Damned Wonderful Spot

Last Thursday morning, after a rather restless night’s sleep, I awoke early and drove to New York City. It had been a busy week–finishing up a Peerage scroll, getting some other SCA documents completed, and, most significantly, the second full interview for a possible new job. I’d gotten an encouraging note from the friend who referred me on Wednesday, noting that one of the interviewers had told him I’d nailed it. Other than some weirdness with Teams (unfamiliarity with presenting on two screens on that platform), I thought it had gone very well. I had decided to do the presentation on the US elections, counting on my ability to make a complex subject understandable and to field questions. I’d also done a trial run of the first draft of the presentation at Toastmasters the week before (literally throwing it together the afternoon I’d found out I got the interview), and really used the opportunity to evolve it from an infodump with too many words on the slides to something more based on graphics that would support my words rather than simply repeat them. I knew Thursday was the day I’d hear what the next steps were.

But Thursday was also the first of my three big fall trips–and the one that I’d sworn I’d move heaven and earth to make happen. When I lost my job in August, I vowed that the two trips to New York were absolutely vital to make happen. No one would take those away from me; I had earned them. They were a key part of the plan I’d put together to start the job search: About five weeks to consider my next steps, to finish up some projects and then to put in the work on the resume and LinkedIn profile so I could start committing myself fully to the search. But then, this early job lead had appeared and I realized that it was really too good to pass up, so I inserted it into my plan. And it was good to head out on the road knowing that the interview process was going well.

The Shostakovich bucket list is getting shorter as I successfully check off works. This was a big one: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, his only “serious” opera. The one that was a smash hit for two years before Stalin decided to see it and left early (just after a sex scene–depicted as much in the music as onstage, with the infamous “ejaculatory trombone slides.” Yep, they’re a thing). A couple of days later, a hit piece came out in Pravda and the Soviet Union’s brightest young composer was suddenly branded a “formalist” and told, in print, that “things could go badly” if he didn’t shape up. There’s a redemption arc, of course–after pulling his 4th Symphony and making it through 1937 seeing friends and family targeted in the purges, he produced the 5th symphony and everything is Fine. (Well, sort of. Anyway.) Neither the opera or the 4th Symphony would see the light of day until the 1960s.

There is a list of precisely three operas I’d go all the way to New York to see. Akhnaten was one, and I saw that in June. Shostakovich’s two are the others. I’m not a huge opera buff; I do like some other operas, but productions of The Magic Flute and the like happen locally fairly often, so no need to jump on a performance in New York to get to see those. I got my ticket in late June, and then waited. That meant for the past week I was very, very careful about anything that could potentially expose me to COVID. While the bivalent vaccines have rolled out, I can’t get one for at least another month since I had a 4th booster in July.

An interesting part of using Google Maps to navigate is that it can send you on a different route every time you drive somewhere based on traffic conditions. This time, I crossed at the Peace Bridge (after a 25-minute wait), then headed east south of Buffalo on curving, rolling, 2-lane roads. The drive was just full of charming small towns full with an Americana feel, roadside pumpkin stands, and dairy cattle. It was rather easy to get stuck behind speed limit literalists, however, with no possibility of passing. Just before I hit the interstate again, I passed through a huge complex of correctional facilities, including some clearly historic buildings.

Then it was south, past Corning and Ithaca (note to self: go to the glass museum on the next trip). During a rest stop, I discovered that my phone had no service. I assumed it was because of the increasingly mountainous terrain; I’d later find out I was wrong when Google Maps became functionally unusable west of the Catskills and I ended up having to switch to the onboard navigation system. It reminded me that it wasn’t too long ago that I was printing out full directions from Google Maps–and maybe having that as a backup would not be a bad idea.

The interesting part about this route is that I-86 turns into NY-17 east of Binghamton, but there are multiple signs indicating that this is “future I-86”, and at one point, I-86 blips back into being. Some of those signs looked quite old–and a quick Google shows that these plans have been in place for decades, but funding has been slow to materialize. The highway weaves back and forth alongside a branch of the Delaware River, the mountains rising up on both sides. There is one even one point in the most mountainous area that NY-17 actually has intersections–I suspect, if this ever becomes I-86, this will be the most difficult area to transform.

