Convicted killer Katerina Izmailova turns up as the main subject of an BMInt write-up for the third time in the space of a week ― not a trivial achievement for an illiterate woman from provincial Russia of 1860s whose talents shone in the specific area of speedily dispatching male relatives who happened to stand in the way of her sexual fulfillment. On the heels of a magnificent final BSO performance of Shostakovich’s masterpiece on Saturday January 27th, it may be worthwhile to step back and assess what on earth is going on. Why are decent tax-paying and law-abiding citizens of the Commonwealth showing up in droves and riotously applauding this tabloid fodder? Needless to say, Katerina’s cause had been greatly advanced by a reckless youth named Mitya Shostakovich who had made her a focal point of his deepest artistic impulses and wrought her a spectacular musical wreath. It was further pushed forward by a world class orchestra, soloists and chorus ― and a music director who pulled off a powerful retelling of the story. But given a comprehensive coverage by Jeffrey Gantz of both the history of the work (HERE) and the rich glories of the performance (HERE), I find myself with a fool’s errand of reconstructing its motivation and mythology.
Let’s start with the ancien-régime world of the old merchant Boris Timofeevich. The composer belonged to Russia’s progressive class for whom the shattering of the Tsarist power fulfilled decades worth of yearning and opened up new opportunities. Therefore he, like other creative figures of the 1920s and early 30s, could rely on condemnation and ridicule of the old rich, along with their police and their church, as a safe publishable material under Soviet censors, while remaining sincere. But by the time he was penning the first scenes of the opera, the emergence of the new ruling class loomed large, and Shostakovich could not help but notice that the new rulers were even more brutal, while at the same time less capable of actually building something. Katerina’s father-in-law emerged as a heavy-handed and menacing figure, but also someone who created the world around him and carried some idea of how to run it. Some of the most memorable achievements of Nelsons’s production belong to this world. The powerful bass of Guenther Groisboeck, with seamless support from Nelsons and the might of BSO’s lower registers, enveloped the hall. The stirring passacaglia that marked the old man’s demise evoked not just oppression but also the sense of whole universe tragically dissipating. What came after it might have allowed for Katerina brief illusion of fulfillment, but it mostly ushered in a party of impotents, drunkards, and cads.
There had been another artist in early 30s Moscow who attempted to similarly capture the spirit of the disappearing civilization. Pavel Korin conceived an ambitious canvas depicting the 1925 funeral of the last pre-Stalin Patriarch, tentatively describing it as the last parade of the Russian Church. He got funding for his project in 1931 with the help of Maxim Gorky, who christened the work as ‘Russia that is Going Away,’ thereby giving it progressive and atheist legitimacy. A few years later, the project was defunded and the artist barely escaped punishment. A large number of sketches and probes survived, but the mighty canvas specially ordered for the work sat virginally white on the day of the artist’s death. Shostakovich’s Passacaglia drew a better ticket: Stalin got distracted by the ‘chaos’ of other material and failed to notice the mighty funeral march; he seemed not to have possessed the patience to sit until the final chorus. Had he mastered a longer attention span, he might easily have drawn a parallel between the Passacaglia, together with the final chorus of the prisoners, and his own brutal campaign against the well-off peasantry, the kulaks: millions of hard-working Izmailovs, brutally robbed, exiled, or murdered by the state. Shostakovich, in his travels throughout the country, could not have possibly escaped encounters with victims of that campaign. They wandered the streets of provincial towns begging for bread and filled Siberia-bound cattle cars visible at many railroad junctions.
