The orthodox line on Dmitri Shostakovich has changed yet again. Elevated after his death in 1975 from Soviet toady to a heroic composer whose coded scores savagely critique the system, Shostakovich, we are now told, was neither slave nor rebel, just a passive victim who wrote the best music he could in bad times. If the latest theory is true, perhaps that accounts for the especially coruscating score he wrote for Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which has just returned to the Metropolitan Opera’s repertory. Based on Nikolai Leskov’s popular 1866 novel, the plot centers on the miserable Katerina Ismailova, driven to serial murder by a repressive society but a sympathetic victim at heart and one with whom Shostakovich identified completely.
The opera is a brilliant amalgam of biting satire and equally intense human compassion, a theater piece “about how love could have been if the world weren’t full of vile things,” as the composer himself once described it. Directed by Graham Vick and designed by Paul Brown, the busy Met production is definitely full of vile things: steamy sex on top of a shiny four-door sedan, a lewd love bed with bright-red satin sheets brought onstage by a forklift, a bevy of blood-spattered brides dancing with vacuum cleaners, Russian priests saucily swinging their censers, a chorus of naked hunks taking showers – the campy slapstick never lets up and finally obliterates the underlying humanity of Shostakovich’s message. Even Katerina’s grisly death, as she drags herself and her rival into a Siberian river (actually a sewer here), got a few laughs.
It would be pleasant one day to hear a soprano with a healthy, glowingly expressive voice soar through this glorious music. More often than not, though, Katerina is entrusted to an over-the-hill singer more admired for acting ability than for vocal quality, and Catherine Malfitano faithfully follows the tradition. Even at that she is badly served by a frumpy blonde wig and clinging dresses that make her look more like a dumpy middle-aged housewife than like a passionate young woman in extremis.
The rest of the large cast is nothing if not energetic – in fact, the performance as a whole is a technical tour de force, a virtuoso exercise in the manipulation of stage machinery. But the only element that even comes close to realizing the tragic power of this searing opera is the Met orchestra under Valery Gergiev.