I made it into Mahwah, New Jersey around 1:45 pm. I pulled up the phone to check my mail again. I had a signal, but it was marked E for Emergency, so I waited several minutes for the mail to download and tell me whether my room was ready (I had asked for early check-in). I noticed I had a text message about a missed phone call from a 416 number, but no sign of it on the phone log. A few minutes later, I discovered that I’d missed a call with a job offer, and that there was an email followup with the details. As it turned out, I wouldn’t be able to access the voicemail until I was back in Canada. I also found that the hotel was ready for me to check in. After calling my husband and texting a friend, I was able to accept the job offer.

I’d had tentative plans to go into the city ahead of my concert, but I’d lost a little time celebrating, so I decided to wait and to go up the street to a Kohl’s I’d passed. I’d sent almost all of my work blazers to the thrift store last year, and the new job may eventually require some more professional wear, so I picked up two jackets at decent prices, as well as a light sweater and a deep blue blouse. I also finally found some (mostly) leather winter gloves that could be used with touch screens.

I then got dressed (the lovely black velvet 30s dress I reconstructed) and headed into the city. The trip took about an hour. I decided to break my rule about listening to the works of any composer on the day of a concert of that composer’s work, because I’d been using Shostakovich’s 10th symphony as a bit of a morale-boosting work since being let go from my former job, and so I got to experience the joy of crossing the George Washington Bridge with the 3rd movement–the dramatic, frenetic waltz with the DSCH motif that I’ve termed the “waltz from hell” ever since discovering the work in 1999, as I was finalizing my doctoral thesis.

This time, I’d purchased parking at Lincoln Centre ($50 USD – yikes!). My phone was back to not working, so I was using the onboard navigation system again, and I’d programmed in the wrong street address for the entrance. That was quickly corrected after a spin around the block. The parking turned out to be worth the high price, as it was literally down a short set of stairs and across an underground driveway to enter the opera house.

I had about an hour to kill. I spent it hitting the gift shop (picking up the DVD of Akhnaten, and a necklace based on the “Sputnik” chandeliers), enjoying the fountain out in front of the hall, and then, when the concessions opened, having an enormous, expensive chocolate chip cookie on the terrace, where I managed to find someone to take my photo. The dress was absolutely the perfect thing to wear to an evening opera; there were plenty of others wearing gowns of all kinds (as well as people wearing sweatsuits; there’s no actual dress code).

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was originally set in 19th century Russia, but this production had a vaguely 50s suburban vibe, although the car that starts off onstage and that plays a significant part in some key moments of the staging of the opera had more of a 80s look. It was noted by one of the reviews that the aim might have been the tacky 90s of post-Soviet Russia, when this production was first staged. In the original story, Katerina is the wife of a provincial merchant; in this staging, she is the wife of the owner of a construction firm. She is played as bit of a blowzy blonde, wearing fit and flare dress in yellow with a pattern of red roses (a recurring motif in the early part of the show), lounging around the house, singing about how bored she is. Her father-in-law Boris wears a stained jacket over a wifebeater T-shirt (the connection was definitely intentional) and was mostly interested in beer, mushrooms, the TV, and ordering Katerina around. Her husband Zinovy looks like a nerdy accountant. At this point, the set looked almost like an episode of The Honeymooners or I Love Lucy–except with murder!

The workers are portrayed as construction workers, apparently working on Soviet-style apartment blocks (seen in the background for one of the sets). Construction equipment (including a very large wrecking ball, a crane, a cement mixer (smaller one) and some sort of decent-sized digger make appearances during the show. The scene where the men taunt and harass Aksina works beautifully–she’s trapped in a net hoisted by a crane, while the exceedingly horny men try to get at her. My one complaint about the casting–or maybe more about the costuming–is that Sergei, the man who more or less forces himself on Katerina (although she is quick to warm to his attentions), isn’t hunky enough. But maybe that was the point: the man Katerina is willing to commit murder for twice gains her bed not because he’s a catch, but because he’s a manipulator. He’ll appear later in his tighty-whities and wifebeater t-shirt, the same kind the lecherous Boris wears. But meanwhile, Katerina has removed her dress to reveal black lingerie (black as her heart, perhaps!), we have the infamous ejaculatory trombone slides after a very vigorous session of sex (on a table! Behind a refrigerator–which pops open! On Katerina’s hot pink bed!), and an enormous rose rises behind the set. (Symbolism!) There’s then a hilarious set change (perhaps surpassing the famous “tap dancing nose scene” from a production of Shostakovich’s first opera, the absurdist comedy The Nose) involving demented women in wedding gowns dancing with vacuum cleaners before leaving garbage bags all around Katerina’s bed.

Having been discovered with her paramour by her father-in-law, who berates her before returning to his TV and beer, Katerina mixes him up a nice plate of poisoned mushrooms.

