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."
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.
We have hardly seen the last of immorality and amorality, let alone moral relativism and the abdication of personal responsibility -- all issues that propel Lady Macbeth. And today, when people are fascinated by the trial of a woman who repeatedly ran over her unfaithful husband with her car, the troubled life of this opera's title character seems somehow even more relevant. Is Katerina Ismailova, who earns her Shakespearean nickname from a succession of murders, really the victim? Do the chauvinists in her life and the lack of opportunities for self-expression (or self-respect) bear any of the blame?
Based on an 1865 story by Nikolai Leskov, the opera follows Katerina's rapid regression -- bored housewife, illicit lover, murderer, convict, suicide. Her first victims are a brutish, mocking father-in-law and a wimpy, indifferent husband, both killed in the name of love, or at least passion. The object of that passion is Sergei, a newly arrived laborer on her husband's work force. He helps in the dispatch of her husband and is later arrested with her. While on a long, mass trek into exile, Sergei seduces another prisoner. Katerina kills her rival and herself. Curtain.
"We have all done things we are not particularly proud of, but can always find a way to justify," says soprano Karen Hoffstodt, who will sing the title role here. "I feel an empathy for Katerina, I really do. She wants so badly to be loved, and she falls into this vortex of lust. And it's not that she premeditates the murders. They are crimes of passion, the first one not until she sees her lover brutally beaten by her horrible father-in-law, who dominates everything in the house and hates her for having not borne an heir. I mean, what's a girl to do?
"She demonstrates the proverbial 'love is blind.' She doesn't see that Sergei is totally using her for what he can get, physically and monetarily. It's my duty to make her seem like a multidimensional person who's made some very large mistakes. You have to approach her the way you have to approach Salome [in Richard Strauss' opera of that name] -- as a person, not a monster."
Shostakovich saw Katerina exactly that way -- "a vigorous, talented, beautiful woman," he called her, "a deeply sensitive woman by no means lacking in feeling." He was sympathetic to "the hard and gloomy conditions of her life," brought on "by the cruel and greedy milieu of merchants that surrounds her." And all of that can be heard in his music. "It can be very aggressive," Hoffstodt says, "but also very lyrical and beautiful. There's a very vulnerable, feminine side to it."
That's not necessarily the side that comes first to mind when thinking about Lady Macbeth. Let's face it -- the sex scene invariably leaves an acute impression.
When Sergei forces himself on the initially reluctant Katerina, the action isn't confined to the stage; depending on the director, there might not even be much for the audience to see. ("We won't be doing anything lewd," Hoffstodt says of the Baltimore production. "We'll be under lots of sheets and blankets.") But there's plenty of action in the orchestra pit, where Shostakovich unleashes all those pants and gasps that ruffled Pravda's feathers. The trombones, not surprisingly, serve as the chief illustrators of this scene, and they're explicit right down to the, um, deflation part of the business.
(Igor Stravinsky, never particularly fond of Shostakovich's music, caught a 1935 performance of the opera in New York and described this orchestral interlude as being written "in a very embarrassing realistic style" that delighted "an audience more than happy to be brutalized by the arrogance of numerous communist brass instruments.")
The composer toned down the scene even before Stalin saw it, and eliminated it when the opera, much revised and renamed Katerina Ismailova, returned to the stage in Russia in 1962. (Mstislav Rostropovich, who conducted the definitive recording of the opera, says that Shostakovich preferred the original 1934 score. Temirkanov and others say that the composer considered the revision as the final word. Baltimore Opera has opted for the complete original version, which is now widely accepted as standard.)
Today, were it not for the harshness of the anti-Shostakovich moves in 1936, we might have a few more operas from the composer. He envisioned Lady Macbeth as the first in a Soviet Ring of the Nibelung -- the equivalent in magnitude to Wagner's four-part epic, only with individual women, rather than gods, as the focus. Each woman would be from a different period of Russian history, ending with a Soviet heroine. (Lady Macbeth is ostensibly set in the mid-1800s, though frequently updated in productions. The Baltimore Opera staging, originally from the Dresden Opera, places the action in the 1930s.)
Shostakovich, who returned to Soviet favor after the premiere of his Fifth Symphony in 1937, never completed another music / theater work. Other compositions would again rattle the system, though, generating fresh threats and charges of disservice to the state, because, like Katerina Ismailova, he couldn't be kept down for long. But the only crime Shostakovich committed was honesty, the only weapon he employed was the truth. And genius.
An 'X-rated' opera?
What: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.
When: 8:15 p.m. Saturday and Feb. 28; 7:30 p.m. Feb. 26; 3 p.m. March 2
Tickets: $37 to $132
Box office: 410-727-6000
For more Vivat! listings, go to www.sunspot.net / vivat