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Opera review

Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth” a searing experience in Met revival

Fri Sep 30, 2022 at 2:54 pm
By George Grella
Svetlana Sozdateleva as Katerina Ismailova and Brandon Jovanovich as Sergei in Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Photo: Evan Zimmerman / Met Opera

The Metropolitan Opera’s 2022-2023 season, which opened this week, got a significant boost Thursday night with the revival of a veteran production and two house debuts that came together in a riveting performance of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

This was only the Met’s 22nd performance, ever, of this great opera by arguably the most significant composer of the 20th century. Even more astonishing, this tremendous Graham Vick production is not only nearly thirty years old, but had been revived just twice before since its 1994 debut.

In the lead role of Katerina Ismailova, and making her Met debut, was Russian soprano Svetlana Sozdateleva. She delivered an excellent, musically meaningful performance of this mercurial character who is driven by boredom into an affair with the vain, womanizing Sergei (tenor Brandon Jovanovich), and then to murder.  Katerina’s amoral actions are exacerbated in no small part by both her illiteracy and the control of her husband Zinovy (the reedy tenor Nikolai Schukoff) and father-in-law (the always fine bass John Relyea).

This is a dramatic role, and Sozdateleva’s balance of light and dark in her voice sounded just right for Katerina, who is first innocent and victimized, then vengeful and calculating. There are really no bravura passages for her—or any character—in this opera. Still, the music with the highest range and greatest volume was the weakest for Sozdateleva; she seemed to push her voice a little too much and lost some command of intonation and articulation.

Otherwise, the rest of the performance was articulate, carving out the character and drama with notes and phrases. Suzdateleva used small, precise details, like a change from one tone color to another when the character argued with herself, or a judicious use of vibrato for music that expressed positive or intense emotions. Every statement had a clear meaning, especially her first and last music: she began in idleness, random thoughts bouncing through her head, each phrase slightly modulated from the last, and she ended with a sound like cold iron, singing of frozen lakes and dark waves.

Photo: Evan Zimmerman / Met Opera

Alongside her, Jovanovich was charismatic and self-involved, his voice full of bluster and enthusiasm, while dipping into a keener edge when Sergei was at his most sociopathic. After the semi-brutal bedroom encounter between the lovers, where his singing was charming and seductive and then malevolent, he kept his voice dancing slightly ahead of the tempos while Katerina deliberated. Even in the wedding scene, Sergei sounded ready to try something new at any moment, and his capriciousness in the worst circumstances had a deep effect.

Relyea sang with his usual big sound, graceful without heaviness. The sternness and paranoia, addled by alcohol, was there in his voice. There are few things as difficult to make believable on the opera stage as a boorish, rough 20th century workingman who also has a beautiful voice, but the sheer size of Relyea’s voice, and his ability to deliver articulation that was both blunt and rounded, was ideal.

The other important debut was of conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson. One took little direct notice of her technique, but one heard a superb, polished sound from the orchestra. All of Shostakovich’s colors were there, and also his attitude; now tender, now ferocious, now sardonic, now haunting. The energy was focussed and intense, except for a noticeable lull in the wedding scene. Throughout one heard that Shostakovian emotional edge, just short of brittle disintegration. It was an impressive performance where everything sounded so right and polished that one felt the music all the way through, without be distracted by any idiosyncrasies or questions

The reason one saw so little of Wilson is that what was happening on stage was so gripping. This isn’t just a good looking production, it’s one that sees what Shostakovich did and presses it further, and does so with intelligence and fearlessness. The main set immediately has Katerina not only in her apartment but surrounded by her dreams, which will end up confining and destroying her. Vick also reinforces the specific social class divisions that Shostakovich saw in Soviet Russia; the crowds of workmen are chaotic and threatening, while Zinovy is buttoned up and chattered in a car.

There are great tumults of people on stage, including a sequence of ax-murdering brides and a chorus line of buffoonish police. These swarms are not only dazzling, they fill in the dimension of Katerina’s imagination and, practically, handle the scene changes.

The production, and revival director Paula Suozzi, see the sex and violence in the opera for exactly what they are. The workmen and Sergei are lecherous, the relationship between he and Katerina begins with something indistinguishable from an assault—an “Intimacy Director” is credited—and the direction puts the sexual action of Shostakovich’s frenzied, turgid music on stage.

Likewise, death is unlike what one sees in countless other operas. Boris’ body is buried under a slurry of concrete from a cement mixer, Katerina and Sergei strangle and beat Zinovy to death with a startling intimacy, and the 

destination of Katerina in the end isn’t a river, it’s a slit trench that the prisoners have been emptying buckets of their waste into.

She also drags another debuting singer into it, soprano Maria Barakova as Sonyetka. She was vivid in a role that is necessarily cartoonish.

Also making an impressive debut was bass Goran Jurić as the Priest. His voice was lovely and soft, while projecting well, and his relaxed stage manner and pleasure in the role was an important part of the sardonic humor of the performance.

It is a fantastic and enriching experience to see Shostakovich staged so unmercifully, with a production putting its full trust in the music and the singers.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk continues through October 21. metopera.org

Photo: Evan Zimmerman / Met Opera

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