The opera that got Shostakovich in hot water

'Lady Macbeth' was a sensational hit -- until Stalin saw it and walked out

Classical Music

Baltimore Vivat!

February 16, 2003|By Tim Smith | By Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

Three murders, a couple of floggings and sexual assaults, a suicide and the most X-rated music -- yes, music -- in all of opera. Even some late-night cable TV shows pale next to Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the brilliant creation by Dmitri Shostakovich that incensed Josef Stalin and caused the composer to be labeled an "enemy of the people."

The work, which will be performed for the first time by the Baltimore Opera Company as part of the Vivat! St. Petersburg festival, can still raise eyebrows and earlobes, but few operagoers these days end up siding with Stalin. The intellectually, emotionally and musically riveting Lady Macbeth earned a secure place long ago among the greatest operas of the 20th century -- among the greatest operas, period.

The world was well on the way to recognizing the importance, originality and sheer power of Lady Macbeth before Stalin took offense. The piece was an instant hit when it opened in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) on Jan. 22, 1934, and in Moscow two days later. Over the next couple of years, the opera was performed more than 80 times in Leningrad, more than 90 in Moscow. (New operas today are lucky to get a handful of performances in a two-year span.) It was also broadcast several times on radio in the U.S.S.R. Stagings quickly sprang up outside the country, too -- in Europe, Latin America and North America.

Then Stalin decided to check out what the fuss was all about. He attended a performance at the Bolshoi on Jan. 26, 1936. The Soviet dictator and his retinue left before the last act.

Was it the sex and violence that drew Stalin's scorn? "I don't think Stalin would have cared about rape and murder," says Christian Badea, who will conduct the Baltimore Opera production. "Let's face it, he was worse than the characters in the opera. I think it was a scene with the police, which is a tremendous satire on authoritarians. Stalin pretty much saw himself in it and took it as a personal insult. That scene is like a sharp knife."

Considering where and when the opera was written, it's all the more remarkable to hear a piggish police officer talk about how he can always find a pretext for taking punitive action against someone he doesn't like.

Perhaps the music was just too difficult for Stalin to digest. "Yes, it's a little raw and there are dissonances," Badea says, "but Prokofiev had written more dissonant music before then."

Probably, it was all of the above.

Not that it matters now.

"Stalin was not very intelligent," says Yuri Temirkanov, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and St. Petersburg Philharmonic. "He was a thug who didn't wash and who surrounded himself with people even less intelligent.

"He loved only what he could understand. The plot [of Lady Macbeth] is psychologically complicated, and the musical language would have been unusual to him. So why wonder what he thought of the opera? We look like idiots if we're interested in his opinion."

Pravda disapproved

The fallout from Stalin's night at the opera began two days later, in an unsigned editorial in Pravda, the Communist Party's official newspaper. A few of the choice words:

"From the first minute, the listener is shocked by ... a confused stream of sounds. ... The music quacks, grunts, pants and gasps in order to express the love scenes as naturalistically as possible. ... To follow this 'music' is difficult; to remember it, impossible."

Composers are used to bad reviews, but not this bad. When Shostakovich read those lines -- and a lot more, including a thinly veiled threat that this "game of clever ingenuity may end very badly" -- he realized that his life, not just his music, was in jeopardy.

The broadside from Pravda meant that Lady Macbeth was immediately withdrawn from the stage; it remained banned in the Soviet Union until 1962. Much was expected of Soviet artists, certainly more than an alternately tragic and satiric opera that had no happy ending. A shadow hung over Shostakovich the rest of his life; even after Stalin's death, he was never free from fear.

Oddly, Lady Macbeth faded from view in the rest of the world, too, for quite a while after the Soviet proscription. In the past few decades, though, it has been performed more and more often. Today, the problem with the opera is not the subject matter or the musical "quacks" and "grunts," but the difficulty of putting together the sizable, persuasive forces needed to do it justice.

"I'm really happy with the people we have," Badea says. "They have the voices for it, they look the part, and most of them have done it before. This is a bit of a stretch for the company, but I'm glad they decided to do it. I know some people may be reluctant to try it, but I know that once they're in the theater, they will love it."

The darker side

Not that Lady Macbeth is lovable, in the conventional sense. Few operas have so many unlikable characters. But few operas reveal so much about the darker side of human nature and society, or give us so much to ponder.

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