The commanding figure of conductor, Kerri-Lynn Wilson mounted the podium to wide acclaim, then whisked round to the Met orchestra. She was about to take a packed Lincoln Center audience on a journey to the depths of 19th century Russia. Wilson would be our well Shostakovich-schooled tour guide to the steppes. She has immersed herself in the works of the devilishly complex Russian composer for a good part of her conducting career.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Intimidating. Social backwardness, echoes of recently banished serfdom – the opera is set in 1865, serfdom was abolished in 1861 – sexual passion, adultery, abuse, two brutal murders and the corruptibility of the authorities. You name it. Every accepted behavioural norm is challenged. It would be banned from Twitter.

These were themes that struck home and went down a bomb with Soviet audiences at the opera’s premiere in St Petersburg in 1934. But when Stalin saw it in Moscow in 1936 (he walked out) a review in Pravda the next day, reading the dictator’s mind, effectively banned the opera in its homeland. “The music quacks, hoots, pants, and gasps, in order to express the love scenes as naturally as possible”.

Yes, that was the whole point. But the graphic portrayal resulted in an accusation of immorality. Pravda embarked on a campaign of dissing the composer’s other works, starting with his ballet, The Bright Stream, and Shostakovich was quietly left to rot. Until, that is, he was needed for his historic, nation inspiring Leningrad Symphony of 1942, at the height of the Second World War.

Meantime the kerfuffle resulted in excited performances abroad. If Stalin hated it, it must be hot stuff. So hot that even before Stalin said “Nyet” the Clean Amusement Association of America enforced a “black-out” of Act 1 Scene 3, in which the worker Sergei has robust sex with Katerina, wife of the mill owner’s son.

This must be the only instance in history when a trombone has been censored. After the wild copulation – the jury is out over whether this was consensual or date rape – the anti-climax is signalled by a series of slowing, downscale sliding trombone passages. This was deemed too much for a Philadelphia audience in 1935.

At the Met last week, it was simply funny – the intention – and the audience got the joke. A brilliant coup-de-trombone.

In Philly, the rumpy pumpy was concealed behind a screen which fell down mid action, but the press seemed disappointed: “the scene, however, proved to be mild ….. although the musical accompaniment grew quite ecstatic.”

Whoever wrote that line was either not present, or a master of understatement. Or maybe the production was rubbish. This scene is meant to shock. It violates all acceptable social norms, setting the scene for the murders to follow.

The composer has intentionally staged and skilfully scored probably the most explicit setting of the act of copulation in the operatic canon. If the audience is not appalled, then the producer has failed.

In this Graham Vick production at the Met, there was no holding back. No failure. Instead, spectacular clarity. The action rose in passion with Shostakovich’s sharpening wind blasts and as the music climaxed into hammer blows… I leave the rest to your imagination. The Clean Amusement goons may still be lurking.

Some of the action happened behind a fridge, which seemed to exercise the lady sitting on my left. As the curtain fell, I heard her mutter to her neighbour, “But in the goddam kitchen?” I normally like to chat with my neighbours during the intervals but shot off instead to the safe-haven of the Opera Club, where fridges didn’t matter.

Why “Lady Macbeth”. Nikolai Leskov, author of the short story upon which the work is based, was, as were many of his 19th century Russian contemporaries, a great admirer of Shakespeare. His story featured Katerina as a less equivocal character than the downtrodden wife in the opera, for whom sympathy ebbs and flows. Lady Macbeth was an apt choice of title and sent a message that would be familiar to readers.

Pushkin was a Shakespearean. After the Decembrists’ rising in 1825, the works of Shakespeare were used by Russian literati as a censor-free device for interpreting the events and the fates of participants. Shostakovich saw no reason to change the title, even though his Katerina was less steeped in blood than Leskov’s character.

Act I: we find ourselves in 1860’s Russia, set by Vick somewhere in the second half of the 20th Century. The time warp matters little as the political change from Tsarist absolutism to Soviet tyranny had changed nothing.

Katerina is the dissatisfied wife of Zinovy Ismailov, son of mill owner Boris, who lives with them in a TV-dominated home. Zinovy is called away to repair a damaged dam and Katerina meets Sergei, a new worker on the make. He fancies Katerina something rotten.

Katerina intervenes in a scene in the mill yard where a female worker has been pushed into a barrel and is being suggestively taunted. She is challenged by Sergei to a wrestling match, as one is. Her acceptance is a harbinger of the seduction to come. Sergei, unsurprisingly, ends up on top of her.

Boris intervenes, sends everyone back to work, but later that night Sergei knocks on Katerina’s bedroom door, is admitted and the swooping brass swings into action. They end up behind the fridge, presumably in need of a snack.