At the same time, don’t let me exaggerate the composer’s reaction to suffering of the Russia that was going away. The years 1932-1935 opened up a brief reprieve for the creative class, the last breath of fresh air before the arrival of mature totalitarian control of the arts. Before 1932, Shostakovich was forced to spend inordinate amount of energy fighting off the nasty public attacks coming from the vulgar zealots of RAPM, the union of proletarian musicians, just like writers were constantly harassed by the equivalent RAPP organization. In 1932 however, Stalin, disbanded the feisty and chaotic RAPP and RAPM, and the authors and musicians received a hall pass for a couple of years. During this time, another form of censorship and control materialized―much more menacing because it was enforced not just by broadsheet philippics, but also by the NKVD. In those days distinctly un-proletarian Pasternak wore the crown as number one Soviet poet and published several books, while DSCH composed and staged the complex layers of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Neither of them was fully naive: the brutality of the regime manifested itself quite vividly, the country being on the verge of famine, while propaganda roared about great achievements and a growing number of intellectuals got executed promptly and without any obvious pretext or logic. Neither were they shameless opportunists, and in order to produce publishable work, they desperately needed a reason to view the Soviet regime as fundamentally progressive, despite the temporary ugliness. And they found it in the sphere close to their romantic sensibilities. The raison-d’etre of the revolution got distilled down to liberation of the woman.
From the get-go, the composer publicly justified Katerina’s crimes as a revolt against suffocating oppression. His approach consciously and emphatically diverged from that of Leskov, whose novella reads as a dispassionate freak show. He chatted about it with his friend Sollertinsky, who described Katerina as a genius due to her ability to preserve her passion despite the circumstances.
Incidentally, the story of the revolution as a revolt of a mistreated woman is straight out of Pasternak, who in the same years desperately clung to that myth as his last hope to find something in common with the Bolsheviks. Ultimately, the topic found its way to Zhivago, where sexual exploitation of the young Lara shone through as a metaphysical cause of demise of a world much wider than a single merchant household.
The most unabashedly lyrical violin solo in all of Shostakovich emerges when Katerina realizes that she can do away with the father-in-law. It embodies the possibility of love escaping oppression. Happy times extend into the second night with Sergei when the orchestral part turns decidedly Tristanesque. It doesn’t last, even as the violin solo returns with a reminder of initial hopes and dreams.
Of course, old world oppression has not been the only obstacle to love in composer’s imagination.
In later years, as Solomon Volkov captured it, Shostakovich talked about love, the main driving force of the Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, in sharp contrast to the liberated and unencumbered sex life of the first Soviet generation. To borrow a cliché, the early 30s Soviet educated class embodied the original American hippy 60s. Free love ruled, and one worried that neighbors were getting more of it than we were. An echo of Soviet discussions of these times about transactional if not altogether industrialized love still reaches us. The initial intercourse scene, no matter how shocking to New York public of 1935, sounds primarily comical today and reminds of episodes of Woody Allen’s “All you wanted to know about sex,” where it depicts a battle scene with many characters ― albeit acted out on the cellular level. Still, the contrast between Katerina who is burning with love and her manipulative and fleeting partner feels palpable. You can sense a burning concern that a loving, liberated woman falls into wrong hands. Shostakovich both admitted that Sergei depicts one of his friends and claimed that the character is more than just a caricature depiction of a shameless cad. But both the libretto and the music betray the composer’s disgust for the new generation’s threatening womanizers.
This daunting sum of sadness, longings, and fears added up to an emotional rollercoaster masterfully led by Andris Nelsons. The production came as a crowning achievement of the BSO DSCH project. Having honed the rhetorical methods on the Symphonies, this team delivered a musical experience of a seismic force. The powerful buildup that we heard in the Seventh Symphony worked anew in the Passacaglia and in the finale. The sharp sarcasm of the first piano concerto played its tricks in several episodes. After having been trained on works that employed utter drivel for poetic texts ― yes, I am looking at you, Symphony No. 3 ― last night’s audience could instead experience something shattering. This time, the same musical language, the same masterly and confident delivery served an emotional plot with fully embodied characters and left an indelible and profound impression.
Victor Khatutsky has written for the Intelligencer since 2014. He also interests himself in genomics and the poetry of Boris Pasternak.