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The Harrowing Beauty of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Chaos instead of Music - PravdaLast 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.

SchostakowitschThe 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.

ShostakovichRobert 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.

available at Amazon
D.Shostakovich, Lady Macbeth,
M.Jansons / RCO / E.Westbroek et al.
Dir. Martin Kušej
Opus Arte Bluray

available at Amazon
D.Shostakovich, Lady Macbeth,
M.Rostropovich, G.Vishnevskaya...

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.

Shostakovich makes great demands on the singers and on no one more than the title role. Taken by Larisa Gogolevskaya on Sunday, this is a role in which you can either only fail, since it is nearly impossible to meet every requirement (dynamic range, the extreme range of register, beauty of tone throughout, vocal acting)… or only win, because no one could possibly expect more than a maximum of effort and dedication. Mme. Gogolevskaya could not be faulted for lack of the latter. Occasional difficulties were largely minor and she dug into her part with all her heart and soul. Hers is not the finest or most elegant of voices, but then Katerina Izmailova is not an elegant or ‘fine’ woman. She is a rather earthy, practical woman; illiterate but savvy and not shy of committing the occasional murder to further her freedom.

Other Reviews:

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)
Boris Timofeyevich is her father-in-law, sung by bass Alexei Tanovitski. It is the most rewarding male part and was sung with beauty of tone (almost too young and beautiful a voice for the part). The immediate impression of great strength in his voice was ameliorated as he more and more struggled to make himself audible over the (admittedly thickly) orchestrated parts. Tenor Viktor Lutsiuk as Sergey visibly reveled in his part as that indefinably anti-heroic character (the only fitting description for this two-timing, double-crossing, misogynist, cunning, possibly loving – more likely exploiting element is: “scumbag”). A terrific actor of small gestures, he provided all the necessary drama to make one forget that this was not in fact a staged performance. His singing, too, was very fine: Experienced and economic, open and vigorous. Evgeny Akimov, in the relatively small role of Katerina’s indecisive, ineffectual husband Zinovy Borisovich Ismailov, made his strangulation a truly mourned event. His tenor sounded like the fullest of baritones, his voice rang above the orchestra with clarity and astounding ease. His was a Heldentenor-like performance – and sure enough he has recently started tackling Wagner’s big guys. There is much to look forward to, from him, for Wagnerians worldwide. Liubov Sokolova sang Sonyetka with a smooth yet whisky-smoky mezzo that caressed the ears and gave a vocal dimension to her believable seduction of Sergey. The rest of the cast – most notable among them Vadim Kravets, Gennady Bezzubenkov, and Yury Vorobyev – was fine if often at pains trying to sing over the orchestra. But amidst such music, there was nothing that could deter from an evening that was nothing short of spectacular.

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