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Seen and Heard Promenade Concert Review



Prom 49 : Shostakovich, Lady Macbeth Of The Mtsensk District, Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre (Kirov Opera) conducted by Valery Gergiev, Royal Albert Hall, 20.08.2006 (JPr)



At the point where a number of people are suffering Shostakovich saturation I have finally entered the 2006 celebrations during the historically important watershed of the composer’s life when this his second (and resultantly final) opera caused major repercussions in his life that were reflected in his Fifth Symphony.

It is worth dwelling on the upheaval caused to Shostakovich to the performance of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District on 26 January 1936 after more than 200 previous ones. Stalin was attending the performance and Shostakovich, instead of going off to perform his First Piano Concerto, was recalled to the theatre by the director of the Bolshoi.

There is a commentary by the writer Mikhail Bulgakov which was based on eye-witness accounts that recalls the young composer arriving at the theatre ‘white with fear’. The conductor Alexander Melik-Pashaev begins the overture and ‘In anticipation of a medal, and feeling the eyes of the leaders on him … is in a frenzy, leaping about like an imp, chopping the air with his baton. After the overture, he sends a sidelong glance at the box, expecting applause - nothing. After the first act - the same thing, no impression at all.’

Shostakovich had still not calmed down as he headed for his concert tour where on a fateful day (28 January 1936) he bought a copy of Pravda and opening at the third page saw the infamous unsigned editorial headlined ‘Muddle Instead of Music’ (Sumbur vmesto muzyki) in which his opera came under attack. The article has been described as ‘a classic example of authoritarian cultural criticism’ and a few quotes will suffice for those not familiar with this story.


‘The listener from the very first minute is stunned by the opera's intentionally unharmonious muddled flow of sounds. Snatches of melody, embryos of musical phrases drown, escape, and once again vanish in rumbling, creaking, and squealing. To follow this “music” is difficult, to remember it impossible.’ ‘The music grunts, moans, pants, and gasps, the better to depict the love scenes as naturally as possible. And “love” is smeared throughout the entire opera in the most vulgar form.’

‘This is music intentionally made inside-out, so that there would be nothing to resemble classical music, nothing in common with symphonic sounds, with simple, accessible musical speech … This is leftist muddle instead of natural, human music.’

Pravda did not just crudely attack Shostakovich's opera itself but cast a wider net. ‘The danger of this tendency in Soviet music is clear. Leftist ugliness in opera is growing from the same source as leftist ugliness in painting, poetry, pedagogy, and science. Petit bourgeois “innovation” is leading to a gap away from true art, science … literature.’

It was clear that this was the opinion of the whole Communist party and it soon became obvious that the real author of this ‘directive’ was Stalin himself … but what prompted the attack?

Well it is thought that at this time the government was planning to pass laws to ban abortion and demand a new code on family and marriage because in the opinion of Stalin the Soviet family had to be strengthened in every way. At this very time comes along an opera celebrating ‘free love’ (or as Stalin wrote ‘merchant lust’) and where any problem of divorce from a hated tyrannical husband was resolved straightforwardly by a brutal murder. So Shostakovich could be accused on social issues since he had ‘missed the demands of Soviet culture to banish crudity and wildness from every corner of Soviet life’.

From then on Shostakovich was probably never the same again; initially he feared the worse and he lived in fear with a suitcase ready, often dressed in an overcoat, so the secret police could take him away without disturbing his children. In fact there is a suggestion that even many years later he wore a plastic bag with the words of ‘Muddle Instead of Music’ under his shirt and around his neck as what can be considered an ‘anti-talisman’.

Earlier this summer at the London Coliseum Gergiev and his forces had performed Shostakovich’s 1961 sanitized version of this opera Katerina Ismailova but here as a concert performance was the full unexpurgated version. Being able to concentrate fully on the words and music allows Shostakovich’s intentions to be revealed without them being diluted by any staging. In most cases these imbue the whole work throughout with Dostoevskian darkness and while undoubtedly the final act does descend into this in a chilling depiction of Stalinist repression (whether Stalin or Shostakovich recognized it as such) the opera is indeed a tragediya-satira. The composer reserves the most lyrical music for Katerina and it is apt that most of the other characters (indeed caricatures) have plodding or running ostinatos. This seems to put Katerina (for the first three acts at least) seemingly at the centre of a carousel with all these satirized figures galloping around her. Shostakovich with his great experience of film music would undoubtedly have meant every note of the ‘Keystone Cops’ chase music of his introductory interlude to the Policemen in Act III.

The fluttering fingers of Maestro Gergiev faithfully accentuated every moment of the music from the lowbrow grunts, moans and screams (Stalin wasn’t entirely wrong here), the operetta and marching band interruptions to the graphic Scene Three lovemaking and the searingly painful Act IV denouement. He was supported by an orchestra totally at one with him and on stunning form; their leader Kirill Terentiev contributed a number of eloquent violin solos. That the orchestral sound occasionally overpowered the voices was to be expected in a not entirely familiar hall but added to the impact music-making of this quality can achieve.


I am sure it is quite possible to have a version of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District without words as there is that filmic quality to much of the score but a ‘concert performance in Russian’ to an audience including very few native Russian speakers could not work without the whole-throated support of his singers. There was some luxury casting of well-schooled typical Russian low voices including Alexander Gerasimov (Steward, Third Foreman, Officer), the veteran Gennady Bezzubenkov as a poignant Old Convict and a young, stick-thin Mikhail Petrenko as the lascivious Priest. Bezzubenkov has Boris Timofeyevich Izmailov in his extensive repertoire but this role was taken over at short notice by Sergey Alexashkin. Supporting the low male voices was Olga Savova’s contralto equivalent making much of her few moments as Sonyetka in the opera’s final moments.

There was not a weak link in the strong cast but it was the ‘lovers’ Larisa Gogolevskaya as Katerina and Viktor Lutsiuk as Sergey that made the evening special. Although there was a row of music stands across the front of the platform and most singers had their scores they often did not need them. By using every vocal resource possible and some limited physical actions they took us from the concert hall into the opera house in the way good concert performances can. Lutsiuk had all that was necessary for the love ‘em and leave ‘em cad about him and a superb tenor voice. For Gogolevskaya it was a triumph as she went from the breast-beating and deliberately unbelievable grief of ‘Oh Boris Timofeyevich, why have you left us?’ in Scene 4, the pent-up eroticism of ‘It’s your business to kiss me hard, like this’ in the next scene to her final Act IV reflection ‘In the wood … there is a lake’ prior to her undoubtedly Wozzeck inspired suicide together with the murder of Sonyetka who with Sergey’s connivance has humiliated her over some stockings. Her voice was secure through all registers and she must be a wonderful Brünnhilde or Isolde.

The magnificent chorus that had made well-drilled entries into the proceedings throughout the opera as labourers, policemen, wedding guests and convicts thought-provokingly bemoaned their lot as they trudged off singing:   Ah, steppes, you are so endless, days and nights so countless, the thoughts we think so cheerless and the guards we have so heartless. Ah ….”

If this is a true translation of the closing lines then if you replace ‘guards’ with ‘leaders’ perhaps you find the real reason why Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District incurred the displeasure of the Soviet authorities.



Jim Pritchard



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)