When in 1934 Dmitri Shostakovich, not yet 30, composed Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, he provided music for all sorts of special occasions. For just a sampling, he wrote music to have sex behind a refrigerator by, music to be buried by, music to have high anxiety by and music to have nightmares starring men in bloodied wedding gowns by.
At least that's what Graham Vick understood when he directed Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Metropolitan Opera House 20 years ago. Happily, that's what's still apparent in the production's second revival at the house. (The first was in 2000.) Conducting, as he did in 1994, James Conlon gets everything from the excited score he knows how to get -- and he knows plenty.
He does so in terms of music that includes as many instruments as possible to heighten the many jarring moments as well as the far fewer calm moments (harp called on then). As this happens, move-loving opera-goers will recognize much of the influences under which Hollywood composers like Bernard Hermann and Alex North fell.
Taken by librettists Alexander Preis and Shostakovich from Nikolai Leskov's story of adultery and murder -- a tale echoed by James M. Cain in The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity -- the explosive work follows radically bored housewife Katerina Lvovna Ismailova (Eva-Marie Westbroek) as she decides to perk up her barren marriage to Zinovy Borisovitch Ismailov (Raymond Very) via a dalliance with new property hand, Sergei No Patronymics (Brandon Jovanovich).
Riding herd on put-upon Katerina is father-in-law Boris Timofeevitch Ismailov (Anatoli Kotscherga), who becomes the dissatisfied bride's first victim but not before he's humiliated her in various ugly situation. The worst is a shaming he doles in front of his laborers after she comes to the aid of a woman laborer being taunted.
Once Boris is out of the way, Eva and Sergei -- having consummated their attraction in and around her very red bed and also ridding themselves of prematurely returning hubby Zinovy -- marry and mistakenly think the future will be bright. It isn't, as demonstrated during acts three and four where Shostakovitch and Preis stretch their conclusion(s) longer that they might have.
Recognizing what he's dealing with in the same year Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction was released, Wick built a production around two cloud-covered walls of a large room featuring more doors than a Feydeau farce. There's even a huge disco ball doubling as a wrecking ball.
As well as designing the set, Paul Brown designed the costumes, Katerina initially wearing a dizzying house dress and later a wedding gown that even the glitziest Mafia princess would turn her nose up at. He's also supplies military uniforms, a priest's flowing robes and enough blood-soaked bridal gowns to give Vera Wang the shivering shakes.
To confirm how current Wick's beautiful sleaziness is, he and choreographer Ron Howell require many of the buffest and tattooed male laborers to go shirtless. In 2014, this state of undress can't help but conjure visions of Vladimir Putin's sometime favored outfit.
Sexy and raunchy this production is, with testosterone and estrogen practically surging lava-like off the stage. The aphrodisiacal effect is immeasurably enhanced by Westbroek and Jovanovich, who hold nothing back vocally or physically. Just a sec. That's a bit unfair in terms of their singing, since when they need to modulate their emotions -- as Westbroek must during her opening bored-beyond-boredom aria -- they easily succeed.
Gotten up like a slightly zaftig Marilyn Monroe, Westbroek uses her voice with declamatory precision throughout. So does Jovanovich, who struts around in a wife-beater exposed under his open shirt. It's as if he's auditioning to play Stanley Kowalski in the next Streetcar Named Desire return and sure to land the role.
Equaling them in the singing and acting departments is Kotscherga as the repugnant father-in-law. He makes the most of his opportunities during the sequence when he's singing and flagellating Sergei for illicit services rendered.
But in a cast where everyone stands out, Very, Mikhail Kolelishvili as the priest, Vladimir Ognovenko, Dimitry Belosselskiy and Oksana Volkova as Sonyetka, a saucy convict who catches Sergei's ceaselessly roving eye, demand mention. The same goes, as usual, for Donald Palumbo's chorus. They have much to do and never flag while vigorously going about it.
As part of the Katerina-Zinovy home furnishings, there's an upstage refrigerator. Whenever it's opened, a refrigerator light shines blindingly into the audience. Call it a metaphor for the effect this look at the gaudier classes delights in offering, no matter how annoying that blaring, glaring might be. Josef Stalin found that look disgusting and let his feelings be known. Forget Stalin. This offer should be eagerly accepted.