Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
Tamburlaine the Great, Parts I and II
Two especially exciting productions of works rarely performed here—Dmitri Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Christopher Marlowe’s two-part drama Tamburlaine the Great—converged recently in New York. Jubilantly expansive as each was in its expressive means, each in its way posed questions about how the horrors of history are somehow transmuted into the exuberance of art. Each also obliquely instilled an eerie consciousness of these works as messages displaced in time, sending out signals originally aimed at spectators in Russia in 1934 or London in 1587 that we intercept and read by our own lights, as if they were delayed warnings or cries for help.
No performance of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk can escape the circumstances of the opera’s suppression in 1936. The story has been told many times—it is told three times in the program of the Metropolitan Opera’s recent production—of how Stalin went to see the opera at the Bolshoi and stalked out ill pleased, and of how two days later a denunciation in Pravda of the work’s “fidgety, screaming, neurotic music” announced a new and harsher clampdown on art and artists. Shostakovich rightly read between the lines that not only his career but his person might be in danger; he survived the years of the terror, and after Stalin’s death issued a revised and retitled Lady Macbeth, but never wrote another opera.
That event continues to weigh on the work, as if Stalin’s ghost were perched somewhere in the balcony, still registering displeasure at each of those “quacks, hoots, pants, and gasps.” The opera becomes a victim of oppression, a cry of freedom by default. Yet as far as I know there is no evidence that Shostakovich consciously intended such a reaction. Alex Ross has even suggested that Lady Macbeth, with its ugly portrayal of the wealthy peasant class, marked a deliberate attempt to conform to Stalin’s emerging anti-kulak campaign, and thus might be seen, Ross wrote, as “nearly an opera in the service of genocide.”
Or, more likely, Shostakovich was adhering to his own path, somehow unaware that this was no longer possible. Where that path was leading we cannot know, since he was prevented from going there. Even if he had written other operas, it is unlikely that they would have contained such screams of rage, such howls of derision, such flagrant invocations of the power of sex to assert itself violently and destructively. It is not hard to understand why Stalin hated the opera.
Shostakovich’s source was a novella by Nikolai Leskov, published in 1865. The darkest and dourest piece of Russian realism imaginable, it begins in boredom, progresses through lust and murder, and ends in exile and suicide. A young woman is locked in a loveless and childless marriage to a prosperous merchant,…
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