Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Grotesque Soviet Opera

Last night I chose to listen to a CD recording of Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk produced in 1990. A couple of hours later I heard that Galina Vishnevskaya had died. What a sad loss. Hearing the opera again led me to reconsider her life, and the strange opera in which she sings the leading soprano role. The opera, like her life, was a stormy affair.

Stalin famously walked out of a performance of  Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, leading to a denunciation of the opera in the infamous Pravda article "Chaos instead of music" in 1936

For more than twenty years Shostakovich's opera remained in limbo as a shameful, hideous example of what Pravda's editorial called "din, gnash and screech", "cacophony" and "musical noise"

A 1935 review in the New York Sun called it "pornophony", referring to the lurid descriptive music in the sex scenes. Stravinsky described the opera as "lamentably provincial", considering the musical portrayal primitively realistic.

The EMI Libretto booklet notes that "The police force in Lady Macbeth is at once frightening and amusing. At the same time, Shostakovich by the very unfolding of the conflict emphasizes that the existence of such a grotesque and horrifying mechanism is possible only in a society that is built on violence, from top to bottom." p. 10.

Daniil Zhitomirsky accused the work of "primitive satire" in its treatment of the priest and police, but acknowledges the "incredible force" of the last scene. [Wikipedia]

The opera still has the power to shock. Reviewing a performance of the Opera at Staatstheater Wiesbaden on May 16, 2005 the critic summarised the plot as follows:

"In the first five scenes, they had witnessed the brutal rape of a maid, had seen Katerina sexually fantasizing (masturbating) in her bed, and then having sex with Sergei. They were forced to watch Katerina's sadistic father-in-law Boris whip Sergei to within inches of his life and then see Boris himself die, writhing in agony after eating rat poison. And finally, before the curtain came down for the interval, they gaped in horror as Katerina and her lover strangled her husband Zinovy to death."

Notes from the Daily Telegraph obituary:

Her star began to wane in 1969 when Rostropovich offered his friend, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, sanctuary in his dacha outside Moscow after discovering that the dissident writer was living in a shack without heat or running water. Rostropovich came under official pressure to evict him, but the musician not only refused, he wrote an open letter to the press in which he proclaimed that “Each human being must have the right to think for himself and to express his opinion without fear.

Almost immediately, Rostropovich’s name disappeared from the billboards owing, according to the official line, to his “decline as a musician”. Galina Vishnevskaya, who had urged caution on her husband, was initially allowed to continue performing. But she found that she had become a non-person; when she sang the lead in Prokofiev’s The Gambler, her name was not even mentioned in the reviews.


Further Reading

Wilson, Elizabeth (1994). Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. Princeton University Press

Frolova-Walker, Marina (2005). "11. Russian opera; The retrieval of the human element: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and The Fiery Angel". In Mervyn Cooke. The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Opera. London: Cambridge University Press. pp. 182–186

Taruskin, Richard (1989). "The Opera and the Dictator: the peculiar martyrdom of Dmitri Shostakovich." The New Republic, March 20, 1989, pp. 34-40 

Emerson, Caryl. "Back to the future: Shostakovich’s revision of Leskov’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District”." Cambridge Opera Journal 1.1 (1989): 60-62.
Makanowitzky, Barbara. "Music to Serve the State." Russian Review 24.3 (1965): 266-277.
Chapple, Freda. "Adaptation as Education: A Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District." Journal of Adaptation in Film & Performance 1.1 (2007): 17-31.
White, Richard HR. "Shostakovich versus the Central Committee: the power of music." Clinical Medicine, Journal of the Royal College of Physicians 8.4 (2008): 405-409.
Frolova-Walker, Marina. "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: Bleak Tragedy or Black Comedy?." The Opera Quarterly 25.1-2 (2009): 150-156.
Clark, Katerina. "Culture and Soviet Power." Theater 33.1 (2003): 96-98.


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