To move the action along seamlessly Vick has done away with scene changes as much as possible. The stage is divided into the kitchen, Katerina’s bedroom and pa-in-law Boris’ man cave, where he slumps in a battered armchair before a black and white TV when not directly involved in the action. It is a vivid reminder that he has Katerina ultimately under his control. Later, he will make a pass at her.

Act II: Sergei is discovered and locked in a storeroom to be dealt with in due course. Boris is demanding that Katerina serve him his favourite mushrooms and in almost the same breath asks her to poison the rats in the cellar. Even Peter Sellers’ hapless Inspector Clouseau could guess what’s about to happen next.

A comical priest arrives to give the last rites to the writhing Boris. Katerina mourns so convincingly that even Boris’ dying accusation of murder is disbelieved. He’s raving!

Katerina is now openly in bed with Sergei. Zinovy returns, finds Sergei’s belt and is strangled with it by Sergei and Kristina. They hide his body in the boot of the family car.

The snag with this Vick innovation – in most other productions Zinovy is buried in a cellar – is that it’s obvious that in a few days the car will pong. Never mind. Poetic licence. And as the boot of the car was handy, the action was uninterrupted.

Act III: on their wedding day a drunken peasant in search of more booze breaks into the car and discovers the body.

Now, Shostakovich launches his attack on the authorities. In a local police station, a bunch of self-entitled idiot policemen waving batons are questioning a teacher accused of being a Nihilist. It’s clear from the dialogue they have no idea what a Nihilist is.

They are bemoaning the slight that they have not been invited to Katerina’s wedding. The peasant with the corpse story gives them the opportunity to butt in.

Katerina, who notices the lock on the boot is broken, grabs money and tries to escape with Sergei, but plod arrives and puts her in handcuffs.

Act IV: On the road to Serbia, beside a river, Katerina bribes a guard to find Sergei. He, revealed now as a wise guy on the make, blames her for ruining his life. He has taken a fancy to a fellow convict, Sonyetka, portrayed as a tight tee-shirted temptress.

To provide her services she demands stockings. Sergei cons Katerina into giving up hers to help him keep warm and able to walk. When Katerina sees Sonyetka wearing them, she at last understands Sergei’s betrayal, grabs Sonyetka while they are crossing a bridge and they drown in the river together.

For a fuller synopsis look here.

Stellar cast. Svetlana Sozdateleva, a Russian soprano sang Katerina. Boris was Canadian bass-baritone, John Relyea. The pathetic Zinovy was bookishly carried off by Austrian tenor Nikolai Schukoff. The all-important Sergei was Brandon Jovanovich.

This season the Met is bringing a startling array of fresh talent to the stage. No more so than in this production.

Shostakovich’s score is endlessly rewarding. In the 1930s his classical style was being merged with the modern fad of atonality. But he did not succumb to the temptation of falling into the trap of becoming inaccessible.

Traditional folk song idioms are constantly woven into arias, sometimes fading like wisps, at others beating out strongly in true peasant style. And, as can be vouched for in the sex scene, his use of orchestration is startlingly programmatic. From beneath the surface emerge growls of marching chords that were later to form the scaffolding of his Leningrad Symphony.

Tragedy is mellowed by irony – the police intervening only because of their resentment at not being invited to the wedding; the absurd drunken priest; Boris’ signing his own death warrant by demanding mushrooms.

It takes a deep understanding of Shostakovich and his oeuvre to make the score of Lady Macbeth zing. Kerri-Lynn Wilson, in her Met debut, delivered a zinger.

She comes to the Met after a summer triumph in London. A Canadian with Ukrainian heritage, she helped pull together a scratch youth orchestra of young Ukrainian musicians. In the space of four weeks, they were transformed into an ensemble that marched confidently onto the Albert Hall stage during the BBC Proms. They also toured Europe and the USA.

The Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra brought the house down in London. And not just because of natural sympathy. The quality of their playing of a difficult programme commanded admiration.

Ukraine’s Musical Freedom Fighters, available on BBC iplayer is well worth watching. Moving and inspirational. It explains Wilson’s mastery of the intricacies of Shostakovich.

Wilson clearly cherishes challenges. She faces the daunting task of putting an orchestra together from a country at war with the same elan and calm determination she deployed interpreting one of the most difficult scores, crafted by one of the 20th century’s most complex composers, in New York.

I was particularly taken with the passage in the film where, behind the scenes, she ushers her young players onto the Albert Hall stage. A separate word of kindly encouragement for all. Blowing away the myth of tyrannical conductors. When it is her turn, she shakes herself, almost in disbelief and strides out.

In the Lincoln Center last Friday her statuesque figure drew from the Met Orchestra the best it had to give. This was a masterclass in how to interpret one of the 20th century’s most important operatic works.

And, sympathy must go out to the Met’s Intimacy Director, Katherine M. Carter. Clearly failed! Huzzah!

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