whose styles endured in that part of the world up to and beyond the fall of communism. The Izmailov farmstead features the bulky appliances, rundown furniture, tacky plush, and frowzy clothing anyone who visited Russia in those days will recognize. The family also sports an old model Lada automobile, in which Zinovy makes his exit and fatal reentrance. When the production premiered, it gave off a dystopian feel that produced in my high school self a sense of despair for Russia’s uncertain future. Nearly 30 years later, what looked dystopian then now comes across as positively nostalgic, as though we are seeing an artistic reflection of a simpler time when the new Russia was merely seedy and haphazard and had not yet devolved into the murderous dictatorship that confronts us today.
It was in this spirit that Keri-Lynn Wilson, a Canadian conductor who boasts Ukrainian roots and says she has cousins fighting in the current war, approached the revival, which marks her Met debut. Wilson is married to the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb. Their relationship could invite accusations of nepotism, but her performance was so impressive that Gelb, who has made far more than his fair share of mistakes over a 16-year tenure, should get a pass. Indeed, we should even ask what took him so long. Wilson’s deft, efficient gestures captured the performance with balance between its driving sonic eccentricities and subtler and more contemplative passages. The evening moved briskly and finished before the announced time, but this was all to the performance’s glory. Perhaps it was personal. Having recently organized and led an international ensemble called the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, Wilson told an interviewer that “performing this piece is a way for me to scream out through music that oppression will not win.” One might wonder whether overcoming oppression need necessarily involve murdering your husband, but Mr. Gelb has not ventured comment.
In 2014, when the Met last revived Lady Macbeth, it starred powerhouse Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek. She was cast in the role again this season, but withdrew for unstated reasons. Her replacement, the Russian soprano Svetlana Sozdateleva, also making her Met debut, brought a fresh eagerness to Katya’s moods and tempers. At a time when the Met has maintained that Russian singers are unwelcome in the house unless they performatively denounce Vladimir Putin and his government, musical New York seemed too interested in the marvel before them to care about whether Sozdateleva had conformed to ‘woke’ dictates regulating free expression. Her approach to the role was captivatingly solid in technique and crystal clear in tone.
American tenor Brandon Jovanovich sang the role of Katya’s seducer Sergei last time and returned now. Some of the voice’s soaring edge has faded. After hearing his barky performance in Saint-Saëns and Wagner at a Salzburg Festival Vienna Philharmonic concert a few weeks before, I was worried that he would struggle in the part. Nevertheless, he pulled it together and delivered a fine, muscular performance that was by turns seductive and violent—qualities effete urbanites pretend to despise but in fact badly wish they possessed. Nikolai Schukoff’s nasally Zinovy was well voiced toward the high end of the register and suitably pathetic. The role of Boris rumbled into the lower depths, courtesy of bass-baritone John Relyea’s dark, gravelly tones.
Shostakovich livened up Leskov’s story by including a number of fictional caricatures intended to satirize provincial Russian life before the Revolution of 1917. This accorded the composer ideological cover, for he could argue that he set a decadent subject to illustrate the oppression of women in a capitalistic society. Musically, however, it left a vivid palette of competing voices and priorities that animate the surroundings and inject badly needed scenes of comic relief. Standouts included bass Goran Jurić as the village priest (also a house debut), who, among other antics, gets drunk at Katya’s second wedding. Yet another debutant, the fine Russian bass Alexey Shishlyaev, was amusing as the police sergeant, who secures the new couple’s arrest within a milieu of unabashed corruption. Alexander Tsymbalyuk’s profound bass, which has starred in the grand title role of Boris Godunov in European houses, and has also turned up in other Lady Macbeth roles elsewhere, delivered the Old Convict’s song with deep conviction and an unmistakable sense of pain. One should note that Tsymbalyuk is Ukrainian.