By James Conlon


On the occasion of the opening of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Dimitri Shostakovich’s opera, I have revisited an article that I wrote for Opera News in 1994 at the time I conducted the opera in its first presentation at the Met. I have expanded and re-written a great deal of it, while preserving its core. For the passages that I have retained, I acknowledge Opera News’ kind permission to reprint.


“I would say that Lady Macbeth could be called a tragi-satirical opera. Despite the fact that (Katerina) murders her husband and father-in-law, I sympathize with her nonetheless. I have tried to impart to her whole way of life and surroundings, a gloomy satiric character.” [Dimitri Shostakovich]


“There is no situation, however loathsome, to which a human being cannot grow accustomed, and in each and every one of them he retains, so far as possible, his ability to pursue his meager joys; but Katerina Lvovna needed to make no adjustments: she could see her Sergei again, and in his presence even the road of penal servitude would blossom with happiness.” [Nikolai Leskov, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District]


“To make a tragedy the artist must isolate a single element out of the totality of human experience and use that exclusively as his material. Tragedy is something that is separated out from the Whole Truth, distilled from it … chemically pure…It is because of its chemical purity that tragedy so effectively performs its function of catharsis…
… [I]n recent times literature has become more and more acutely conscious of the Whole Truth — of the great ocean of irrelevant things, events and thoughts stretching away endlessly in every direction.” [Aldous Huxley, Music at Night]

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District is, in my opinion, the most important Russian opera of the twentieth century, a masterpiece of tragedy and satire. Dimitri Shostakovich’s achievement is staggering. In depicting the environment of stifling boredom and dreary monotony that drives a vital young woman of 19th-century Russia to first commit adultery and then murder, he produced a work that served as a metaphor for the hypocrisy and brutality of his contemporary Soviet society. The opera represents a quantum leap in the growth of Russia’s greatest 20th-century composer, comparable to the jump that Nabucco and The Flying Dutchman represented for Verdi and Wagner.  In one great gesture he created a musical and theatrical vocabulary of his own, using the orchestra with novel mastery and virtuosity. His genius for satire and social commentary, previously evidenced in The Nose, is now assimilated into a massive theatrical entity connecting a personal domestic drama to a portrait of its time. With newly found depth and breadth, this violent tale of passion touches and brings to life a multi-layered and complex society through novel means. On the same scale as Modest Mussorgsky’s two great historical dramas, Shostakovich evokes “the great ocean of irrelevant things” and the “Whole Truth” to which Huxley refers.


Drawing the substance from a short story by Nikolai Leskov (1831­-95), the composer saw in it “a most truthful and tragic portrait of a talented, clever and exceptional woman perishing in the nightmarish conditions of prerevolutionary Russia.” The result: a domestic drama in a specifically nineteenth-century czarist environment, tacitly suggesting Soviet Society circa 1930 metaphorically rendered universal. No other opera score has so successfully fused “bourgeois drama,” social commentary, satire, high passion, and its own brand of tragedy.


Shostakovich wrote: “In the opera I have arias, duets, trios, large choruses. Recitative–in its old tradition guise–is almost totally absent. My orchestra does not accompany but plays a leading role together with the singers.” Customary operatic formulas abound: passion, jealousy and murder, airs of longing, monologues and love duets, a ghostly apparition, an interrupted wedding feast, drunken songs and choruses of lamentation. All of this, and more, is used, and misused in an original and innovative manner.


Few successful modern operas have subsequently fallen victim to the crushing political force that met Lady Macbeth. Premiered in 1934 and banned in 1936, it remained unperformed in the Soviet Union for the rest of the regime’s existence. It was allowed to re-emerge in the 1960s in a tamed, somewhat bowdlerized form and re-titled Katerina Ismailova.


Historically, censorship historically limited the scope of political subjects in opera during most of the form’s existence. Personal dramas thrived, as they were just that: personal and largely apolitical. But in Russia of the 1930s, the personal was politically incorrect. Given the repressive climate and the regime’s opposition to what it considered self-indulgent individualism in art, writing Lady Macbeth was an act of outrageous bravery. Its depiction of boredom and loneliness, love and lust, cruelty and fear would rub up against the regime’s expectation of Socialist Realism, where none of this had a place. Shostakovich’s biting portrayal of the police and explicit eroticism could not be left unchecked. He was to pay the price the rest of his life, and 20th-century world of opera would be deprived of a giant.


