Monday, February 05, 2007

Lady Macbeth of Mtensk

Really enjoyed a concert version of Shostakovich's 1936 opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, performed last night at the Kennedy Center by Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Opera singers, orchestra, and chorus. The program notes explained why this was the Russian composer's last opera--he was ordered to apologize for it by Stalin, or else. He finally apologized--and never wrote another opera again....

Here's a 2004 article about a London production from The Observer, which explains aspects of the historical significance of this work:
Stalin's verdict appeared across page three of Pravda two days later, in an article Shostakovich chanced on while awaiting another train at Archangelsk, headlined 'Muddle in lieu of music'. Shostakovich had written, it said, an 'ugly flood of confusing sound... a pandemonium of creaking, shrieking and crashes... unadulterated cacophony'. Things could, it menaced, 'end very badly' for the composer.

The pen was apparently Stalin's own - and the attack a potential death sentence. These were days of terror in the USSR: in the two years between the opera's premiere and Stalin's attack, some 40,000 of Shostakovich's fellow citizens had been deported to the gulag; many of his friends and family were murdered or disappeared; hundreds of thousands would die in the ensuing purges. Shostakovich reportedly told the writer Solomon Volkov: 'Everyone knew I would be destroyed. And the anticipation of that noteworthy event - for me at least - never left me.'

The axe that fell did not end Shostakovich's life but spliced it, forcing him to work in a world of dichotomy and masks - both to express himself and to survive - obliged often to communicate two messages simultaneously: one for consumption by the authorities, and another confessional, secretly spoken. Thus, some of the most forceful music ever written about the human condition, and political man, began with Lady Macbeth. And this is the work that first invokes the so-called 'Shostakovich Question' - among the most highly charged cultural discourses of the last century - which rages still.
Wikipedia entry on Dmitri Shostakovich here. Here's a BBC Radio 3 documentary on Shostakovich that talks about Lady Macbeth of Mtensk. And here's a link to a review of the Helikon Opera's 2002 Moscow production.