Opus 29: Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1930-1932), Act 1

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, op. 29 (1930-1932), Act 1
CD:  “Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, Galina Vishnevskaya, Nicolai Gedda, Dimiter Petkov; Ambrosian Opera Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Mstislav Rostropovich (EMI 7 49955 2; more recently reissued)

For the second of Shostakovich’s two completed operas, I’ve backed away from my stated preference for video productions and listened on CD.  In Lady Macbeth‘s case I’ve done so because this 1978 recording is the definitive account of the work and an essential Shostakovich album.  Galina Vishnevskaya portrays the titular murderess, Katerina Ismailova, with ferocious intensity; Nicolai Gedda is heroically caddish as her lover Sergey.  And the London Philharmonic under Mstislav Rostropovich provides an absolutely blistering orchestral accompaniment.

It’s one thing to listen to the first time to this or that unfamiliar, generally minor Shostakovich work, and it’s entirely another thing to dig into a longtime favorite like these discs.  I can still remember buying the album from a Barnes & Noble when I was seventeen and listening to some of its loud parts in the car on the way home — I was by then a committed fan of a handful of the composer’s more conventional symphonies (1, 5, 9, 10, 13, and 15, probably) and the first violin concerto, but the opera’s brashness and raw, fierce energy surpassed anything of his that I’d heard before.  It was thrilling and eye-opening (or I suppose ear-opening) to listen through it when it was new to me.

It’s still bracing music thirteen years later, and a genuine operatic masterpiece.  The story follows Katerina, the bored wife of a 19th-century merchant, who takes up with Sergey, a young laborer on her estate; she murders her tyrannical father-in-law and husband, marries Sergey, and, after the pair are arrested, meets a tragic end on their way to a Siberian prison camp.  The book, by Nose co-librettist Alexander Preis and Shostakovich, derives from an 1865 novella by Nikolai Leskov but modifies the story to make it more sympathetic to Katerina (most significantly by excluding her murder of a young nephew who stood to inherit her husband’s estate) and more focused on her sexual drive (her desire to have a child, pronounced in Leskov’s original, is reduced to the setup for an offhand, off-color joke from Sergey about just where children come from).  Most substantially, Preis and Shostakovich bring to Leskov’s tragedy the carnivalesque satire of The Nose and The Golden Age.  The result verges on nihilism, but it also stakes Shostakovich’s scathing early style down to a conventional dramatic arc for the first time.  The mix of musical edginess with traditional storytelling is explosively successful, as the opera’s early success in the USSR attests.

Act 1, beyond laying out the necessary exposition, spends most of its time presenting different forms of sexual violence, and the emotional violence of sexuality.  In the first scene, Katerina declares her boredom and squabbles with her father-in-law, Boris — he gets the by-now-familiar satirical treatment (heavy on the bassoon) but also flexes his control over the household:  He accuses Katerina of rejecting the advances of his son, Zinovy; threatens that he is always watching her; and, when Zinovy is called away to a burst dam, forces her to her knees to swear her faithfulness.

The score at its most energetic resembles those of The Nose, The Golden Age, and New Babylon, in its big colors and jagged fragments of dance and march tunes.  In its lower, more ominous moods, it’s closest in character to the Six Romances on Texts by Japanese Poets, op. 21, with its similarly shifty noctural landscape.  Shostakovich frequently sets the two extremes against each other for effect, most notably in the transition into Scene 2:  A short, dark orchestral interlude covers the scene change, and its unsettled murmuring gives way in an instant to the frantic opening action of the second scene, as Sergey and a gang of male workers harass the female cook, Aksinya.  It’s analogous to a cinematic smash cut, and I imagine Shostakovich wrote it with film in mind — in fact I think the moment tends to play awkwardly onstage.  In audio alone, it’s an effective jump:

There’s a prurient edge to the scene, and to how much time Aksinya spends stuck in a barrel while Sergey pinches her and tears at her clothes (or undergoes whatever the director chooses to stage).  Despite that, Shostakovich highlights the real fear and aggression of the moment.  The irony of his galloping, minor-key circus music for the scene has a distancing effect — in an odd way, it functions for me like the chilliness of Stanley Kubrick’s compositions in A Clockwork Orange — but the scene’s sympathies are with Aksinya, against the ugly madness of the crowd.  You can hear some of the men’s laughter, an unnervingly stony repetition of “ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha”, at the end of the clip above; similarly, the animosity of what Sergey will claim as just a bit of teasing bleeds through the chorus’ delivery of the lines, “He’ll make us die of laughing, die of laughing.  We’ll split our sides with laughing, split our sides!”:

I mentioned a similar harassment scene in The Nose, which plays very much the same way, although as I mentioned the darkness of the material there takes that opera off of its more amiable track, to poor effect; in Lady Macbeth it’s tonally consistent and a harrowingly effective scene.  I saw a 2003 production by the Baltimore Opera Company (unfortunately now defunct) in which it was played essentially as a gang rape, which I found misguided, as such a take is out of line with the plot points that follow it, as well as too explicit —  Too explicit in the sense that the violence of the scene, while fully expressed in the music, works best when it’s half-submerged within the onstage action.

Katerina subsequently breaks it up and delivers an earnest (and, in the USSR of the time, ideologically correct) speech on the strength and dignity of women that slides subtly into an oblique reflection on her own loneliness.  She and Sergey contrive to end up in an erotically charged wrestling match, Boris appears and casts a suspicious eye on her, and the scene feeds into another instrumental interlude.  The end of the two-minute interlude is worth highlighting as another example of the young Shostakovich’s squirmy counterpoint:

Much of the opera’s most immediately enjoyable music is for the orchestra alone — After several years I’ve come to appreciate Shostakovich’s craggy vocal writing here but it’s hard to approach as a listener.

Scene 3 stays within Katerina’s bedroom, as she undresses at the end of the day and reflects again on her loneliness and sexual frustration.  Vishnevskaya delivers a searing and lovely take on her aria (the one transcribed for string quartet):

But no one will come to me.
No one will put his hand round my waist,
No one will press his lips to mine.
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.


As mentioned previously, these lines echo an anonymous Japenese poem that Shostakovich set while in progress on the opera, although the music and emotional register here are both considerably more intense.

Sergey then appears at Katerina’s door and, under the pretense of wanting to borrow a book, talks his way into her room and, through her commingled protestations and expressions of interest (“Darling, let go, darling”) forces himself on her.  I keep turning this scene around in my head (and I mean I’ve been turning it around in my head for some years now), trying to make it work for me as something other than a rape scene, or, maybe more aptly, an old-fashioned ravishing in which Katerina’s “no”s mostly mean “yes” and her affections are sealed once Sergey physically overpowers her.  I’m about ready to acknowledge that it’s just a scene that isn’t going to jibe with contemporary tastes or a modern understanding of the psychology of sexual assault.  It’s a shame because the rape doesn’t really need to be in the story — Shostakovich and Preis have explicitly built up Katerina’s interest in Sergey and his use of force doesn’t receive any attention from the opera afterwards.  I read it mostly as a problematic play for further sympathy for their heroine, within the context of the work’s nominally Communist-friendly stance that the circumstances of her life, rather than her own character, push Katerina into criminal action.

For all of that, the music is striking, an effectively heady crescendo of the emotional ambiguities Shostakovich wishes to portray.  The setting of Sergey’s final advance expresses both the danger of the situation (note Gedda’s menacing opera-laugh after the words “Anyway, I’m stronger than you!”) and the turbulence of Katerina’s own attraction.  And though the scene as written can’t support the idea, the music suggests a final, raw, stormy surrender to her desire:

The minute and a half of music for the sexual act itself was famously excoriated in an unsigned 1936 Pravda editorial for being “naturalistic”, and it is that, but it’s also a plasmatic mix of passion, aggression, foreshadowed tragedy, and satire.  That last is most clear at the end of the sequence, when the graphically moaning trombones slide downward to depict, so to speak, the falling action of the scene.  Running through it, though, simultaneous with everything else going on in the music, is Shostakovich’s abrasive sense of humor, lampooning the ridiculousness of the physical act of love but also, as before, distancing the orchestral music from the characters’ frames of mind.

Ending on that illustrative note perhaps puts a prurient edge on this blog post, but Act 1 wraps shortly after the amatory scene and little remains to be said.  And it is, like so much else in this opera, tremendous music.


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