Archive for the ‘Opera’ Category

News of Orango’s Premiere

November 19, 2010

An update on Orango, Shostakovich’s unfinished satirical opera about an ape-human hybrid:  The L.A. Times ran an article yesterday announcing that its prologue, completed by Gerard McBurney, will be premiered in December 2011 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen, in a semi-staged concert produced by Peter Sellars.  Quite a high-profile introduction for the long-forgotten project.

The comments in the article by McBurney and Shostakovich scholar David Fanning (who damns Shostakovich’s manuscript pretty hard with faint praise) reinforce my expectation that the new music is going to sound much like Declared Dead and the composer’s other, also frequently ill-starred theatrical works of the early 1930s:  hastily drawn, a little bit chaotic, musically thin.  I do hope to make it to the show, though, schedule permitting — “sounds like Shostakovich” is enough for me, at the end of the day, and even mediocre music can make for gripping entertainment in concert in a way that recordings never quite can.

I’m intrigued, too, by what Sellars will bring to the project.  I know his work almost entirely through his collaborations with John Adams (also from a video production of Weill and Brecht’s The Seven Deadly Sins and from hearing him speak at length when he visited a seminar I was in in college) and I wonder how his characteristic humanism will play against the young Shostakovich’s music, whose satire (despite the towering exception of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) often lacks earnestness and whose overt political gestures are merely skin-deep.  I’m interested to see and hear what the artists will put together out of it; collectively they will have spent a lot more effort to bring the opera to the stage than did Shostakovich himself.

No opus number: Orango (early 1930s; incomplete) — UNAVAILABLE

November 11, 2010

Orango, sans opus (early 1930s; incomplete) — Unavailable

It’s unrecorded, but then the piano sketches for Shostakovich’s planned satirical opera, Orango, only resurfaced in 2004.  Gerard McBurney, who arranged Declared Dead among other Shostakovich works, has since orchestrated the existing eleven numbers.

This article on G. Schirmer’s site is the best source about the nature of the work that I’ve found so far, and includes a comprehensive outline of the planned work’s story.  This past October’s issue of the journal Tempo also ran an item about Orango by McBurney, though in my non-scholarly haste I haven’t found the full text of the article yet.

It is rather mind-blowing to me that Shostakovich had started work on a previously unknown opera about an ape-human hybrid — the first news that I read of it sounded more than a little rumorous, like the old canard about Shostakovich having shrapnel embedded in his brain that made him hear music when he tilted his head.  But the opera’s premise, by the writer’s Alexei Tolstoy and Alexander Starchakov, parodies the actually-stranger-than-fiction hybridization experiments of Ilya Ivanov and fits a believable agitprop profile:  Orango, created by a French biologist who impregnated his ape mother with human sperm, tracks down his creator in France as a young man, becomes an anti-Communist journalist, and rises in the bourgeois press as his non-human features become more and more pronounced.  The project seems to have died much the same way The Big Lightning did, falling behind schedule and then petering out.  (Ultimately, too, Ivanov was arrested and died in exile, and Starchakov was arrested and shot in 1936.)  Shostakovich did complete a draft for piano of a forty-minute prologue, though, which was to be followed by three acts.

The Schirmer overview notes that the prologue incorporates music from The Bolt and Declared Dead, so I expect the newly found work fits right in with them, not to mention with Poor Columbus, The Big Lightning, Rule, Britannia!, and Hamlet, all of them stage works from the same few years that similarly inhabit the stylistic shadow of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.  Some Chicago Symphony program notes from this spring state that McBurney’s completion “will be premiered in Lost Angeles in 2011-12”.  I can’t find any other information or press release about that anticipated performance online but I hope it does happen; L.A. is close enough to PDX for a pilgrimage.  I don’t want to run on speculatively about the music sight unseen (or “sound unheard”?), or without reading the couple of scholarly articles on the subject that are out there already, but I have modest expectations for Orango, given its unfinished state, the noted instances of recycling, and the example of the many seemingly similar works above.  (I also hope that the work mostly steps around the landmines of overt racism strewn throughout its premise.)  But even incomplete or fragmentary ideas are ideas I’d like to hear, and the planned plot is just to wild to pass on.  To very loosely paraphrase Bart Simpson:  Finished, shminished; I want my monkey-man opera.

