Stalin's Heavy Hand Kept Down An Opera That Might Have Soared

Shostakovich's `Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk' debuts at the Met

JOSEF STALIN may have had wretched taste, but the original and brutal force behind his opinions gave them extraordinary longevity. When a childish stream of invective against Shostakovich's opera, ``Lady Macbeth of Mtensk,'' appeared in the official Soviet newspaper Pravda on Jan. 28, 1936 - almost certainly at Stalin's behest - the composer's brilliant opera was arrested for decades.

``Lady Macbeth'' might have changed the course of Soviet music and reformed the composition of opera throughout the world. Instead, after two years of popular success, it disappeared from Soviet stages when Stalin walked out of a performance.

Shostakovich then entered a harrowing period of aesthetic cat-and-mouse with Stalin and his musical ideologues, and he never completed another opera.

Although ``Lady Macbeth'' had already been seen in the West, it languished here as well until an original score resurfaced in 1979. On Nov. 10 of this year, however, ``Lady Macbeth'' received its Metropolitan Opera debut.

Director Graham Vick's production is intermittently inspired but always visually appealing. Despite its many flaws, it has the aura of a triumph; a semiofficial and belated induction into the canon of great opera. It's a superb evening of theater as well.

``Lady Macbeth'' is based on an 1864 story by Nikolai Leskov. Katerina Ismailova, wife of a prosperous merchant, takes a lover, Sergei. In the course of their affair she kills her father-in-law, Boris, then her husband (with the help of Sergei). After the adulterous couple have been convicted, Katerina kills Sergei's new lover and commits suicide by plunging off a bridge.

The gruesome plot is undermined and yet set in high relief by Shostakovich's introduction of grotesquely dark humor. Keystone Cops and village drunkards are absurdly juxtaposed with murder and carnality, and crazed dance-hall music blares out between scenes of demented violence. The question, which of these two elements - tragedy or satire - should take precedence has been debated since the work was written. Early Soviet productions stressed different aspects. Later criticism argued that the opera was a veiled attack on the Communist state.

Whatever it is, the tone of ``Lady Macbeth'' is quintessentially Russian. Its genealogy is traceable to the experimental Soviet theater of the 1920s, the grim but humane humor of Chekhov, to the cruel ironies of Dostoyevsky, Gogol, and Lermontov. Its outrageous bursts of laughter and suffering are original but acknowledge Shostakovich's theatrical predecessors.

Almost all of that was lost in Graham Vick's silly pop-art production, which compensated for the language gap - the Met produced it in Russian with no supertitles - with visual slapstick.

Yet the performances soared. Soprano Maria Ewing's annoying vocal swoops were forgotten amid a portrayal of the title role so compelling it carried the evening. Notable debuts by Russian singers included Vladimir Galouzine as Sergei, Vladimir Ognovenko as the Police Sergeant, and Alexander Anisimov as the Old Convict. The orchestra and chorus, conducted by James Conlon, were unsurpassable.

* Performances continue: today; Nov. 22, 26, and 30; Dec. 3, 7, and 10. The opera will be radio broadcast on Nov. 26.

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