Boris’ funeral is acted out during the Passacaglia (mostly fairly solemnly, if overwrought). He gets cement poured on his coffin. The murderous couple then go on to off the returning Zinovy and to deposit his body in the trunk of a car, which we then see at a junkyard with an enormous wrecking ball crushing it.

By this time, most productions of this opera have long ago been drained of comedy, and so Shabby Peasant’s discovery of Zinovy’s body and the subsequent scene with the police are some welcome comic relief before it all goes very, very wrong–but not in this production. It’s all been played as melodrama and dark comedy, and it heads further into the grotesque as a large horde of murderous, bloody, demented brides overrun the stage after Shabby Peasant’s discovery, to be chased off by the cartoonish cops (and a large pop-up fist with what I assume is the word “kapow!” in Cyrillic letters). The cops are apparently all training to be superheroes (and have superhero t-shirts under their uniforms) and are happy to have a pretext to crash the wedding–not because they have a crime to solve, but because they want to party.

The wrecking ball transformed into a disco ball, the wedding reception scene ensues. Everyone is drunk, Katerina is wearing an atrociously tacky wedding dress, and then everything falls apart and it’s off to prison. Interestingly enough, however, once again, this production still hangs onto the strands of comedy. Prisoners empty waste into an open trough–and since there’s no bridge in sight, the viewer familiar with the plot know where this is going. Sonyetka is portrayed as more or less a prostitute, with a hot pink shirt and tall white boots–certainly not someone who needs the stockings she’ll goad Sergei to get off of Katerina. And then, there’s Katerina’s final aria, where she’s alone, catatonic, on the corner of a stage, and suddenly the comedy drains out of the production into pitch blackness. The music, bleak and sparse, supports this whiplash, where Katerina appears to finally understand she’s the star of a tragic story, and her destiny is “black as her conscience.” She descends into the latrine pit–and then arises out of it, as if from the grave, to drag Sonyetka in after her.

The performances were spectacular. Svetlana Sozdateleva’s performance was pitch perfect–especially that final aria. John Relyea (a Torontonian!)’s performance of Boris particularly stood out. And the music! The orchestra was amazing, conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson drawing all the drama and emotion in the music out perfectly. Hearing this work performed live added such depth to my understanding and appreciation of the score and what the 26-year-old Shostakovich was doing with his story. The program notes (by noted Shostakovich scholar Laurel Fay) pointed out that this opera is a tragi-comic satire. I mentioned that the vast majority of the production was quite funny–and I am quite sure, after seeing this, that was absolutely Shostakovich’s intent. It’s grotesque, it’s melodrama, and the ending is the kind of stark Shost whiplash we love so much. I know a lot of people tend to think on first glance that Lady Macbeth is so much more “serious” than The Nose. It isn’t, although it is much darker. There’s a direct line of evolution between the two works.

In summary, this opera, like Akhnaten before it, was worth every penny of the trip to New York to see it. And I’m glad that the production I saw was this particular version. “Scorching,” as the New York Times put it.

The next morning, there were the traditional Holiday Inn Express cinnamon rolls–first time since before the pandemic. If all goes well, I’ll be back to this same hotel in 2 1/2 weeks. The trip home–back the same way I’d come, for once–was uneventful. There was a stop at Wegmans for Graeter’s Black Raspberry Chocolate Chunk ice cream, pretzel rods, and chocolate marshmallow pinwheels, and at Olive Garden for minestrone soup. When I got home, I filled out all of the info for the background check and reference for my new position.

The following day was Huntsman’s Harvest, about my favourite SCA event. I got to shoot archery, to see a friend elevated to the Pelican (and receive the scroll I did for her), to take a new apprentice-protege, and to see the B-25 fly over a couple of times.

So, freed of my responsibilities of job hunting, I’ll be spending the next three weeks prepping an SCA Laurel elevation ceremony for my apprentice and sewing her Laurel cioppa. I’ll probably also take care of a few things around the house and maybe even go ahead and use the services of the placement firm my former job engaged for me to spiff up my LinkedIn profile and improve my resume (can’t hurt!). There’s Thanksgiving dinner with friends a week from today, and then Montreal for Shostakovich 10, followed by New York again for Igor Levit. It really is a vacation now–although I’ll earn a couple of vacation days between the start of my job and the end of the year, my focus is really going to be on throwing myself into learning everything I can about this new position. I’m looking forward to it. As one cycle of my life has come to an end, another one awaits, and I am here for that.