Lady Macbeth of the DVD Aisle

October 18, 2010

Before moving on from the opera, here’s an overview (from memory, so without much corroborating detail) of some versions of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk available on DVD.  These were pretty scarce for a while but happily proliferated after Shostakovich’s centennial year in 2006.  The audio-only EMI album I wrote about last week is the essential recording of the work, at least long term, but it’s easier to get a good sense of the work through a filmed production.

Eva-Maria Westbroek; Christopher Ventris; Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Mariss Jansons

The most preferable filmed version of the opera that I have seen is the 2006 Concertgebouw Orchestra release, with Mariss Jansons leading a powerful account of the orchestral score.  The principals perform their roles ably and the videography is handsome and lively enough, although, as with all stage productions, static by film standards.  The stage design and costumes didn’t make an impression on me, other than being hard-edged in a contemporary Continental-European style.

Nadine Secude; Christopher Ventris; Chorus and Symphony Orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Alexander Anissimov

The Gran Teatre del Liceu production is similarly well-performed, with a notable bit of (operatically speaking) celebrity casting, in that Evgeny Nesterenko, part of Shostakovich’s circle of trusted performers late in the composer’s life, plays the part the old convict.  This version suffers, however, from the misguided and momentum-killing interpolation of some funeral music from Shostakovich’s sixth symphony within Act 3.  The shabby peasant performs a pantomime to it following his trip to the police station, ostensibly demonstrating some remorse, but this move muddies rather than enrichens the original satirical intent of the character and, even less fortunately, resembles nothing so much as the goofy, one-man interpretive dance put on by The Dude’s landlord in The Big Lebowski.  Still and all, the disc’s not a bad choice.

Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet; Sergei Kunaev; Chorus and Orchestra of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, James Conlon

I haven’t seen this Maggio Musicale Fiorentino version, but it’s in the catalog as well.  That’s three contemporary stagings of the opera released on DVD in less than a decade, for those counting.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, directed by Peter Weigl, 1992 (Vishnevskaya; Gedda; London Philharmonic Orchestra, Rostropovich)

Peter Weigl’s 1992 film version of the opera features Czech actors lip-syncing to the EMI recording, which I find jarring — you have Galina Vishnevskaya’s mature, fiery soprano voice issuing from the buxom young Markéta Hrubesová, who seems to possess a merely phonetic understanding of the words.  Weigl preserves the opera’s original nineteenth-century setting, which is a plus, but he strips out the orchestral interludes and satirical third-act setpieces; what remains is an R-rated reenactment of the story’s most lurid elements in which the heroine, to borrow some phrasing from Peter Cook, every day gets more violent, and every day gets more nude.  But the biggest mark against the film is that it’s so stagey — Weigl’s use of so many long, medium-distance shots makes for a dull and flabby film, all the more disappointing since Shostakovich’s quick jumps in musical style seem ready-made for the editing room.

Katerina Izmailova, directed by Mikhail Shapiro, 1966; Vishnevskaya; Orchestra of the Shevchenko Opera & Ballet Theatre, Kiev; Konstantin Simeonov

I’ll use the 1966 film version of Katerina Ismailova as my main reference point when I get to his revised version of the opera from the 1960s.  But, in brief, despite some cuts of the orchestra-only music and, much more noticeably, its heavily bowdlerized libretto and score, the Soviet movie is well worth seeing for Vishnevskaya’s performance, in which she both sings on the soundtrack and acts opposite a number of lip-syncing actors, more than holding her own in screen presence.  Shapiro’s direction makes some efforts to bring film effects into the production — for instance, in Boris’ Act 2 reverie his youthful, merrymaking self is superimposed next to him onscreen — but there’s nothing too interesting there by purely cinematic standards.

Siberian Lady Macbeth, directed by Andrzej Wajda, 1962

Andrzej Wajda’s 1962 Siberian Lady Macbeth is worth half a mention, too, as a Polish adaptation of the original Nikolai Leskov story.  The soundtrack does borrow some of Shostakovich’s musical material, most notably the doomy music that opens Act 2, but in a musty and colorless arrangement.  The differences in plot are worth noting — Wajda preserves the supernatural elements, Katerina’s desire for a child, and her murder of her nephew — but for those I’d recommend reading Leskov’s novella itself.

Opus 29: Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1930-1932), Act 4

October 15, 2010

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, op. 29 (1930-1932), Act 4
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)

(Previously:  Act 1, Act 2, Act 3.)

