Karl Henning | 1 FEB 2024
Soon after the appointment of Andris Nelsons as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (the present season is his tenth in that role) it was announced that one project of this new-formed collaboration would be a recording of the complete symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich. The end of that cycle of 15 being reached, we’ve now seen the overall project extended with Yo-Yo Ma’s masterly presentation of the two Cello Concerti. (Can the Violin Concerti be far behind? This Shostakovich fan asks himself.)
And here in January of 2024, we have the very rare treat of a concert performance of Shostakovich’s intensely expressive opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, an opera which enjoyed widespread international success (within two years of its Leningrad première, staged or concert versions of Lady M were given in the United States, Argentina, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Switzerland, and England) before incurring Stalin’s wrath.
Decades later and after Stalin’s death (from 1954 to 1963), Shostakovich revised the opera and titled the result after the principal character, Katerina Izmailova. This was a substantial physical undertaking and no mere application, as it were, for the piece’s rehabilitation, as Irina Molostova, stage director of the Kyiv Opera, told me in a Spring 1995 interview for the St. Petersburg Press when she was in St. Petersburg, Russia, to oversee the first performance of the revised opera at the Mariinsky Theatre.
The composer pursued the task at a time when his health was none of the best, and writing out those many pages of opera score by hand was no mere “dutiful exercise” but fully artistically deliberate, costing him physical pains.
No surprise that he assigned it a fresh Opus number (114). Great musicians and musicologists (great or otherwise) may differ over whether they prefer the original Opus 29 or the later version, but there is no question that Shostakovich owned the new Katerina Izmailova entirely.
After the ice-breaking success of his brilliant, quirky one-act opera based on Nikolai Gogol’s satirical The Nose (1928), Shostakovich began work on a full-blown opera based on Nikolai Leskov’s novella, The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (first performed on 22 January 1934 at the Leningrad Maly Opera, and two days later in Moscow), Shostakovich dedicated the opera to his newlywed bride Nina Vasilyevna Varzar (they were married in May of 1932), and as the reader will see from my summary of the story, Shostakovich’s opera ranks together with Béla Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle as one of the most peculiar pieces a composer might dedicate to his young wife.
The central character is Katerina Izmailova (soprano Kristine Opolais), wife to the merchant Zinovy Borisovich (tenor Peter Hoare), who finds her life deadly dull — the “bored merchant’s wife” is one of the Russian literary tropes that is parodied in Woody Allen’s Love and Death (1975, coincidentally the year of Shostakovich’s death).
At about the time Zinovy leaves the estate on some business, a new worker, Sergei (tenor Brenden Gunnell), comes to work on the Izmailov estate, and the scuttlebutt is that Sergei had to leave his prior employment for being more randy than handy. Katerina’s father-in-law, Boris Timofeyevich (bass Günther Groissböck), is a combination of a scold and watchdog. When he discovers Sergei diddling the mistress of the house, he tells Katerina that he’ll let his son, Zinovy, know everything.
Finding this untenable, Katerina poisons her father-in-law. The hapless merchant returns home to his wife, finding a man’s belt in their bedroom. Zinovy beats his wife with the belt, provoking Sergei to come to his lover’s aid, and the adulterous pair strangle Zinovy, hiding the corpse in the cellar.
There, we now know enough to go on. The mainspring of the drama is thus a handsome young wife bored in her idleness, of itself a sentiment not unbecoming of a woman of spirit. Katerina is presented with much sympathy. In a duet, her father-in-law sings of the need to break out the rat poison as the rats have gotten into the flour, and it was a delight to hear audible amusement in the Hall at Katerina’s resentful aside, “You yourself are the rat.”
One of the most famous moments in the opera is the suggestive trombone slides when Katerina and Sergei are making the beast with two backs. It was one of the provocations for the Pravda editorial, “Muddle Instead of Music” (which immediately blighted Shostakovich’s career and placed him in genuine fear of his freedom and even his life) and in 1935 a critic for the New York Sun called it “pornophony,” which may demonstrate that whether a Communist autocrat or a journalist in the milieu of flourishing capitalism, you can wield prudery like a bludgeon.
To return to our present performance, all of they principals were excellent, musically and dramatically (although this was a concert performance, there was rudimentary blocking, given the space constraints), and they worked well as an ensemble.
As with Berg’s Wozzeck, which enjoyed performances in the Soviet Union in that brief “Communism honeymoon” period before Moscow clamped down on “decadent Western music” and which impressed Shostakovich greatly, the orchestra itself is practically another character.
To mention but two moments which this listener especially enjoyed: in a wicked subversion of a hoary trope, there is a sweet, high-register violin solo to underscore Katerina’s lacing her father-in-law’s mushrooms with rat poison. Later, a snarling bass clarinet solo malevolently underscores the ignominious death of Zinovy Borisovich at the hands of his own wife and her lover. And of course, the Passacaglia intermezzo between scenes four and five especially, comments parenthetically upon the action with brooding intensity. If the reader does not already know the Passacaglia, you ought, really you ought.
Separately, I had occasion to reflect, Saturday evening, on how few operas there are in which someone (here, an atheistic teacher) sings of dissecting a frog. As in Shakespeare, there is comic relief as a respite from the dark drama, and in Shostakovich’s opera, the principal comic element is the police who have apprehended the teacher on suspicion that he doesn’t believe in God. Then, when a drunkard has chanced upon Zinovy Borisovich’s corpse in the Izmailov cellar and comes to tell the police, the Chief (bass Anatoli Sivko), who, not unlike Katerina, finds his life on the dull side, sings of the discovery of the corpse being a godsend, truly seeing the glass as half full.
One of the most deeply pathetic moments in the opera, and Ms. Opolais realizes it beautifully, is when the two of them are nicked by the fuzz, and Katerina pleads for forgiveness from the inconstant Sergei. When they are trudging off to exile in Siberia — “Endless the steppes, countless the days and nights, joyless our thoughts, heartless the guards,” sings an old convict (bass Dmitri Belosselskiy), soon echoed in the Chorus — Katerina’s final crushing indignity is Sergei’s taking no responsibility whatsoever for his part in their plight, but dumping it all on Katya’s shoulders and spurning her for another woman. Her spirit unextinguished and tormented past endurance, Katya drags her rival Sonetka (mezzo-soprano Maria Barakova) into the river, and they both drown. ■
- Bposton Symphony Orchestra: bso.org
- Andris Nelsons: andrisnelsons.com
- Kristine Opolais: kristineopolais.com