Foul is fair

The Israeli Opera’s latest production brings opera lovers Shostakovich’s tumultuous opus ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District'.

By JONATHAN BECK
March 4, 2011 16:25
"Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District"

lady macbeth of mtsensk district_521. (photo credit: Courtesy)

"Muddle instead of music” ran the headline in the Soviet mouthpiece Pravda on January 28, 1936. The scathing article was a critique of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, and it was published following an outing to the opera by none other than Joseph Stalin two days before. Coincidentally the composer, whose opera had already been produced almost 200 times in Russia and also won success abroad, was also in attendance. At only 29 and with three successful symphonies under his belt, Shostakovich was the most celebrated musician of the Soviet state.

Legend has it that Stalin himself had written the article. The opera, according to Pravda, catered to the “perverted taste of the bourgeoisie.”

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“Singing is replaced by shrieking… the music quacks, hoots, growls and gasps to express the love scenes as naturally as possible,” the article said, ultimately accusing Shostakovich of the worst sin an artist could commit, as per the Soviet artcommissars: formalism.

Lady Macbeth was taken off the stages immediately. Following the public thrashing, Shostakovich withdrew his Fourth Symphony, which was still in rehearsal.

The composer learned his lesson. The Fifth Symphony was subtitled “A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism.” The scores of the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth string quartets were stashed away in a drawer, only to see the light of day after Stalin had died.

Shostakovich never wrote another opera after Lady Macbeth. But after Stalin’s death, he revised it and republished it as Katerina Izmailova. The revised version is only slightly changed, mostly toning down some erotic scenes and adding orchestral interludes. But the most significant difference was not in the music. In 1963, during the second version’s premiere, the Soviet leader in the audience was Nikita Khrushchev. No great patron of the arts, perhaps, but one must admit that after Stalin, it took very little effort to appear more liberal. The Soviet Union is long since gone, but Shostakovich’s music, including both Lady Macbeth and Katerina, is still with us.

The Israeli Opera’s next production, which premieres on March 10, will bring opera lovers Shostakovich’s tumultuous opus directed by Yulia Pevzner, based on a version staged by Irina Molostova, an Ukrainian stage director who first directed it in a joint production of the Israeli Opera and the Kirov Opera House in 1997.

According to the press release issued by the Israel Opera, Molostova knew Shostakovich personally. Having begun her career in the mid-1950s, the composer Molostova would have met would have already regained his reputation as the No. 1 musical emissary of the USSR and was a celebrated music professor as well.

Indeed, when Katerina Izmailova premiered, Shostakovich’s celebrity status was such that he dared stretching the limits of of poetic license more and more. His Thirteenth Symphony, premiered a year before, was unequivocal in its criticism of Soviet complicity in the mass murder committed at Babi Yar; and in 1968 he composed his Twelfth Quartet, a piece that paid homage to dodecaphony (the height of “formalism” in Soviet eyes) in the first movement’s 12- tone theme.

One could almost be led to believe that in revising the opera, Shostakovich was only paying lip service to the criticism of 1936. The plot remains unchanged and the differences in orchestration are only cosmetic.

The Israeli Opera production, like most productions since the score of the original version was republished, follows the original 1936 version. Since the scores are so similar, the decision by most Western opera houses to play the earlier piece seems to be more a settling of scores for Shostakovich and against Soviet repression than a choice based on aesthetic considerations.

The orchestra will be conducted by Keri-Lynn Wilson, who counts Seiji Ozawa and Claudio Abbado among her mentors and has led orchestral powerhouses like the Vienna Philharmonic and the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig.

The plot follows the fate of Katerina, unhappy wife of Zinovy Borisovich Izmailov. When Zinovy travels on business, Boris, his father, makes her swear to remain faithful to her husband but also contemplates taking over the latter's role.

Katerina, however, makes love to Sergei, a known womanizer and one of Zinovy's workers. When Boris finds him in her room, he believes Sergei to be a thief, not a lover, and jails him. Later Boris demands that Katerina make him dinner and she uses the opportunity to poison him.

She spends another night with Sergei but this time is caught in flagrante delicto by Zinovy, who whips Katerina. She and Sergei strangle him to death with a belt. The police arrive and arrest the couple. When they are sent to a labor camp Sergei wastes no time and is trying his luck with another convict, Sonyetka. Sonyetka will only give herself to him if he procures for her a pair of stockings. Sergei convinces Katerina to give him hers and he passes these on to Sonyetka.

Katerina learns of this, and devastated by the betrayal of the one man she thought truly loved her, grabs Sonyetka and throws her into an icy river, falling in too.

Shostakovich’s style in Lady Macbeth is already very much his own, but if any one influence overwhelmingly comes to mind, it is Mahler’s, whose spirit is evident in the orchestration, utilizing wind and brass instruments almost to the same extent as strings. Also somewhat Mahlerian is Shostakovich’s singling out of instruments for extended solo passages – especially the first violin and first cello. The lengthy solo passages in the opera serve as singleinstrument Greek choruses, commenting during and after the characters’ vocal lines.

It is not hard to guess where Shostakovich’s sympathies lie. The melodies written for every character but Katerina’s are mostly menacing, comical or at times even outright sneering. The lyrical tunes in the opera are saved for her. In his sympathy for Katerina, who is when all is said and done a murderess, Shostakovich becomes the Soviet version of a feminist. His tender portrayal of Katerina in spite of her calculated killings, must have been the element that garnered him Pravda’s comment on writing for the “perverted taste of the bourgeoisie” more than the realistic depiction of the love scenes between Katerina and Sergei. Even Stravinsky, the Russian composer who managed to avoid party censorship by finding safe haven in the West, said that the opera’s realistic portrayal of a morally corrupt woman was “lamentably provincial.”

Amazingly, the young, naïve Shostakovich meant the piece as a compliment to the Soviets, seeing in Katerina an example of the oppression of women in czarist Russia, before the revolution “liberated” them.

To what degree a story or its heroes should champion high morals is a question that has been debated since the time of Plato and remains relevant in today’s world no less than when viewed through the prism of the politburo. Setting that question aside, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District is quite a ride – a tale of passion, murder and revenge. And these qualities are all very much in evidence in the vigorous, tempestuous score written by the USSR’s finest composer.


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