The tantalizing question: what would he have produced if only…? Had Verdi and Wagner ceased to write at a comparable age, their final completed works would have been Oberto and Das Liebesverbot. What would Shostakovich’s Falstaff or Parsifal have been? His enforced banishment from the theater was to transmute his dramatic genius into absolute music, generating, amongst other genres,  the fifteen symphonies and string quartets where he could “say” what he wanted with total deniability.


In one view the title character, Katerina, is first an adulteress and then a criminal. If she is so, the composer’s music suggests, it is because she is brutalized and humiliated by her environment. The opposing view would see her as heroic, brave and daring: a woman sunken beneath a patriarchy, rebelling and claiming for herself (and by extension for other women) the right to happiness. Married young to a rich landowner, subjected to constant abuse from her father-in-law, she is desolate in a loveless marriage and surrounded by a cruel, uncaring, petty and provincial world. She murders twice and incites to murder. She marries her accomplice, leading to his and her condemnation. She yearns, desires and loves with a passion that disdains all boundaries and defies all obstacles. It is clearly Shostakovich’s intention that she win and retain our sympathy, even our admiration.  She murders to attain the love she craves and, in so doing, provokes sympathy and antipathy, compassion and condemnation.


Lady Macbeth is not a tragedy in the classical sense. The characters are not highborn, morally enlightened or meant to fulfill great destinies. The opera’s universality lies more in its resonance with the mythical/Biblical stories concerning the futility of the pursuit of power, and with humanity’s shared experience of suffering. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a tragedy because the moral potential of a man born to lead is corrupted. No one in Lady Macbeth is “great,” so there is no fall from heroic heights. The power Katerina hopes to attain is not that of a kingdom, but rather control over her own life.


Katerina’s greater dimension lies in her embodiment of the yearning and quest for love, a force to which Shostakovich connects the listener with his deep, empathic music. She demeans herself with her crimes, but is motivated solely to attain and then maintain her Tristanesque love for Sergei, a recently arrived farm worker.


She implores him to “kiss me so it hurts my lips … and the icons fall from their shelves.” Katerina’s milieu does not provide her with any possibility to sublimate her drives. This is Shostakovich’s main social critique. She openly defies society, one from which she was already inwardly alienated. Though she incites in the listener both compassion and repugnance, she never sells her soul. In the operatic pantheon, she is situated somewhere between Isolde and Salome.


We can almost condone Katerina’s first murder. Slaying her cruel stepfather, Boris Timofeyevich, is an act of vengeance. He has brutally whipped Sergei and promises to continue the next day. She is a creature of instinct and has a primitive sense of justice. We sympathize with Tosca, who does the same. Sergei is neither noble nor heroic. His talent is seduction, his target, his employers’ wives, and his ambition, social advancement. He is intrinsically amoral.  Katerina sacrifices her “kingdom” and life for this illusory, elusive partner. But Leskov’s title already tells us that the story is neither his nor the couple’s, but Katerina’s.


Shostakovich goes further by showing that if there is nobility of spirit to be found anywhere in this shabby society, it is only in the woman and in her capacity to shower love on unworthy objects. She typifies the Russian woman’s boundless soul, the immense capacity for caring, passionate, spiritual and sensual love. Katerina is not a murderess by nature. The composer finds Dostoevsky’s  “failed saint” at the heart of the criminal. Katerina exhibits inexhaustible devotion and forgiveness as does Marfa in Moussorsky’s Khovanschina. Both women commit suicide. Marfa goes in determined harmony with her community, convictions and conscience, while Katerina, in a final act of vengeance and humiliation, murders her last rival while taking her own life. The spiritual gulf that separates Katerina from Marfa is a reflection of their diverse environments but not of their innate qualities. Both, in their Russian way, are counterparts to Wagner’s self-sacrificing heroines.


That the composer wanted to strengthen our sympathy for Katerina is evidenced by his decision to excise the short story’s third murder: of an innocent young nephew. Just as Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes (an opera clearly influenced by Lady Macbeth) is rendered less unsympathetic by the elimination of another murdered apprentice, Shostakovich’s Katerina is spared an action, which would decisively alienate the audience.


Nothing escapes Shostakovich’s icy gaze. Before the listener might become swayed by pathos or melodrama, the satiric ax falls. He allows neither a Wagnerian catharsis of redemption, nor the despairing eroticism of Puccini. He shunned the moist-eyed self-indulgence of the late nineteenth century. The use of parody and satire, trademarks in all Shostakovich’s orchestral works, is as intrinsic as Mahler’s interwoven “vulgarity” is in his symphonies. The composer distances himself by ironically quoting or alluding to Rossini, Mahler  Smetana, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss.