In the wood, right in a grove, there is a lake,
Almost round, and very deep.
And the water in it is black,
Black like my conscience.
And when the wind blows in the wood,
On the lake waves rise up,
Huge waves, and then it’s frightening.
In autumn there are always waves on the lake,
And the water’s black and the waves huge.
Huge, black waves.

(Translations, again from the EMI album’s notes, are by Joan Pemberton Smith.  The musical excerpt covers the first four lines of the text above.)

Late in Act 4’s single half-hour scene, Katerina Ismailova numbly delivers this aria, relating the force of her guilt.  It’s a finely nuanced piece of vocal writing, set over a low orchestral pause with tremorous woodwind figures for the waves that depict her pangs of conscience.  Too, it’s a shift in her character.  Some of the horror expressed in the orchestral music earlier, particularly the passacaglia that follows Boris’ murder, could be ascribed to Katerina’s awareness of the gravity of her crimes, but that works as an abstract and mostly unrealized understanding at best; the appearance of the ghost in Scene 5 offers the most concrete opportunity for an attack of conscience but Katerina is more terrified at being confronted, and bickers with her deceased father-in-law as she did when he was alive.

The narrative arc of the opera makes a corresponding shift:  The final act comes across not as a musical satire with undercurrents of tragedy, but as a tragedy laced with a few satirical details.  This turn in the story and in the musical style — directly expressive and simpler to follow — keeps the opera’s tone fresh, and prevents exhaustion with Shostakovich’s furiously kaleidoscopic style from setting in as it does in The Nose and The Golden Age.  The move into overt tragedy is apparent from the act’s opening chorus, sung as a group of convicts being marched to Siberia (Katerina and Sergey among them) make camp for the night by a river.  An old convict delivers the first lines of the prisoners’ song, which is then picked up by the full chorus as they lament the difficult road and describe “the echoes of groans of the dying” along it:


Despite its bleakness the music is oddly warmer than most of what’s come before, as Shostakovich directly expresses the prisoners’ hardship — certainly resonant with the difficult years in which he composed the work — rather than keeping a chilly, ironic distance from the events onstage.

This tone continues as Katerina, bribing a guard to gain access to the male prisoners’ camp, seeks out Sergey for comfort, only to hear him accuse her of ruining his life.  Her brief, affecting song suggests a glimmer of light in the darkness around her, made more heartbreaking by the inevitable betrayal that will follow it:

Seryozha!  My dearest!
At last!
Even the pain in my legs has gone,
And the tiredness, and the anguish…
Everything’s forgotten,
Once I’m with you,
Seryozha, Seryozha!


The shift in tone isn’t complete; the plot machinations deploy the same blackly humorous musical style as in earlier acts.  After rebuffing his wife, Sergey pursues another female prisoner, Sonyetka, with the same affected lyricism that he earlier used on Katerina.  Sonyetka offers her affections in exchange for his wife’s wool stockings, and Sergey cruelly gets Katerina to give them to her under the pretense of needing them to protect his own injured legs from his manacles.  He further humiliates her by carrying off Sonyetka in full view of the women’s camp.  The scene builds to a head as the female convicts taunt Katerina — a final instance of ugly crowd behavior — and a male sentry leers at Sergey and Sonyetka’s tryst.  Katerina finally stops trying to break past them to get to Sergey and freezes in despair:

Shostakovich is capable of writing subtle, touching, quietly devastating music, as in the earlier excerpts of Katerina’s solo vocals, but for his emotional climaxes he prefers to pull out the stops.  (In this recording he is aided tremendously by Rostropovich and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, who aspire here to near-Maynard Ferguson levels of trumpet wailing.)  It’s not so much psychologically penetrating as psychologically battering but the style works well for him.

In fairness, the outburst above is immediately followed, in marked contrast, by Katerina’s song about the lake.  Sonyetka then strolls by after her dalliance with Sergey in order to taunt Katerina, who pushes her into the river and jumping after her in a climactic murder-suicide.  The opera lets out a final musical exclamation before the prisoners are marched offstage, reprising their opening chorus.

