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Chaos instead of music?

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BMInt presents a not-so-short history of Shostakovich’s The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District in connection with the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s first performances of the complete opera on January 25th and 27th. Tickets HERE

On January 26, 1936, Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District was presented in Moscow. This was not breaking news. Lady Macbeth had enjoyed almost simultaneous premieres in 1934, at the Maly Opera Theatre in Leningrad on January 22 and then at the Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theatre in Moscow two days later. The piece had elicited high praise from the February 1st edition of Soviet Art:

Shostakovich’s new opera is indisputably one of the most significant achievements of our musical and theatrical life. It is in truth the first great, truly outstanding and masterfully constructed operatic work to have been composed in the 16 years since the October Revolution.  

Over the following two years, Lady Macbeth was given 83 times in Leningrad and 97 times in Moscow. It made its way to London, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Prague, and Zurich, to Buenos Aires, to New York, Philadelphia, and Cleveland. It was so popular that on January 26, 1936, three productions were running simultaneously in Moscow, one at the Nemirovich-Danchenko, one on the Bolshoi Theatre’s second stage, and one from the Maly Opera Theatre’s touring company. Communist Party general secretary Joseph Stalin, who had not yet seen Lady Macbeth, chose this evening to attend for the first time. It’s thought that Stalin was meant to see the well-established Nemirovich-Danchenko production, but his chauffeur took him to the Bolshoi because that’s where he was accustomed to watch opera. Shostakovich, who was due to leave for a concert tour in Archangelsk, was instructed to attend.

The evening did not go well. Conductor Alexander Melik-Pashaev appears to have brought in extra brass in an attempt to impress Stalin. Shostakovich found the result ear-splitting. So, apparently, did Stalin, since he and his entourage (which included Vyacheslav Molotov) left before the performance was over. Two days later, Pravda ran an unsigned review headlined “Chaos instead of Music.” It was less enthusiastic than the Soviet Art review of 1934:

From the first minute, the listener is shocked by deliberate dissonance, by a confused stream of sound. Snatches of melody, the beginnings of a musical phrase, are drowned, emerge again, and disappear in a grinding and squealing roar. To follow this “music” is most difficult; to remember it, impossible. . . . Here is music turned deliberately inside out in order that nothing will be reminiscent of classical opera, or have anything in common with symphonic music or with simple and popular musical language accessible to all. . . . While our critics, including music critics, swear by the name of socialist realism, the stage serves us, in Shostakovich’s creation, the coarsest kind of naturalism. . . . And all this is coarse, primitive and vulgar. The music quacks, grunts, and growls, and suffocates itself in order to express the love scenes as naturalistically as possible. And “love” is smeared all over the opera in the most vulgar manner . . .

The review was not an isolated incident. On February 6, Pravda ran a second unsigned review, this one addressing Shostakovich’s 1935 collective-farm ballet The Limpid Stream, which Stalin had attended before seeing Lady Macbeth. Headlined “Balletic Falsehood,” it took the composer to task for portraying the farmers as “painted peasants on the lid of a candy box” and offering a conclusion in which “all our difficulties are behind us. Onstage everyone is happy, cheerful, and joyous.” Pravda would go on to attack formalism in cinematography (February 13), architecture (February 20), painting (March 1), and the theater (March 9). The age of Socialist Realism was dawning, alongside the age of Stalinist purges.

Shostakovich’s previous theater forays had had limited success. His satirical opera The Nose (1930) opened to poor reviews; it managed 16 performances but wasn’t seen again in Russia till 1974. His ballet The Golden Age (1930) sent a Soviet football team (Shostakovich was a football fanatic) to visit the decadent capitalist West; it received some 18 performances. But The Bolt (1931), an ironic ballet about lazy factory workers, was booed offstage at its premiere and wasn’t offered again till 2005. Lady Macbeth was his first real stage hit.

So what prompted Stalin’s outrage? One could posit that the sensational scenario didn’t meet the demands of Socialist Realism. A provincial merchant’s wife takes a lover, kills her father-in-law when he finds out, kills her husband when he finds out, and is eventually sent to Siberia, where she drowns herself and her lover’s new girlfriend. Adultery and murder are hardly what Stalin had in mind for the proletariat.

