Remembering Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk returning to Moscow

Russian FederationRussian Federation Shostakovich, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: Chorus and Orchestra of the Samara State Opera and Ballet Company / Alexander Anisimov (conductor). Stanislavsky Musical Theatre, Moscow, 22.2.2018. (GT)

Samara Opera’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Director – Georgy Isaakyan
Set Design – Vyacheslav Okunev
Lighting – Irina Vtornikova
Chorus master – Olga Safronova

Katerina Izmailova – Irina Krikunova
Boris Izmailov – Dmitry Skorikov
Zinovy Izmailov – Ivan Maximenko
Sergey – Ilya Govzin
Aksinya – Dilya Shageyeva
A Priest – Renat Latypov
A Shabby Man – Anatoly Nevdach
The Sentry – Georgy Tsvetkov
Sonetka – Natalya Frize
Old Convict – Andrey Antonov
The Mill-hand – Andrey Chernyaev

Shostakovich’s second opera based on Nikola Leskov’s satirical novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District (the first was The Nose –1928) has a celebrated history in the history of 20th-century opera; equally for its music and for its political censure in Soviet music. Lady Macbeth was first performed at the Maly Opera and Ballet Theatre in Leningrad on 22 January 1934 under Samuil Samosud. The first Moscow performance was at the Stanislavsky-Nemirovich-Danchenko Theatre under Georgy Stolyarov (the percussionist was the young Kirill Kondrashin) just two days later. The opera was called Katerina Izmailova in its Moscow staging, and played to packed audiences for over four years. The production was stopped in February 1936 following the notorious editorial in Pravda ‘Muddle instead of Music’ and the opera was banned. In several years Lady Macbeth was performed in the US, Sweden, Prague, and in a concert performance in London. There were performances in Zagreb, and in Venice in 1937, and 1947 respectively, before the opera was revised for a performance in 1962 at the Stanislavsky Opera Theatre where under the name Katerina Izmailova it played for fifty evenings in its first season. Therefore, this performance was unique for it was given at the very theatre where this opera was given its Moscow premieres in January 1934, and in 1962.

Here, in its original version, the Samara Opera presented a one-off performance as part of the annual Golden Mask theatre awards season in the Russian capital. The Samara Opera was founded in 1931 and is one of the finest companies outside the two major cities in Russia, and this performance verified this. The city was named after Kuibyshev during most of the Soviet era and during the Second World War the opera house became a temporary home for the Bolshoi Theatre when they were evacuated from Moscow. Notably, the world premiere of Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony was performed there by the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra in March 1942, an event which is immortalised by a statue of Shostakovich outside the concert hall. There have been several important premieres; in 1999 they premiered Slonimsky’s opera The Vision of Ivan the Terrible in a production by Mstislav Rostropovich, and Robert Sturua. (The late great baritone Dmitry Hvorostovsky often sang there in productions of Italian and Russian opera.) In marking the composer’s 110th birthday, this staging of Shostakovich’s opera was premiered on 20 May 2016 and had an enormous impact for it was nominated for the prestigious Golden Mask.

It was immediately clear why the Samara staging became so admired and popular; before the music started the curtains opened to reveal the main characters staring out at the audience while the heroine Katerina slowly walks past as if judging them and their relationships to her. The rather simplistic sets throughout the first three acts are dominated by the Izmailov family home – a wooden house occupying the central stage and the great wooden fence which is moved at will throughout the swiftly changing scenes. In the final Act IV set in Siberia, a desolate space bordered by two fences depicts the convoy of convicts and the river scene.

The emphasis throughout is in the interactions between Katerina, her husband Zinovy and the merchant Boris, her stepfather, her lover Sergei, and the villagers, all of which convey the desperate pitiful plight of Katerina. In Leskov’s story, she is portrayed as a treacherous murderer, but in Shostakovich she is presented as the victim. The relationship between Katerina and her stepfather Boris is determined at first with all the animosity between them brought out in Boris’s depressingly intimidating ‘Will there be mushrooms today’, and his abuse of her when she sings ‘No, I can’t sleep’. Ironically, Boris is poisoned by the mushrooms. The famous sex scene between Sergey and Katerina is closed off from the viewers by the fence being moved in front of the bedroom while a brass band takes the stage performing the loud and boisterous music of the interlude with alternately comic and brutal realism while the sex is going on behind. Hearing the ribald and sexually suggestive glissandos on the trombones, trumpets, horns and tuba lead one to imagine that it’s not surprising it was banned in the Victorian morality of the thirties in Russia.

Most certainly, the playing by the brass band was terrific – and it certainly added to the spectacular performance. In Act I, the brass band made their first contribution coming on to celebrate the village festivity at Zinovy Izmailov’s leave-taking with the humorous folk dancing. The brass players continued to make interventions throughout – playing sometimes from a balcony in brutally ironic and unforgiving accounts to the unfolding drama on stage. In Act III, there was the horrifying grotesque wedding scene of Sergei and Katerina with the guests dressed in red and all became sozzled, with the priest made brutal fun of by the guests as he becomes increasingly drunk. The degree to which Shostakovich makes fun of several characters parodying them brutally represents a truly bitter criticism of society and morality.

The interaction between Boris, her father-in-law and Katerina is a highlight of the whole production and also of significance is the role of the village folk with the worst side perhaps of the Russian character been presented in their willingness to celebrate Katerina’s happiness and at the same vilify her for taking a lover behind her husband’s back, and once more joyous at her arrest following the murder of the step-father.

The arrival in Act IV of the convicts’ convoy in Siberia was dramatic with the pitiable scene of Katerina’s betrayal by Sergei cajoling her and giving her warm clothes to the prostitute Sonetka. Katerina’s emotionally plaintive arioso ‘Seryozha my dear’ is one of the finest vocal melodies written by the composer and appears in his eighth and twelfth string quartets. Following the murder of Sonetka and Katerina’s suicide, there is heard the spiritual lament by the prisoners’ chorus and the old convict singing a dirge, a moving passage with an affinity with Mussorgsky’s scene of the Holy Fool’s lament in Boris Godunov. The full gravity of Shostakovich’s opera depicting the oppression of women in Tsarist society was presented here and it is difficult to see how any contemporary theatre company could match this harshly realistic staging of Shostakovich’s opera. The parts of the main characters were wonderfully realised; the central part of Katerina Izmailova taken by Irina Krikunova who sang as if the role was written for her; indeed, this role is treacherously difficult embracing erotic love, grief, melancholy and final despair. The part of Boris Izmailov her stepfather was Dmitry Skorikov who presented an impressively dramatic portrayal with a fine vocal presence. Katerina’s lover Sergey was well depicted by Ilya Govzin and an excellent actor mixing the lechery ‘Well then madam, allow me to take your hand’ with sensual tenderness, and later brutal treachery.

In his notes about the opera, Shostakovich wrote modestly: ‘I have tried to characterise Katerina Lvovna as a positive person who merits sympathy from the audience.’ Alexander Anisimov’s direction throughout was excellent, and the standards of performance of the large orchestra were outstanding, with beautiful play on the strings especially, and the woodwind, all of whom played out of their skins. Throughout, the large cast of superb mime actors, singers and the mens’ and women’s’ choruses were further evidence of the high standards of the Samara company. The musical interludes between scenes were wonderfully well performed showing another element of Shostakovich’s genius. The overwhelming impression watching this startling production was that following the tirade in Pravda, the 20th-century music world lost a great operatic composer. Listening to recordings of this opera in no way prepares you for the excitingly dramatic stage production. This performance was the highlight of a two-week review of the Russian music scene and has long stayed in the memory.

Gregor Tassie

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