The Richard Taruskin quotation that I mentioned in the Act 2 post, here gleaned from a Google Books search of his essay collection Defining Russia Musically, is less extreme than I characterized it earlier this week:

So ineluctably has the opera come to symbolize pertinacious resistance to inhumanity that it is virtually impossible now to see it as an embodiment of that very inhumanity.  . . .  And yet it remains a profoundly inhumane work of art.  Its technique of dehumanizing victims is the perennial method of those who would perpetrate and justify genocide, whether of kulaks in the Ukraine, Jews in Greater Germany, or aborigines in Tasmania.

It’s a defensible statement but not, I think, a correct one.  Dehumanizing a story’s victims, or any villains left alive at the end, is a perennial method throughout much art, and while it arguably makes for worse narrative more often than not, the precise use to which the author puts it has a lot to do with how morally ugly it is.  Lady Macbeth, in echoing the USSR’s dekulakization campaign, does tap into a disturbing vein of Soviet politics, but it surely doesn’t function as propaganda.  Propaganda has no use for late crises of conscience in its protagonists, or for that matter the frenetic, dark-edged circus atmosphere surrounding the actions it would be promoting as right and good.  Further, Preis’ and Shostakovich’s libretto doesn’t agitate recognizably for any action or worldview — no class or character other than Katerina is actually shown to be good, and the authors don’t try to establish their central character as anything other than sympathetically human.  Whether Katerina’s guilt and her final, despairing act of violence redeem her at all is a matter of audience reaction — Shostakovich leaves room for ambiguity here, another decidedly non-propagandistic quality.

The opera’s tragic turn in Act 4 doesn’t wipe out the effect of its incipiently tragic but still gleeful depiction of violence earlier, although this applies not just to the murdered landowners but also to the violence against Katerina and Sergey, against the cook and the atheist schoolteacher.  As problematic as the dispatching of Boris and Zinovy is, isolating that strand of the opera distorts its overall impact.  Lady Macbeth too reflexively channels the official political mood of Shostakovich’s time and leans a little too heavily on stock Soviet villains, but not fatally so.  For me this is highlighted but not really worsened by the composer’s youthfully abstract and excessive illustrations of violence — only with a little more age and bitter experience would he begin to compose music from a stance of moral authority.  Except for the portrayal of Katerina’s final betrayal and humilation, Taruskin is correct that the opera is not a humane work.  But it is very human in its emotional intensity, and it scathingly satires those who abuse their power over others, and those who sadistically look on as they do so; its problems shouldn’t be ignored (no artwork’s should) but its value as commentary, as storytelling, and as viscerally exciting music surpasses its flaws.  All told it is an edgy, extraordinary musical drama.

Opus 29: Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1930-1932), Act 3

October 14, 2010

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)

(Previously:  Act 1, Act 2.)

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.

Opus 29: Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1930-1932), Act 2

October 13, 2010

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, op. 29 (1930-1932), Act 2
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)

(Previously:  Act 1.)

The musical highlight of Lady Macbeth‘s second act is the interlude between its two scenes, which cuts in as a priest begins a requiem for Katerina’s just-murdered father-in-law.  Even in a career full of orchestral excesses it rates as Shostakovich’s most awesomely over-the-top moment:

Act 2 continues in the same lurid mode as Act 1, with more emphasis this time on the second half of the sex-and-violence bill.  As Scene 4 opens, Boris discovers Sergey leaving Katerina’s room through a window and whips him in front of the household staff, then locks him in a storeroom.  Katerina poisons him and frees her lover as he dies.  In Scene 5, set once more in Katerina’s room, she is visited by Boris’ ghost — the sole supernatural event that links her to Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth and a seemingly perfunctory holdover from Leskov’s story — before Zinovy intrudes on her and Sergey and they strangle him to death.  Shostakovich’s musical style maintains its dark, knife-edged satire; in particular, Sergey’s beating parallels his earlier abuse of Aksinya, with the workers looking on and laughing and the violence depicted onstage for a somewhat uncomfortable length of time.  (The EMI ablum helpfully mixes in whipcrack sound effects.)  It probably speaks to my own cultural environment that I feel comparatively blase about the killings in the story — a This American Life episode about the relatives of murder victims that I listened to recently makes the point early on that we consume an awful lot of recreational depictions of murder — but for me the pitch remains somewhere in the neighborhood of a Coen brothers movie.  Richard Taruskin, pushing too far in the other extreme, once called the opera a justification of genocide due to the plot’s unsettling closeness to the USSR’s policy at the time towards wealthy rural landowners; I hope to unpack that some more later (probably around Act 4) but for now suffice it to say that Lady Macbeth’s criminal goings-on, while not unproblematic, reminds me less of propaganda than of Peter Stormare putting a leg through a wood chipper in Fargo.

