Shostakovich’s ‘tragedy-satire’ Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk creates a frisson in Vienna

AustriaAustria Shostakovich, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Vienna State Opera / Alexander Soddy (conductor). Broadcast live from Vienna State Opera (directed by Ella Gallieni), 12.6.2023. (JPr)

Elena Mikhailenko (Katerina) and Günther Groissböck (Boris) © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

Shostakovich and his collaborator, Alexander Preys, based their libretto for Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk on a short story by Nikolai Leskov. Though what we see and hear is undoubtedly Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth not Leskov’s, or Shakespeare’s. It is important to remember that Shostakovich was so traumatised by Stalin’s attack on the work that he never composed another opera, concentrating on symphonies and film music. (In Vienna I believe it is Stalin’s head from a statue of him which is at the front of the stage in Act IV.) The only thing that came even close to another opera by Shostakovich was Cheryomushki (Paradise Moscow), about life in 1950s Moscow. It is apparently a gentle, brilliant satire on Soviet bureaucracy, communal living and bribery. Some time ago the famous director David Pountney suggested ‘We were cheated of the composer who could have been the Verdi of the twentieth century.’ I am not sure that Verdi is a name that immediately comes to mind when watching Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, but he was right to imply there is much we will have lost and, as a result, we are potentially (musically) poorer for it. Shostakovich was only 26 when he completed the opera in 1932, and it was conceived as the first of a trilogy revealing how women were oppressed or liberated before, during and after the Revolution with the composer labelling the opera a ‘tragedy-satire’.

The powerful score imposes a duality of perspective on the listening audience: there is Katerina whose soul-destroying isolation and rampant sexual desires are accompanied by soaring lyrical music, but this contrasts with the bile Shostakovich meters out satirically to virtually all the other characters. Hidden within all this are pastiches of other composers’ music including allusions to Wagner’s Ring and his Parsifal (just listen to the opening music of Act IV).

In brief, the story is of the sexually frustrated Katerina Izmailova, wife of the wealthy but ineffectual and impotent Zinovy. Their marriage is childless and Katerina is bullied by her father-in-law, Boris. When Zinovy is away working she seeks solace in the arms of a lover, Sergei, and uses her culinary skill with mushrooms to make a meal laced with rat poison which despatches Boris. Zinovy returns home with his suspicions about his father’s recent death and having discovered what Katerina and Sergei have been getting up to in his absence he must be killed as well. His soon-to-be rotting corpse is left in an adjacent wine-cellar. On their wedding day the two of them realise that their game is up and decide to flee but are arrested for their crimes. Whilst being transported to Siberia, Sergei double-crosses Katerina and takes up with Sonyetka. The humiliated Katerina takes her revenge by drowning her rival along with herself in a river.

Vienna State Opera’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Act IV) © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

The first three acts are perfectly pitched between tragedy and comedy; the ‘rape’ of the cook, the lovers ‘wrestling’, Sergei’s violent flogging, Boris’s poisoning, the drunken priest, Zinovy’s murder, the drunken peasant – described as a ‘builder’ in Vienna- who discovers the dead body, the ‘Keystone Cops’ – here more G&S with their rubber truncheons – and finally the wedding scene. It was the first three acts that offended Stalin so much that he left before the final one which almost seems from another work entirely and Shostakovich might never have survived had he stayed. The great Galina Vishnevskaya – a legendary Katerina – wrote in her autobiography: ‘In that oppressive silence, one suddenly hears the melancholy sound of the English horn and the voice of a solitary, unhappy woman … When insight comes … the avalanche of the orchestral prelude to her last monologue brings the heavens down on her … the road to her private hell … Here, for the first time, are her horror at what she has done, her self-condemnation, and her only salvation, death.’

As the opera ends with more of the transported convicts’ despair we experience the full impact of Stalin’s terrors. The final words of the translation being: ‘Oh, steppes, vast and infinite! Days and nights pass without end. Our thoughts are nothing but gloomy, the guards are so heartless.’ A word of praise here for the contribution of the veteran Dan Paul Dumitrescu as the Old Convict whose secure and resonant bass brought the opera to a plaintive close before his character was subjected to a beating; the final one of the many others suffered during this Lady Macbeth.

