11/18/2014 12:59 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2015

And the Banned Play On

So far this season at the Met I have seen three sensational shows, The Marriage of Figaro, The Death of Klinghoffer and most recently Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Although one couldn't imagine three more disparate works -- an 18th Century sex farce, an opera about Palestinian terrorists taking over a cruise ship, and the tale of a murderous adulteress in a factory town in Russia -- there is one interesting fact that groups them as a whole: each, when first presented, got into some major hot water with the censors. One was banned outright by a dictator; an ex-mayor of New York City try to ban this production, while the head of the Met canceled the planned live-telecast: and one, they say, flamed the fire of the French Revolution! Not bad for an artistic expression that has been called, "a dinosaur of an art form."

The Marriage of Figaro, the season opener, based on Beaumarchais's masterpiece, La Folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro (The Crazy Day, or the Marriage of Figaro) was written in 1778, but the Parisian censors controlled by Louis XVI successfully banned performances until 1784. The play, with its call for social equality and its blatant contempt for the indulgences of the upper classes, was clearly something the elitist government would not tolerate, especially during the volatile years before the French Revolution. Plot lines wherein a Count tries to seduce his servant's wife, only to be brought to his knees begging forgiveness from his wife working in tandem with his servant's husband, would not sit well with the omnipotent nobility.

As movie fans know from Peter Shaffer's brilliant Amadeus, Emperor Joseph II, Mozart's sometime patron, was shocked that Mozart would even think of musicalizing such a "bad play." As imagined by Shaffer, Joseph said, "Figaro...stirs up hatred between the classes...My own dear sister Antoinette writes me that she is beginning to be frightened of her own people."

Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte softened the politics of the original play so the production would indeed be performed, but the audience clearly saw the lowly servant Figaro being insolent to his lord and master and even scheming to thwart him while he sang great, tuneful music; the public understood.

An interesting aside: when the opera was finally presented in Paris, after the revolution, the presenters thought da Ponte had eliminated too much of the political punch and restored much of the exorcised dialogue the librettist had eliminated.

In the Met production, gorgeously sung by the entire cast, especially Peter Mattei's Count and Isabel Leonard's hormone-charged Cherbino, the class warfare has been softened to a refined Upstairs/Downstairs, Downtown Abbey-style conflict, social issues gentrified into a palatable noblesse oblige collage of the rich and their servants (starting with the staged Overture, meh!) In fact, almost all of the productions of Figaro I've seen concentrate on the glorious music, which is fine with me as there is no more beautiful music written in all of opera, in my opinion, anyway.

I do recall, however, a production at the Met directed by Jean-Pierre Ponelle in which every time a door opened, the audience was treated to revolting peasants brandishing farm instruments which seemed pretty heavy handed. Of course what was verboten and cause for censorship in the 18th Century has now morphed into something routinely explored on movies and television, even though the world-wide class system, poor vs. rich, is no less terrifying and important today as it was then. But I would love to see a really political Figaro.

The second of the three great evenings I had at the Met was The Death of Klinghoffer. I wrote about it in depth earlier this season,, but seeing Lady M made me again think about all the protests outside and the condemnation by Jewish leaders (who conveniently forgot that the Reichskulturkammer of the Third Reich banned the works of Kurt Weill and other Jewish composers because they thought they were not "German" enough). Ex-mayor Giuliani joined the protests and called for a ban on performing the opera under any circumstances, but Peter Gelb canceled only the broadcast. (I wonder, given the great success of Klinghoffer, if Gelb regrets his decision.) Remember that Giuliani, no stranger to promoting bans on art that violates his delicate sensibility, famously tried to revoke city funding for the Brooklyn Museum, have the museum's board of trustees dismissed, and evict the museum from the city-owned building because of an art exhibit he found "disgusting." Thankfully the court intervened and the offending exhibit continued, with the museum issuing a tongue-in-cheek warning, "The contents of this exhibition may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria, and anxiety."

Even Verdi, who now seems so politically innocent, had his problems with the censors. He had to relocate Un Ballo in Maschera to Boston (where everyone sang in Italian, of course) to avoid government suppression and in Stiffelio was forced to reassign the religion of the main character, changing a Protestant minister to a "sectarian" eviscerating the entire ending so the piece could see the light of day.

Dmitri Shostakovich was not as lucky. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk had been a run-away smash for two years before Joseph Stalin saw it and famously walked out in disgust after the second act. Two days later, an anonymous Pravda editorial appeared: (The music was) "fidgety, screaming, neurotic...a grotesquery suited to the perverted tastes of the bourgeois." The Soviets knew what their leader thought and no one could publically or privately question his opinion. Thus Shostakovich's masterpiece was effectively banned, and he never wrote another opera; Lady M was not to be heard in its original form until 1979. Thankfully, Klinghoffer, despite the protests, went on as planned with the cast, score and production almost universally praised, although two of the opera companies that originally commissioned have yet to schedule it in any future season. Amazing.

Of the three productions I saw, Lady M was the most completely satisfying for me. During intermission I ran into the brilliant opera composer, Ricky Ian Gordon who could barely speak he was so overwhelmed by the power of the piece. Opera is about the music and the Met orchestra consistently plays at a level almost unheard of in performance today, but this performance was in a class by itself; the tightness, the brilliance, the bombast of the playing, led by the indefatigable James Conlon, rattled the rafters.

Directed by English master, Graham Vick, the opera was set in an angular, raked room with seventeen doors leading God-knows-where. This Kafka-esque environment was ironically offset by a jolly-holiday, sky-blue cloud formation painted over the doors and walls. This unit set served as the basis for all the scenes: a huge crane appeared over the top when the scene shifted to the worker's factory, a giant mirror ball came down at the wedding of Katerina and Sergei, the doors were unceremoniously kicked out as the scene shifted to a prisoners' rest-stop. This type of unit set is pretty standard stuff in many European opera houses, but I've seldom seen metaphorical design work as well; too many times, the unit set has nothing to do with the story being told at least the story that the composer and librettist wrote. The claustrophobic world of Katarina's loveless home, complete with the dilapidated refrigerator whose interior light blinds the audience like a searchlight, is a powerful metaphor for her loveless marriage and her perpetual disillusionment.

Eva-Maria Westbroek seemed to inhabit poor Katerina, the opera's heroine, down to her marrow. I had previously loved her in Francesca Di Rimini and Ricky Ian Gordon raved about her in Anna Nicole, but surely this is the highlight of her impressive career so far. She sang from an emotional depth I've rarely seen on an opera stage, especially one as large as the Met's. Katerina's vocal range must be one of the most difficult and strenuous in the operatic repertoire but Westbroek's magnificent voice was steely and powerful when it had to be, beautifully nuanced when the score called for it and heart wrenchingly cathartic at the climax of the piece.

I also loved the staging of the interludes, some of Shostakovich's most powerful music complete with nightmaresque transvestite brides in blood stained white dresses and shirtless factory workers cavorting around bags of garbage. The emergence of a gigantic flower during the seduction scene was a magnificent coup de théâter as it hovered over the copulating lovers.

All the protests outside the Met made me think about the nature of politically engaged art and I drew parallels that I might not have done otherwise. Part of the protests against Klinghoffer and Mtsensk seem to be that these works debase a noble form; but taken together, the three operas offer a vision of opera's breadth and cohesion, rather than its disparities and disconnectedness.