Another way in which Shostakovich’s opera is very much of its time is that all of its villains are caricatures.  And, indeed, most of its characters are villains; Katerina, its only emotionally rounded figure, seems like a human walking around within a cartoon.  Being familiar with the opera in isolation, I first found this perplexing, than as an idiosyncracy of its satirical tone.  But, with reference to Shostakovich’s previous film collaborations and ballet scenarios — especially Alone, which shares with Lady Macbeth a conservative approach to storytelling — the caricatured antagonists pop out as a common feature of Soviet storytelling at the time.  I don’t know to what extent it was a quasi-official necessity versus a stylistic hallmark of the time.  It certainly prevents the tragic side of Shostakovich’s tragicomedy from reaching the depths of other, more dramatically nuanced operas of the 20th century — although I used to think Lady Macbeth did pretty well on that score until I saw Janácek’s Jenůfa and Britten’s Peter Grimes.

It works well within Shostakovich’s satirical frame, though.  Boris functions as the opera’s foremost heavy, a comical yet tyrannical head of household.  The character can play either as a legitimately powerful figure or as an old man puffed up with his self-regard; Dimiter Petkov, in keeping with the present album’s weightiness, gives him a robust presence.  Boris’ song on his night patrol early in Scene 4 is the high point of his characterization, as he lecherously talks himself into turning his sexual attention to his absent son’s wife.  Shostakovich sets this leering reverie to a series of misshapen waltz gestures:

Zinovy, in contrast, is every bit the spineless, querulous, impotent husband; when he bursts in on Katerina and Sergey the scene initially plays like a bedroom farce, though per Shostakovich’s M.O. the gleeful comedy veers soon enough into more dangerous territory.  Here (beginning with Zinovy’s repeated “We’ve heard it all! We’ve heard it all!”) the pair sing their accusations against each other over each other in a duet that strikes me (perhaps just because I’m an opera naif) as cleverly backward-looking, along the tradition of operatic duets where it’s impossible to follow either character’s words.  Werner Krenn sings Zinovy’s part with appropriate timidity, in contrast to Vishnevskaya’s viperous delivery of Katerina’s insults:

Katerina calls to Sergey at the end of the above excerpt, and soon enough the husband has been strangled in an alarmed swirl of music.

Sergey himself isn’t precisely a villain and gets a little bit more shading than the others, though he is ultimately a satire of a self-serving manipulator, who in handling Katerina alternates between coarseness and an assumed tone of wounded romanticism.  A short aria early in Scene 5 paints this perfectly, in a piece of character work like something out of Shostakovich’s literary satirical heroes  Gogol and Mikhail Zoshchenko, but darker at the edges.  Sergey pleads with Katerina that he’s “a sensitive person, you know,” and pushes her to make him her lawful husband:

Katerina Lvovna, Katenka,
I’m not like other men,
Who don’t care about anything,
So long as they’ve got a woman’s soft body
To caress.
I’m a sensitive person, you know,
I can feel what love is.
Oh why did I fall in love with you,
And burn with passion just for you?
Can it really be an honour for you,
An eminent merchant’s wife,
To be my mistress?
Oh Katya, what I’d give to become
Your husband in God’s eyes!

Despite the thinness of the characters, Shostakovich’s music does find some tragedy in the murders, if not sympathy for the victims themselves.  To return to the Scene 4 interlude — a solemn, gigantically scored passacaglia, the longest stretch of unaccompanied orchestral music within the work — it adds gravity to the fact of Boris’ death.

To some extent this reinforces the composer’s sympathy for Katerina; it is the event being marked as tragic, I think, as opposed to her own morals or actions being musically judged.  In another way, the music again seems to distance itself from the story and pull back to a longer view:  The destruction of this petty villain is a tragedy in motion, and that darkness seems to be a wider context within which Shostakovich places the opera’s frenetic, nearly nihilistic, not entirely gleeful comedy.

(Updated to add the final excerpt and the text to Sergey’s song to Katerina, and to make the Taruskin quotation indirect.)

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

October 12, 2010

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.