Matthias Hartmann’s 2009 production – abetted by Volker Hintermeier’s sets and Su Bühler’s costumes – is fairly abstract and begins with a darkened stage so we focus on Katerina’s large, central and illuminated bed which reappears from time to time and sees a lot of ‘action’ during the course of the opera. Ostensibly it is between a wall on one side looking as if it is made of geometric wooden blocks (where the wine-cellar will be revealed) and a huge window (possibly) covered by a white, stage deep curtain. Actually, they are large rectangular screens which allow for silhouettes either atmospheric (as characters skulk around), graphic (simulated gymnastic sex for Katerina and Sergei), haunting (the dead Boris’s appearance as a flaming skull) or allowing the (Mahlerian?) brass band Shostakovich requires at the end of Act I to appear on stage. For the final act it will be a long table set for the wedding guests which will dominate the stage. At the very end seeing the soldiers with their automatic weapons silhouetted against a clear sky it creates – along with all the barbed wire and thoughts of a forced march – a chilling frisson in our war-ravaged times. Katerina is often in white (?) whilst others are in timeless costumes which are often grey.

A front curtain drops between scenes allowing listeners to indulge in the composer’s colourful interludes which sometimes sound at odds with what we have been watching. British conductor Alexander Soddy (General Music Director of the Mannheim National Theater) masterfully conducted the incomparable Vienna State Opera orchestra and the excellent – and frequently gesticulating and hyperactive – chorus. The musical highlights, for me, were the thrusting thumps illustrating Sergei’s carnal desire and the boisterous silent comedy film-like galloping.

The opera was well-acted by a large cast but there was – now and again – occasional evidence of tiredness in the voices. Elena Mikhailenko gave a fine account of a mercilessly demanding role which required the full range of her voice from refined pianissimo singing to some near hysteria as Katerina goes through a full gamut of emotions from loneliness, vulnerability, heightened passion to the devastating effects of betrayal. Dmitry Golovnin’s Sergei strutted around the stage as god’s gift to women, his voice was strong and secure although I didn’t see much genuine chemistry – sexual or otherwise – between this Katerina and Sergei. As a stage animal it is difficult to take one’s eyes off Günther Groissböck whenever he is on the stage and his Boris was suitably menacing in both voice and personality although not too many steps removed from his much-admired Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavlier. Andrei Popov (Zinovy) was defeated by the high tessitura demanded of him, whilst the cavernous voice of Evgeny Solodovnikov impressed as the drunken and lascivious priest. Evgeniya Sotnikova’s intense Aksinya stoically fought off the attentions of Sergei and the workers attempting to sexually assault her in the second scene and Maria Barakova did the very best of the little Shostakovich gives her as a well-characterised Sonyetka.

Jim Pritchard

Production – Matthias Hartmann
Set design – Volker Hintermeier
Costume design – Su Bühler
Choreography -Teresa Rotemberg
Chorus master – Martin Schebesta

Boris Izmailov – Günther Groissböck
Zinoviy Izmailov – Andrei Popov
Katerina Izmailova – Elena Mikhailenko
Sergei – Dmitry Golovnin
Sonyetka – Maria Barakova
Aksinya – Evgeniya Sotnikova
Tattered peasant – Thomas Ebenstein
Steward / Policeman – Hans Peter Kammerer
Porter / Sentry – Marcus Pelz
First Workman – Juraj Kuchar
Second Workman – Oleg Zalytskiy
Third Workman – Veli-Pekka Varpula
Mill worker – Johannes Gisser
Coachman – Juraj Kuchar
Priest – Evgeny Solodovnikov
Police Inspector – Attila Mokus
Instructor – Carlos Osuna
Drunk guest – Franz Gruber
Sergeant – Liviu Burz
Old Convict – Dan Paul Dumitrescu
Female convict – Jenni Hietala

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