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The Opera Stalin Hated

The Met’s notes describe it as “towering tragedy,” but Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is equally a grotesque vaudeville.
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Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

A scene from the Metropolitan Opera production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, 2014

No performance of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk can ever 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 current 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 of the work’s “fidgety, screaming, neurotic music” in Pravda announced a new and harsher clampdown on art and artists. Lady Macbeth, which had been a popular success on its Leningrad opening in 1934, and had even been exported for some American performances, was promptly yanked from view. 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 marked a deliberate attempt to conform to Stalin’s emerging anti-kulak campaign, and thus might be seen 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 can never 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. It is the darkest and dourest piece of Russian realism imaginable, a tale that 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, bullied by his father, oppressed by a mode of life that gives her nothing to do:

Katerina walked about the empty rooms, yawned out of sheer boredom… She would take a nap for an hour or two, and when she woke, there was again the same Russian boredom, the boredom of a merchant’s house, the sort of boredom that, people say, would make one glad even to hang oneself.

Without overture Shostakovich opens directly on the complaining Katerina Ismailova, alone in her room. The music renders with precision the sound of being on edge—“fidgety,” as Pravda put it. Katerina’s moan of discontent is followed immediately by the entrance of her father-in-law, a character of rare unpleasantness even in the annals of opera, a hateful grumbler compounded of rapacity, sanctimony, and sadism. By the time he exits, Katerina is already singing about the rat poison with which she will eventually kill him. The boredom initially invoked has gone rancid, turned into a toxic mix of resentment and general malice. Not for Katerina alone: the next scene opens on a prolonged episode of sexual harassment bordering on gang rape, as a female worker, Aksinya, is taunted and abused by a crowd of laborers. When Katerina intervenes, she is brought face to face with the newly hired Sergei, and the two make rapid contact by means of an impromptu wrestling match. Illicit sex is the only possible counterforce to the squalid, narrow, punitive world of the Ismailov household. When it comes it is with the full force of a wailing and thrusting horn section, followed by the deflation described comically by sliding trombone. It is only the end of the first act and everything is already well beyond salvaging.

The Met’s notes describe it as “towering tragedy,” but Lady Macbeth is equally a grotesque vaudeville, and Graham Vick’s intensely inventive production (which premiered in 1994 and is now revived for the first time in fourteen years) pays due attention to the grotesque component. It is hard to imagine any production faithfully set in the period of Leskov’s tale fully accommodating the opera’s sudden shifts from naturalistic observation to comic caricature. It refuses to stay put. The orchestra sustains a music of nerves and pressure and impatience, a constant sharp-edged scampering, lashing out in isolated figures for clarinet or bassoon, roaring into a mood of fraudulent celebration in the third act, coming down with a heavy metallic rash in the fourth. If the characters are in the nineteenth century, Shostakovich is in the early 1930s, soaking up an ambience of dread and uncertainty and unmoored desire. His Katerina might be a distant cousin of James M. Cain’s Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), another narrative consumed with the itch of ennui boiling over into passing lust and casual killing, written at about the same moment.

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Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Eva-Maria Westbroek as Katerina in Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, 2014

To say that Katerina dominates the opera is a gross understatement. Her inner life may be constrained and impoverished and desperate, but it is the only inner life of which we are given a glimpse. The rest are clowns or monsters, or at best bystanders. At the Met, the entire cast mustered a convincing slashing effect, but Eva-Maria Westbroek embodied Katerina with a force that dominated the performance from that first complaint to her final descent into the gloomy landscape that signals her approaching death—“In the wood, right in a grove, there is a lake, / almost round and very deep / and the water in it is black.” It is an extraordinary role in that there is nothing else to keep the opera from spinning off into a hundred different glittering pieces. All it has of point or motivation is the simmering frustration to which she gives vent as she lies in bed—“No one will stroke my white breast, / no one will tire me out with his passionate embraces. / The days go by in a joyless procession, / my life will flash past without a smile”—just before the virile and heartless Sergei shows up on cue at the end of the first act.

Westbroek brings tremendous heart to the part even if her costume, a yellow print dress, is designed to make her the comic epitome of the frumpy sexpot stuck somewhere way out in the provinces. We would seem, at the outset, to be somewhere in the Soviet 1950s or 1960s, and the high status of the Ismailov family is denoted by the presence of furniture and consumer goods of the most debased and worn-out quality, a tatty sofa, a boxy TV, a refrigerator. There is even a car, parked on stage to establish immediately the free-form nature of the staging. The walls of Katerina’s room are painted with clouds, and are constructed with built-in doors that pop open from time to time to reveal hordes of unwanted intruders or witnesses. It is a busy production that gets busier as it goes along.

The musical interludes between scenes here become occasions for strenuous ballets involving, in turn, mobs of sexually aggressive workmen, women making symbolic love with vacuum cleaners, and bearded blood-spattered brides. The spaces of the drama expand to make room for earth-moving equipment, a giant moon, a heap of garbage bags, iconic figurines launched into space. In the third act, as the chronological reference points seem to edge from one era into another, a giant Pop Art fist (out of Roy Lichtenstein or the TV Batman) stretches across the stage, and a disco ball sheds blinding gleams. The car goes through many phases; it is crushed by a giant medallion, stuffed with a corpse, and at last lifted vertiginously from the stage by crane. It is an indication of the power of the music that all this visual clutter and hyperactivity merely underscores and never swamps Shostakovich’s continually unsettled sonic landscape. No bright colors or awesome deployment of high-tech stage devices can make the opera any less harsh than it is. It is harsh even when it means to be funny.

There are effects—scattered red petals, a fountain spring up mid-stage—that in another setting might encourage an atmosphere of magic. But this is a resolutely unmagical opera. Everything about it is overt; no mysteries, no mystification. Between the collectivism of brutalized workers and the collectivism of beaten-down prisoners, Socialist uplift is in short supply. Policemen are operetta buffoons; the priest is a drunken lecher; the workers are devoid of solidarity or compassion. It is impressive to think how determined Shostakovich was to have his audience see everything. No offstage nuances here, everything happens in front of your eyes, every shade of gratification and pain is sung: the workers harassing the hapless Aksinya, the adulterous couple having sex, Boris dying from rat poison, Katerina’s husband being strangled, and in the end two women drowning, as Katerina throws herself in the river, dragging the faithless Sergei’s new girlfriend along with her. (The turbulent waters envisioned in the libretto are here transformed into a cess pit in the middle of the stage, into which prisoners have been emptying buckets for the whole of the fourth act.)

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The Siberian depths into which the opera finally subsides—after Katerina and Sergei have been found out and sent into exile—bring out a note that hasn’t been sounded, through the voice of an old prisoner (the part was beautifully sung by Dmitry Belosselskiy): “Road, where the chains have been dragging, / where the bones of the dead are still lying.” From under the modernist grotesque something older emerges, in tune with Leskov’s description of “a handful of people torn from the world of men and deprived of every shadow of hope, their feet sinking into the cold black mud of the highroad.” It is not exactly transcendence, but it is some kind of escape. Vick ends with an image of the line of convicts marching on only half-perceived behind the stage, while in overhead riggings armed guards look down.


The Metropolitan Opera’s production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is being performed through November 29.

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