Opus 23: Two pieces for the opera Poor Columbus, by Erwin Dressel (1929)

September 29, 2010

Two pieces for the opera Poor Columbus, by Erwin Dressel, op. 23 (1929)
Overture (Entr’acte): “The Unknown Shostakovich”, Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Valeri Polyansky (Chandos 9792)
Finale: Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 10 & 11, etc., USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra, Gennady Rozhdestvensky (BMG/Melodiya 74321 63461 2)

These two pieces, written to fill out a Leningrad production of a satirical opera by contemporary German composer Erwin Dressel, are utterly continuous with the other works Shostakovich wrote in the years 1929 and 1930, and, except for us completists, completely redundant.  Laurel Fay notes that he composed the works out of excised Bedbug music as a favor to the opera producers who were, at the time, still readying the first staging of The Nose; it’s very much occassional material.  Like the Scarlatti transcriptions they occupy the periphery of what Shostakovich was up to during these years.

Polyansky’s “Unknown Shostakovich” album on Chandos presents the overture, which scampers through four minutes in a by now familiar style.  I’ve had this disc for some time and I thought I remembered a likeably weighty climax in this track, but that turned out to be the opening procession of The Golden Age.  This is comparatively nondescript:

Rozhdestvensky’s recording of the finale, from another of BMG’s now-withdrawn Melodiya reissues, is more interesting sonically, maybe due to the drier and fussier sound of his ensemble.  I like the instrumental smear early in the clip below; it’s also worth noticing that the trumpet melody that comes gallivanting out of it is the one used in The Golden Age that’s also destined for the first piano concerto:

This sort of recycling, besides demonstrating Shostakovich’s apparent regard for the tune, is what I’d expect from a young composer trying to make money in difficult times, on the hook for writing a tremendous amount of music in a short time within a culture with pretty lax ideas about intellectual property.

The finale accompanied an epilogue to the opera consisting of an animated, anti-American short film.  The film’s long gone but the episodic quality is evident in the music; at one point a choir sings out, briefly, “Peace! Peace! International Peace!”; Shostakovich’s contribution to the production turns a couple of his somersaults and booms to a close.

Dressel’s musical legacy, based on albums and sheet music for sale, seems to consist mainly of his solo saxophone works, and Poor Columbus itself, as far as I can tell, is gone but for its glancing association with Shostakovich’s career.  YouTube, however, does surface a brief video of a dog that, by an accident of naming, unexpectedly connects the pet to a long-forgotten satirical opera of the Weimar Republic.  Embedding disabled per that owner-videographer’s request, or else I’d try to secure that doggy’s own legacy here.

Opus 15: The Nose (1928)

September 16, 2010

The Nose, op. 15 (1928)
CD: Soloists, Chorus, and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater, Valery Gergiev (Mariinsky MAR0501)

And how came the nose into the baked roll? And what of Ivan Yakovlevitch? Oh, I cannot understand these points — absolutely I cannot. And the strangest, most unintelligible fact of all is that authors actually can select such occurrences for their subject! I confess this too to pass my comprehension, to — — But no; I will say just that I do not understand it. In the first place, a course of the sort never benefits the country. And in the second place — in the second place, a course of the sort never benefits anything at all. I cannot divine the use of it.

– Nikolai Gogol, “The Nose” (1835-36)

This is the earliest of Shostakovich’s works that I’ve seen performed live:  This spring my brother Jack and I met up in New York to see William Kentridge’s production at the Metropolitan Opera.  My thoughts on that show from a few months ago are here; Jack’s more concise reaction is here.  I claimed earlier that for this exercise I’d prefer videos of stage works to audio-only recordings, and there is a DVD production out there — but I had already bought this Mariinsky CD set to get familiar with the music before the New York trip, so with the Met staging fresh in my mind, as well as a sense of budgetary restraint for the blog project, I settled for listening through it again with the album’s included full dual-language libretto in hand.

I’d highly recommend that before you experience this opera you read its source, Gogol’s short story “The Nose”, not just because it’s very helpful in understanding what Shostakovich is up to, but because Gogol’s writing is hilarious.  (A not very copyright-compliant-looking copy is here, as of this writing.)  The plot — Major Kovalev’s nose mysteriously deserts his face and impersonates a State Councilor, only to return just as mysteriously — is pleasantly absurd, but the greater pleasure is Gogol’s send-up of a class of bureaucratically-minded 19th-century St. Petersburg residents, in particular in his characters’ absurd, officious, self-serving, and digressive speech.  Part of the opera’s function is to lovingly enact a series of these characteristically Gogolian episodes, which Shostakovich and his co-librettists track closely; in order to feel its charm it’s vital to know what’s being said, and (unless, I would guess, you speak Russian) it’s easier and more pleasurable to do that through the original story than through a live show or DVD’s subtitles (usually abridged) or by attempting to read along in real time.

