Last Sunday, the Kirov presented Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk under the baton of Valery Gergiev: A single concert performance as their parting gift, concluding their annual residency at the Kennedy Center. Shostakovich’s more-or-less only opera from 1930/32 is a work of a very particular attraction. From the first moment, the listener is shocked by a deliberately dissonant, confused stream of sound. Fragments of melody appear only to disappear in confused screaming.
Maybe so. History judges the review from which these last two sentences are lifted (inspired, if not written by Josef Stalin) as harshly as perhaps only Hanslick’s verdict about Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto (“Music that stinks to the ear”). True, the review included harsher language, accused Lady Macbeth of being a “crude, primitive and vulgar” composition. If the above is actually not so far off the mark, the latter judgment is woefully inept. Still, the arrogance of the critic who can call Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk an “impossibly beautiful” opera (without any qualification or explanation) probably exceeds the narrow mindedness of the (ideological) derision the work received at the hands of the party-hack who got to work on that Pravda review in January of 1936.
The truth is that Shostakovich’s masterpiece is not much less difficult to find beautiful than Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto or Prokofiev’s Third Symphony or Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. All these works, to me and many dedicated classical music lovers, are of course considered “impossibly beautiful”, but this is a distinct minority (or more honestly still: elite) opinion. No one likes to call him or herself part of the “elite” – certainly not in this country. And surely not when it comes to classical music, which the elite thinks already suffers from an elitist image. It is precisely that irony that makes me spend time on the issue of calling Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk an “impossibly beautiful opera”: Because it displays the attitude of utter elitism without having the guts to admit it.
One look around the woefully empty Concert Hall would have sufficed in making that point. Many of those in attendance had regretfully wondered why it was the most interesting of the three Kirov presentations (Rossini’s Il Viaggio a Reims and Verdi’s Falstaff had been shown in staged performances) was relegated to a ‘mere’ concert performance. Because the wider public has an astounding, regrettably pronounced ability to resist such ‘impossibly beautiful music’. That's why.
This is a shame, because Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk actually is an astounding opera, a masterpiece as Shostakovich probably never wrote again. An early pinnacle after which few uncontroversially great works followed. I still think that “beautiful” is the wrong word for this work for most people, but this opera is many things: rousing, arousing, marching, dancing, tender, loving, abrasive, ironic, sardonic, terrifying, ripping, smashing. And, yes, occasionally plain beautiful. You will find touches of Berg, touches of Mahler, touches of Schoenberg in this work; others will hear Richard Strauss or even the lightness of the ‘lesser’ Strauss’ waltzes. After the official criticism DSCH never composed quite in the same style. Lamentable, because in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk he created a greater variety of tone, a greater sophistication, warmth, and compositional carefreeness than in any of his subsequent orchestral works.
Robert R. Reilly reviewed this opera at Covent Garden for Ionarts and was impressed. As I, he wondered how it would work in concert performance. Should anyone have had a doubt: It works marvelously! The operatic/cinematic musical language (second only to Bartók’s Bluebeard), almost graphic in its descriptions, is only enhanced by the concert-performance. As with the NSO’s Salome in late January, the orchestral details were more audible by hearing the orchestra from above the pit. A slew of new impressions, allusions, and subtleties suddenly indulged the ears. More than could possibly be all absorbed in one sitting. The impeccably human humor, the superb arch of the story (the libretto was written by Alexander Preis together with Shostakovich, based on a short story by Nikolai Leskov), the breathless storytelling within this opera all contributed to its success on the concert stage and made its three hours fly by.
The story of the protagonist Katerina Izmailova’s captivity in an unhappy marriage, her liberation by the dubious Sergey, her consequent humiliation and death (there is no more humiliating scene written in all of opera than when Sergey – during their shackled march toward a Siberian prison – has Katerina render her wool stockings to him under false pretenses only so that he may buy himself sexual favors with his new flame, Sonyetka) offers compelling theater dotted with the most improbable humor in its earthy, honest humanity… its witty orchestral effects. It offers the deepest irony, true anguish and false anguish. True love and false promises. It contains a universe of unmatched human emotion – leading directly to its tragic end. At its heart it has that one element that makes any work of art great in the first place: Truth. An ugly truth, at times, but represented so well and with so much skill that the intimidating exterior should not scare away novice ears from making this opera theirs, through multiple, open minded exposure.
D. Shostakovich, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Rostropovich, Vishnevskaya et al.
Daniel Ginsberg, Kirov's Power Unleashed In Shostakovich Work (Washington Post, February 6)
Charles T. Downey, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Kirov Opera (DCist, February 6)
T. L. Ponick, 'Macbeth' Russian style (Washington Times, February 6)