Yet it was Shostakovich’s music that the Pravda review took to task, not the libretto. Lady Macbeth got three more performances at the Bolshoi before its run ended. Shostakovich’s compositional response to both Pravda reviews was his Fourth Symphony, which he finished in April 1936. As it was being rehearsed in Leningrad that December, he was advised to withdraw it to avoid “administrative measures.” The Fourth has no program; it was the “formalist” music that Soviet authorities found unacceptable. Shostakovich did withdraw it and went on to write his “uplifting” Fifth Symphony, which fooled the censors but not the people. The Fourth didn’t reappear until 1961. In 1940, Shostakovich agreed to write an opera based on Lev Tolstoy’s Resurrection, but the libretto was rejected by Soviet authorities and the project collapsed. His only subsequent operatic endeavor was the 1959 operetta Moscow, Cheryomushki, a humorous work about the city’s chronic housing shortage. The Limpid Stream was his last ballet.

What was Shostakovich trying to say with The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District? His starting point, the 1865 novella of the same name by Nikolai Leskov, was not unknown to Soviet audiences: Cheslav Sabinsky had made a film version in 1927, and various stage adaptations followed. Leskov sets the novella in a provincial region 200 miles south of Moscow, and he begins by explaining that merchant’s wife Katerina Lvovna Izmailova “once enacted a drama so frightful that the members of our local gentry, taking their lead from someone’s light-hearted remark, took to calling her ‘The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District.’ ” (The title was doubtless inspired by Ivan Turgenev’s 1852 sketch “The Hamlet of Shchigrovsky District.”)

Leskov’s Katerina, not quite 24, is married to over-50 merchant Zinovy Borisovich and lives with him and his nearly 80-year-old father, Boris Timofeevich. Katerina and Zinovy have been married more than four years and have no children; since Zinovy’s previous 20-year marriage was also fruitless, he appears to be the problem, even though he and his father hold her responsible. Katerina is bored, and when her husband is called away and newly hired young worker Sergei comes to her bedroom to borrow a book, she’s seduced. Boris catches Sergei leaving and flogs him; when he threatens to send Sergei to prison and have Katerina flogged as well, she puts rat poison in his mushrooms and he dies.

When Zinovy returns, he too catches Katerina and Sergei flagrante delicto, whereupon they strangle him and bury him in a storeroom dungeon. Everyone thinks he’s gone missing; Katerina is set to be his sole heir, but then Boris’s young nephew Fedya shows up. Sergei doesn’t want to share the business, so he and Katerina smother the boy in his bed, but this time they’re caught and Sergei confesses everything. Even as Katerina is giving birth to their son, she and Sergei are sentenced to penal servitude. When he takes up with a new woman, Katerina grabs Sonetka and hurls them both into the Volga, where they drown.

Shostakovich and his librettist, Alexander Preis, retained the essence of the story, but they did make significant changes in an effort to render Katerina more sympathetic. Fedya is eliminated from the scenario; as Shostakovich observed, “The killing of a child, no matter how it might be explained, always creates a negative impression.” They also eliminated Katerina’s baby, whom she takes no interest in.

Leskov’s Katerina says she hasn’t any books and doesn’t read them. In the opera, Katerina describes herself as illiterate; perhaps we’re meant to think she’s the victim of a patriarchy that doesn’t believe women should be educated. The opera’s Boris doesn’t catch Sergei leaving Katerina’s bedroom by chance; he was proposing, in his son’s absence, to bed her himself, only Sergei got there first. In the novella, Zinovy’s murder seems premeditated, and it’s Katerina who hits him with a candlestick. In the opera, it’s only when Zinovy beats Katerina with a belt that Sergei responds, and Sergei wields the candlestick. In the opera, moreover, it’s Katerina who’s moved to confess.

In a 1932 interview with Soviet Art, Shostakovich explained,

There is a tragic aspect at the heart of my opera. I would say that Lady Macbeth could be regarded as a tragical-satirical opera. Although Ekaterina Lvovna murders her husband and her father-in-law, I sympathize with her. I have taken care to give all that surrounds her a darkly satirical character . . . and I have taken care to create an opera that is a revealing satire, one that strips away people’s masks; it presents, and causes us to hate, the terrible total arbitrariness and the arrogant manner of despotic Russian merchants.

He also explained how his vision differed from Leskov’s:

Leskov finds no moral or psychological justification for murder. I, however, have portrayed Katerina Izmailova as a strong, talented, and beautiful woman who succumbs to the bleak surroundings of a Russia populated by merchants and serfs. For Leskov, she is a murderess; I depict her as a complex and tragic character. She is a loving woman, a deeply sensitive woman, by no means without feeling.

That’s not quite fair to Leskov. His narrator does relate the tale with the dispassion of a courtroom observer, but some details at the outset of the novella speak in Katerina’s favor. Her husband is twice her age, and he’s pinpointed as the reason she doesn’t have the child she wants. She dispatches her father-in-law after he’s backed her into a corner. After that, as in Macbeth, events spiral out of control; each subsequent murder has less to recommend it. But Leskov, like Shakespeare, lets us draw our own conclusions.

Shostakovich, on the other hand, is enamored of his heroine. He describes her as “strong, talented, and beautiful.” His Katerina may be strong, but she doesn’t figure out how to get what she wants without resorting to murder. Nothing in the libretto marks her as either talented or beautiful. Nothing even suggests she would be a good mother. It’s said that Shostakovich identified her with Nina Varzar, the woman he was courting during the gestation of the opera; they married in 1932. In any case, by positing Katerina as a victim of bourgeois pre-Communist Russia, by drawing attention to “the terrible total arbitrariness and the arrogant manner of despotic Russian merchants,” he must have been hoping to confirm his status as a responsible Soviet artist.

The answer to what went wrong lies in Shostakovich’s own characterization of Lady Macbeth as “tragical-satirical.” The satire is obvious. Boris is a lecherous father-in-law, Zinovy is a bust of a husband, and Sergei as Katerina’s lover can hardly stay awake when she asks him to kiss her. Not to mention that he thinks their being sent to Siberia is all her fault. The Izmailov servants molest the female cook and then sing, with a straight face, that “life without our dear master is not worth living”; later they’ll refer to their “dear master” as a “crocodile.” To replace the scenes of Fedya’s murder, Shostakovich and Preis introduce a peasant informer who discovers Zinovy’s body and reports it to the police; they aren’t so busy looking for bribes and arresting a supposed Socialist that they can’t drop in on Sergei and Katerina’s wedding and find both priest and guests already drunk. But satire is hard to contain. Stalin might well have wondered whether Lady Macbeth’s parodies didn’t address the Soviet present as much as the Tsarist past.

As for Shostakovich’s description of his opera as tragical, he imagined Katerina as a woman trapped in a corrupt bourgeois society, a tragic heroine who fights for sexual freedom and independence. But she’s really a member of that bourgeois society, living in relative luxury and bored all the same. Boris and Zinovy are domineering; it’s a stretch to call them despotic. Here too, Stalin might have wondered whether Shostakovich’s target wasn’t so much 19th-century Russian merchants as 20th-century Soviet culture.

That leaves the music. Pravda’s “From the first minute, the listener is shocked by deliberate dissonance, by a confused stream of sound” is its own muddle, since Lady Macbeth opens in an atmosphere of brooding, woodwind-saturated melancholy that recalls “Der Einsame im Herbst” from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Then the first of Katerina’s four great arias follows. At first listen it might seem that Shostakovich gives the all the tender yearning lyricism to Katerina and “all that surrounds her a darkly satirical character.” But there’s nothing parodic about Boris’s wistful recollection of his youthful indiscretions (at least until the Viennese waltz kicks in), or the poignant hymn the convicts sing as they trudge along, verst after verst. And even Katerina isn’t immune to the irony that’s everywhere, in Shostakovich’s characteristic amalgam of circus, music hall, cabaret, movie-chase slapstick, and folk- and popular-tune allusions. Not for nothing did Pravda note the “crammed, nervous, epileptic music of jazz.” Much of Lady Macbeth is brash, vulgar, discordant, bordering on inaccessible. The review might as well have identified the composer as Stalin’s court jester.