Another joy of Gogol’s story is the attitude of the narrator; that voice is absent from the opera but the spirit of the music, particularly the orchestral setting, is analogous, although the it’s the composer rather than the writer whose authorial presence comes through.  Shostakovich here is at his most sprawling and expansive yet, using a musical language close to that of the preceding second symphony but much finer and more characterful in its detail work.  It’s provocative music, in that it stands in self-conscious contrast to the grand opera tradition:  It doesn’t break down the fourth wall a la Brecht but the musical setting maintains an ironic distance from the action onstage and keeps up an unremittingly satirical tone.  Especially early on, Shostakovich creates a constantly shifting, high-contrast musical surface:  In the first act, for instance, a thrilling, forward-charging interlude for percussion alone barrels straight into Kovalev’s introduction, a clownish mock-aria based on “the ‘B-r-rh!’ with his lips which he always did when he had been asleep”:

It’s striking and deeply enjoyable music but it also becomes wearying over its two-hour length (not counting intermissions).  The vocal lines are almost perversely unmemorable; they do at least allow the characters, as buffoonish as they are, to express some of pathos, while the orchestra’s affect never seems to vary beyond smirking social observation, general agitation, or all-out carnival atmospherics.  It seems strange to compare Shostakovich to Boulez but my reaction to, say, Boulez’ “Sur Incises” is similar to my feeling as The Nose plays on:  It’s a phenomenally engaging musical landscape but, although the music constantly changes moment to moment, over its whole run it begins to feel static, its range of motion limited.

The opera’s dramatic momentum works similarly, and I would guess that a given viewer’s or listener’s patience over time will track closely with their interest in meticulously set Gogolian dialog.  Even with my own great interest in this, the plot starts to go slack early in Act III (probably not coincidentally, in a scene synthesized by the librettists rather than taken directly from the short story) as a series of characters board a stage coach while the police lie in wait for the Nose.  This scene contains the opera’s only great misstep:  A woman selling bubliki (bagel-like bread rolls) enters and is harrassed by the police, in a moment that I believe Shostakovich and co. wanted to be comical, although I find it ugly and out of joint with the rest of the opera’s lightness of touch:

I do find an intriguing thematic connection, though, between the market woman’s sales-pitch song here (monotone repetitions of “bubliki” and “kupitye”, translated in the Mariinsky booklet as “buy some”) and Shostakovich’s distant second cello concerto (opus 126, composed in 1966), whose cello part borrows an Odessa street song with the same purpose and words (“Kupitye bubliki”) and whose soloist is similarly, if much more abstractly, harangued by the orchestra.  Musically the ideas are unrelated, so I don’t think it’s a strong connection, but I still wonder if Shostakovich had the early operatic scene in mind when he composed the later work.  (The opera itself had been suppressed and/or lost, like so much of the composer’s early work, for decades at that point; Gennady Rozhdestvensky first revived it in 1974.)

I don’t want to end by sounding too down on the opera, which ultimately makes for a brilliant musical spectacle.  Highlights abound:  Shostakovich’s appropriately churchy, sepulchural mood music as Kovalev confronts the Nose in the Kazan Cathedral (the composer, an atheist living in an atheistic state, never wrote sacred music, so this, despite its scrim of irony, may be his closest approach); Kovalev’s loopy exchange with an unsympathetic newspaper editor.  A pure musical delight is a folk song sung by Kovalev’s servant to balalaika accompaniment (and eventually, incongrously, an added flexatone), which despite the excesses of Ivan’s vocals is played fairly straight by Shostakovich and folded into the musical mix:

The conclusion of the opera — sorry to spoil its very end — contains my favorite character work.  Kovalev’s nose has been reaffixed to his face and he, never understanding what happened and having learned nothing from the event, strolls down the Nevsky Prospect and flirts with a salesgirl, full of joy verging on smugness and simple self-regard.  The brittle and lilting music (with that antic flexatone again) perfectly captures his state of mind, before a last drum crash abruptly drops the curtain: