Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, op. 29 (1930-1932), Act 3
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)
The end of Scene 6 and the interlude that follows aren’t the best musical event in the opera but they are my favorite, as well as a demonstration of what’s great about Rostropovich’s interpretation of the score. The interlude on its own — and it is often enough performed outside of the opera, in a concert suite with the other interludes — sounds rather jolly and lighthearted, despite its typically gnarly development. Within the context of the story, though, its antics have an acidic bite: On Katerina and Sergey’s wedding day a shabby peasant, to this point a leering presence in the background of the crowd scenes (he eggs on Aksinya’s assault and Sergey’s whipping alike), drunkenly breaks into Katerina’s wine cellar looking for her high-quality alcohol but finds the hidden, decaying body of her husband instead. The interlude, in the opera’s original formulation at least, depicts his unsteady run to the police station.
In her autobiography Galina: A Russian Story, Vishnevskaya describes the scene, and the composer’s words to her about it. I’m surprised I haven’t seen the paragraph cited in any concert programs to highlight the acridity of the interlude’s high spirits:
How rich is that single, two-minute magical scene of the disheveled peasant who reels from complaints about his unhappy fate and a desire to get dead drunk, to his chance discovery of a terrible crime — a murder — to his headlong dash to the police. Dmitri Dmitriyevich used to say, “The bastard ran to the police, overjoyed that he could inform on her. A hymn to informers . . . That’s a hymn to all informers!”
Even in context, with catastrophic music building up to the interlude and the shabby peasant’s words (“The corpse of Zinovy Borisovich! Ay, ay, police!”) stretching over its opening bars, more often than not it still sounds boisterously bright, with its place in the story providing its teeth. That interpretation works well, and it may be the more sophisticated one — But I just love Rostropovich’s snarling energy, scouring away any doubt about the music’s satirical intent and perfectly capturing the peasant’s malicious exaltation. This scene makes concrete for me something that I hear in Shostakovich’s similar, dark-comedy music in more abstract works, written before Lady Macbeth and especially after: The most damage to the world is done not by an evil few at the top but by the masses of small-minded, mediocre people underneath them — nearly all of us included among them, in one way or another — whose ridiculousness makes them that much more menacing.
(All these thoughts and words don’t get across how much of a gut-level hit that track is for me. It’s just blood-boiling, rock-out-to-it stuff; if I’m listening to the opera on disc I have trouble not just hitting repeat on that one over and over.)
Act 3’s three short scenes all depict the malevolence of crowds and the machinery of justice, such as it is, being operated out of jealousy and petty thuggery. Following the “hymn” is a police station scene in which a sergeant and his men lament their boredom and unselfconsciously declare their own corruption. The scene is entirely Preis’ and Shostakovich’s invention; their policemen, the sergeant especially, bear an obvious resemblance to those in The Nose, although their lines don’t have the crackle of those Gogol wrote for his district constable. Lady Macbeth‘s police amuse themselves temporarily by roughing up an atheist schoolteacher, but only really light up when the shabby peasant arrives with news of Zinovy’s body, as they’ve been bitter not to have been invited to Katerina and Sergey’s wedding. Joan Pemberton Smith renders their words (following the peasant’s exchange with the sergeant) in verse in the album notes:
Quicker, quicker, quicker, quicker,
We might get free food and liquor.
Stuff ourselves until we’re sick,
So we’ll hurry, hurry quick!
Paralleling the peasant’s scene, the policemen’s enthusiasm takes the form of a barbed interlude. This one is a mellower pastiche of comic episodes that wouldn’t be out of place in the Bedbug suite, although the policemen’s menacing three-note motto pops up throughout. (Initially, in the excerpt above, it’s stated by the solo trumpet and timpani.)
Scene 8 depicts Katerina’s wedding feast: She realizes her husband’s body has been discovered and tries to escape with Sergey while she is toasted by her progressively more intoxicated guests. (A drunk priest, something of a Soviet stock character, presides; he was similarly drunk when he delivered Boris’ last rites in Act 2.) The crowd serves as an unconcerned backdrop for Katerina’s panic in the foreground, and there is something sly in Shostakovich’s choral writing, aesthetically close to the patriotic finales of the second and third symphonies but here applied to a group of tipsy party-goers:
…Although this anthemic choral style soon enough gives way to illustrative slurring:
The police reach the estate before the newlyweds can make their escape, and the key themes from the earlier interludes are reprised more darkly. The policemen’s motif accompanies them as they beat down the gate (note also their ominous announcement of the word “politsiya”, or “police”):
And, to close the act after Sergey tries and fails to wrest his way out of the policemen’s custody, Shostakovich reuses the informer’s theme, this time in a minor key and an explicitly sinister light:
The policemen play a multivalent role in this story. In a literal sense, they parody of the nineteenth-century Czarist police — their fixation on bribes in particular points to the bureaucracy of the Russian Empire, as immortally satirized by Gogol. Shostakovich’s depiction of their abuse of power obliquely represents the USSR’s own thugs too, though, whose power over cultural and civil life was rising in the early 1930s. I don’t know how immediate the peasant’s role as informer would have seemed to audiences in 1932 — the composer’s words to Vishnevskaya above were spoken some decades hence — but the secret police’s actions would culminate in the Great Purge within a few years. The general tactic here is one that applies less centrally to the police in The Nose, and one which was used in Shostakovich’s later vocal works as well as by other artists: Wrongful actions by the state and society are ascribed (accurately) to the past, with assurances (sometimes implicit, sometimes ironically explicit) that such problems no longer plague the progressive, more utopian present.
Much is made of this in interpreting Lady Macbeth, not to mention the rest of Shostakovich’s output, and rightly so. But it’s also shallow, and dispiritingly common, to read the work too narrowly as an allegory of the Stalin years. I’ve seen the opera onstage three times — at the Met in 1999, at the National Theater in Prague in 2001, and in Baltimore in 2003 — and each time the production was set, if abstractly, in twentieth-century Russia. The Baltimore Opera Company’s staging (which originated in Dresden, although I haven’t found further details of it yet in a cursory search) made this most explicit, down to putting a Stalin lookalike in the police sergeant role. In terms of artistry this starts to feel stale and obvious. But more importantly it cuts against the universality of the work. The libretto itself, albeit jokingly, points to the ancientness of policemen in the sergeant’s opening words in Act 7 — “The police were formed, so we are told / When the Pharoahs ruled in days of old” — and in so doing draws a line from the distant past through the near past, and implicitly into the present and future.
The couple of recent productions of the opera I’ve seen on DVD are better on this count, but in general — and I think more strongly in the abstract domain of Shostakovich’s purely instrumental works — concert notes, album liners, reviewers and listeners too easily focus on his music as an allegory of his contemporary censors and critics. (Much of this can be sourced to Solomon Volkov’s fraudulent-until-proven-authentic Shostakovich memoir, Testimony, but that’s its own matter.) This casts the music too much as a sort of musty museum piece, though, a souvenir of an artistic battle supposedly already waged and won. It’s still lovely and dramatic artwork if you read it just as a commentary on Shostakovich’s own time and personal experience, sure. But its relevance doesn’t come from what it has to say about Stalin; it comes from what it has to say about all of us.