Metropolitan Opera 2022-23 Review: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Keri-Lynn Wilson & Svetlana Sozdateleva Shine in Graham Vick’s Picture-Perfect Production

By Jennifer Pyron

Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” is a tragic satire that continues to shed light on the very real and present suffering of the human spirit due to ongoing abuse of power and repression. To say this opera is still relevant, is obvious. However, to take it a step further and realize this opera’s history is a warning, reveals Shostakovich’s purpose behind the music he created in 1934 still apropos of today.  

“Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” observes the cruel fate of the title role, Katerina Lvovna Ismailova, and decides what to make of her. Based on her actions, patterns and repeated offenses one may find it difficult to see her inner benevolence when her overtly grotesque musings are so loud. Yet, to judge her is to participate in the infinite cycle of banality that is Shostakovich’s musical parody. This is why “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” elicits a satirical portrayal and why Shostakovich wrote a blatantly taunting orchestral score. To play a leading role with the singers. An excellent choice for the Met Opera’s 2022-2023 season. A purposeful response to the genocide in Ukraine.  

Femme Fatale Frontline

Maestro Keri-Lynn Wilson recently conducted the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra in its inaugural tour. She devotes her life to sharing music as a universal connector and expands the rights of musicians abroad to be heard, valued and above all, free to express themselves. Channeling anger as a motivator to create necessary change is only part of why Wilson is the perfect maestro for “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.” 

In 2011, Wilson, a Canadian Ukrainian, began studying Shostakovich’s score. She fell in love with the multi-layered orchestral design that evokes a compository experience of deep seated emotions, including humor, while airing-out controversial topics burgeoning beyond the point of logical resolve. It was then that she saw this work as her calling and decided to pursue this further. 

A few years ago she was able to work with Olga Digonskaya, the Chief Archivist of the Shostakovich Archive, and see first-hand the original manuscripts of “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.” The parts where he made adjustments – after Stalin’s denouncement of this opera and its banning for decades to come – were apparent. But the original score was not forever lost. She decided to bring it back to life. The beating heart of “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” itself.

Making her Met debut on opening night, Keri-Lynn Wilson’s vitality became this livewire that fed and fueled every person in the opera and audience. She shared her compassion, her presence, her brilliance and brought forward what Shostakovich’s music has been all along. A powerful voice to be heard by all.

The approximate duration of “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” is three hours and twenty five minutes. Undoubtedly though, this flies by like the blink of an eye. The gripping music and palpable anxiety of the characters at all times, fuels the fire in this opera’s belly and drives everyone forward. Wilson’s energy is extraordinary the entire time. She is the favorite ingredient to this season’s satiating choice.

To Be or Not To Be

Soprano Svetlana Sozdateleva, originally from Moscow, Russia, also makes her Met debut as the title role, Katerina Lvovna Ismailova. The opening scene of the opera shows her in annoyance and contempt. The wife of an impotent and easily forgettable husband, Zinovy Borisovich Ismailov, performed by tenor Nikolai Schukoff. Her blonde hair is perfectly coiffed and she wears a bright yellow dress with red roses. Graham Vick’s original stage design pops in the backdrop and one might feel like they are watching a TV screen full of pretty lights.

Sozdateleva portrays the glamorous gluttony that is Katerina exceedingly well. A repressed and all too powerful female, ready to burst at any moment. Her voice stews and carefully calculates, simply biding time. One can sense this role is made for her. She is the gatekeeper who knows exactly how to tell this story. Audience members could not take their eyes off her. She also had a special connection throughout the opera with Wilson. The two women were an extremely powerful combination. History being made!

Bass-baritone John Relyea as Boris Timofeyevich Ismailov, and Tenor Nikolai Schukoff as Zinovy Borisovich Ismailov were also a very notable duo. Like father, like son, both men set up Katerina’s demise. John Relyea’s voice was terrifyingly accurate and raw in his role. He sounded animalistic at times. A tormented soul calling from the dead. Tenor Nikolai Schukoff’s voice was also undeniably strong. He cut through the heaviness in the opening scene with ease. Illuminating the emptiness of his loveless marriage to Katerina and dying in a shocking murder scene with exasperated welps.

Tenor Brandon Jovanovich’s voice as Sergei was something surprisingly familiar. He generated a growing tension that supported Sozdateleva’s role and made Sergei into someone that everyone loves to hate. Someone that covered many bases at once and catered to the needs of Katerina’s unquenchable thirst. Jovanovich’s role was also very physically demanding. His acrobatic movements really underlined Shostakovich’s circus-themed trumpet sounds, crafting the highly sexualized scenes into something more. He exuded depth in the understanding of his role and there was never a moment where he broke character to make this about himself. He was all in and truly dedicated to the music.

Bass Goran Juríc as the priest and tenor Rodell Rosel as the shabby peasant proved excellent comic reliefs along this tragic journey. Juríc’s voice was light and free in his expression. One might laugh out loud with him as he rushes in and out of scenes, saving the souls of anyone he can scam.  Rosel also had a unique way of generating effortless humor from the audience. His transparency narrated scenes that might have reminded the audience of a voice inside their own head. He was direct and honest. Even while writhing on the floor, wanting more just to get himself off. He was the perfect unabashed pervert. 

Police Sergeant, baritone Alexey Shishlyaev, also from Moscow, Russia made his Met debut in a role that drove home a message about the absolute waste of human life in efforts to support a corrupt system. The degrading mess that is taking down whatever it can just to feed its own evil body. Shishlyaev did not hold back in his performance as the satirical ringleader. The audience loved his portrayal.

Picture Perfect Production

Graham Vick was an English opera director well-known for his experimental productions that challenged the ideas of traditional and modern operas. He was also artistic director of the Birmingham Opera Company when he tragically passed away in 2021. “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” is one of his masterpieces. He showcases his inner genius in this opera by compacting the production’s visual aesthetic to fit the imagination of what a television might look like while capturing the unfolding drama in colorful display. With a tilted stage and several extremely difficult looking scene changes that happen at rapid pace, one might feel like they are languorously “flipping the channel” back and forth between dramas. 

This is an absolutely fascinating production all around. Depicting the mid-20th century, costumes and stage props were also profoundly enriched with art driven motifs. Like the blooming roses that violently burst open and lift off into the sky, the Met Opera’s 2022-23 “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” is a great piece of art designed especially for an unforgettable time.


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