Take the 124 bars Shostakovich wrote for the “love scene,” in which Sergei’s seduction of Katerina borders on rape. Neither the libretto nor the score offers any stage direction, so the music has to stand on its own. It’s been described as a cancan; the New York Sun in a 1935 review coined the term “pornophony.” Toward the end, trombone slides go so far as to signal Sergei’s detumescence. Is Shostakovich really celebrating Katerina’s sexual freedom? And why does this music not sound so different from what accompanies the servants’ taunting of the cook, or Sergei’s flogging, or Zinovy’s murder?   

Or take the five interludes with which Shostakovich frames the action. The longest is the passacaglia between Scenes Four and Five, after Katerina has fed Boris the poisoned mushrooms. It begins with a ffff outburst from the brass — a reaction to the murder? — after which the strings begin the passacaglia ppp, dotted and limping at first, then running in 32nd notes, building to an anguished/triumphant fffff trumpet climax before clarinet and oboe limp back down into the depths and cello and bass finish up in the dungeon where Zinovy will ultimately be buried. You can hear this interlude as both celebration and condemnation of Katerina’s actions; the music itself passes no judgment. Even the relatively simple interlude that follows the peasant informer’s discovery of Zinovy’s body cuts both ways: a hysterical circus galop meant to depict the peasant running to the police, it sounds suspiciously like the passages in Shostakovich symphonies where people seem to be running from the police.

By the last act, of course, those people, including Katerina and Sergei, have been caught by the police and are on their way to Siberia. Stalin didn’t stay for Lady Macbeth’s conclusion; if he had, the convicts’ hymn would have erased any lingering doubts as to whether Shostakovich was a subversive. Even here, though, ambivalence reigns. The convicts may be victims of Tsarist/Soviet Russia, but the women, at least, are merciless in their taunting of Katerina. Only the old convict who consoles her survives unscathed.

The Pravda review did not altogether lay Lady Macbeth to rest. After Stalin’s death, Shostakovich resurrected and revised the opera, changing the title to Katerina Izmailova, finessing some characterizations, toning down the orchestral extravagance (the 60 seconds of “lovemaking” are cut to 17, with no trombone slides), and giving Katerina’s personal tragedy a broader social resonance. Lady Macbeth ends with the convicts lamenting the endless steppes and their heartless guards; Katerina Izmailova concludes with an old convict asking, “Oh why is our life so gloomy, so frightful and hopeless? Were we then born to live such a life?”

Katerina Izmailova made its debut in December 1963, in the same theater where Lady Macbeth had its Moscow premiere in 1934. In 1964, Melodiya released a recording of the revised version with Eleonora Andreeva in the title role; in 1966, a shortened film adaptation — running 116 minutes as opposed to the recording’s 170 — appeared directed by Mikhail Shapiro and starring Galina Vishnevskaya. The revised version has been described as “bowdlerized” and “laundered,” even though some of the changes were actually made before the 1934 premiere or shortly after.

Shostakovich himself maintained that Katerina Izmailova was the definitive form of his opera. Perhaps that’s the public position he had to take. Or perhaps, being Shostakovich, he loved both versions. It does seem that he still cared about the original, since he’s said to have asked his friend Mstislav Rostropovich (Vishnevskaya’s husband) to record it if Rostropovich could ever find a copy of the score. One in fact turned up in the Library of Congress, and in 1979 EMI released the premiere recording of Lady Macbeth, with Rostropovich conducting and Vishnevskaya again in the title role. This original version has since prevailed in opera houses and on audio and video recordings, and it’s the one Andris Nelsons and the BSO will perform this Thursday and Saturday.

A NOTE ON TITLES: In Russian, both Leskov’s novella and Shostakovich’s opera have the title Леди Макбет Мценского Уезда, literally Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District. The Russian language has no articles, definite or indefinite, so one has to guess whether they belong in an English translation. My sense is that it should be The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District, but one could argue for Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Also, Leskov meant to indicate Mtsensk the district and not just Mtsensk the town, but Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is often preferred as a snappier title, and that’s the BSO’s choice.   

See related review HERE.     

Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 45 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.

1 Comment »

1 Comment [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. What a superb essay! So interesting in detail, so well written and erudite. I only wish I had seen and read this before last night’s performance.

    It is writing of this sort which helps make BMInt an essential part of Boston’s continuing cultural dynamism. Kudos are definitely due to all concerned! Thanks, as well.

    Comment by John W. Ehrich — January 28, 2024 at 4:39 pm

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