Shostakovich’s view of the all the other characters in Lady Macbeth is harsh. Katerina is from innocent, but almost seems so by comparison. The character of the Shabby Peasant (also known as “A Seedy Lout”), a debauched successor to Mussorgsky’s Simpleton, exemplifies the atmosphere of decadence. The holy fool, or yurodivy, a permanent presence in Russian culture, is a mystical clairvoyant. He is able to hear and see what others cannot, and to communicate these visions in an enigmatic language. At times, both Mussorgsky and Shostakovich perceived themselves as yurodivy. The Shabby Peasant, an Unholy Fool wandering in and out of backyards, bedrooms and wine cellars seemingly at will, personifies two national vices: that of the alcoholic and the informer. As reported by the Russian prima donna assoluta Galina Vishnevskaya, the great circus interlude that follows the Peasant’s discovery of the husband’s corpse is, in the composer’s words, “a hymn to the dynamo of Soviet Society: the informer.”  Fed by, and dependent on, such information, the police state is corrupt, tyrannical and Philistine. The scene in the police station (which doesn’t appear in Leskov’s story) acidly ridicules the entire political/military apparatus. Shostakovich’s  music, at times graphically and explicitly sexual, titillated and shocked.  The famous pornophonic trombone glissando (which was rumored to have offended Stalin) is explicit in its upward thrust and its detumescence. Shostakovich pays the weak husband, Zinovy, the ultimate insult of making him a secondary tenor and assigning the alto flute, with its placid and flaccid timbre, to introduce and to follow him around. When he reappears to surprise the lovers in his bed, his ranting is driven by a Rossini-like fanfare, attached to a distorted polka and galop.  The driving two-note motif for the workers’ molestation of Aksinya, the cook, is closely related to the violence of the lovers’ first erotic encounter.


The revered Mussorgsky is quoted at several important junctures . Shedding crocodile tears for her father-in-law whom she has just murdered, Katerina virtually screams a citation from the prelude to Boris Godunov, easily recognizable as a parallel of forced and false lamentation. Leskov’s reflection on a quotation from the Book of Job, “Curse the day that thou wast born, and die,” seems to articulate the essence of Shostakovich’s musical vocabulary; “Those who do not wish to pay heed to these words, those to whom the thought of death, even in this sorry situation, appears not a blessed release but a cause for fear, must try to drown out these wailing voices with something even uglier than they. The ordinary man understands this perfectly: at such times he gives free rein to all his brutish ordinariness and proceeds to act stupidly, jeering at his own feelings and at those of other people. Not particularly soft-hearted even at the best of times, he now becomes positively nasty.” (Leskov)


Hurling itself at the listener, Shostakovich’s orchestra screams and whispers, storms and laughs, excites and stupefies, bites and caresses. It shifts from expressivity to editorializing, from tone painting to parody…. Its angry violence, akin to the early iconoclasm of Stravinsky and Bartók, overwhelms and pummels the stage into submission only to, in turn, evoke pathos, loneliness, yearning, and despair. Whereas Wagner’s orchestra has been likened to the inarticulate voice of the subconscious, Peter Conrad writes that Shostakovich’s “orchestra pit is the cellar where the stinking body… has been discarded.”


The Old Convict on the way to Siberia is the only other sympathetic character. He is the spokesperson for all of suffering humanity. In the final moments, the chorus of convicts (guilty and innocent alike) echoes the cry of the Simpleton (yurodivy), with his two-note motive clearly implanted in the cello and contrabass section as it is at the end of Boris Godunov. The parallel is unmistakable and could not have been overlooked by the public in Moscow and St. Petersburg at the premieres. It is an outpouring of compassion for the lost people of Russia — and by extension, for the world. It is here that the work becomes universal. We are all prisoners. Katerina, through her suicide, has escaped by the only means possible. The rest of us will live out our days in our terrestrial labor camp. Shostakovich, assuming the Mussorgskian mantle on his shoulders, took on a role that would become his disguise in the decades to come. Though forced to curb his youthful candor, he nevertheless continued to speak through his music by adopting the paradoxical character of the yurodivy.  He was to become accustomed to his situation and, as in Leskov’s words, “retained his meager joys.” Through Lady Macbeth, he reveals Huxley’s “Whole Truth,” stretching “endlessly in every direction.”


Even before Stalin’s reprimand, he delivered himself of an enigmatic, paradoxical work that speaks as if in tongues, in a language that simultaneously reveals and obfuscates, confesses and denies, equivocates and speaks truths, accuses and forgives.

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