One of the important operas of human history
Reviewed in the United States on 9 September 2016
When I give 5 stars ('I love it') to Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, that means I recognize the stunning technical mastery of its composition and performance, as well as its position in history, not only musical history, but political and general history, i.e. the history of history books.
The opera itself is not what I would call ... attractive. It's interesting, but aside from purely artistic and historical considerations, it's not the sort of opera I would sit down and listen to for lyrical melodies, or, how shall we say, the childlike wonder of a spring morning. It lies out there with maybe Berg's Lulu.
Oh, for example, this opera has musically-depicted erections. There's something you don't normally encounter in Handel and Donizetti. So how does one depict an erection musically? Well, I suppose, using trombone, and eh, carefully placed accelerandi, and crescendi, and certain types of insistent harmonies, and rhythmic effects. (I hope that explains everything.)
Now while I could appreciate the opera from an artistic point of view ... guess what, Stalin did not. And if you were a composer in the 1930s' Soviet Union, and you wrote an opera Stalin did not like, that was not just an interesting little tidbit of trivia to add to your resumé. Rather, it was a serious problem, one possibly better suited to your obituary. It does seem strange to me Shostakovich would compose this opera in such a repressive society and not be aware of the consequences. If he was just writing it for shock purposes, or even musical expression, it seems strange to me he would do it and not think there would be political repercussions. Therefore it follows, it certainly must have had an underlying political or social message intended. I can accept that, only I can't discern what that political or social message might be.
On the surface it seems he simply wrote the opera for enjoyment and was caught unawares by the official backlash. A negative review was published in Pravda (which I shall append in the Comment section). And then suddenly Shostakovich knew he was in a world of trouble. He reportedly kept his bags packed and slept by the door so that if the police came for him by night, they needn't bother his wife and children. I have never known what to make of this story. If it's literally true, how horrible, I certainly do not want to trivialize it. But could it be he wasn't aware the direction his country was heading?
And then, the story goes, after being a year or two in hot water, he realized the error of his ways. He published his 5th Symphony, "a Soviet artist's reponse to just criticism", and was back in official favor.
The point is this is that Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk one of the important operas of world history, regardless of the value of the opera itself. And I say, like Wozzeck and Lulu, the story is harsh and difficult, but the composition and performance are virtuosic. And as given here, conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich, and the title role by Galina Vishnevskaya, it's hard to imagine a more definitive performance.
And now the Soviet response of 1936 ...
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