Mu­sic Richard Os­borne


‘In th­ese parts, one oc­ca­sion­ally comes across in­di­vid­u­als of such char­ac­ter that, no mat­ter how many years have passed, one can­not re­call them with­out ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an in­ward tremor.’

So be­gins Niko­lai Leskov’s exquisitely crafted yet har­row­ing 1865 novella Lady Mac­beth of the Mtsensk District.

There are op­eras, too, that it’s dif­fi­cult to re­call with­out an in­ward tremor; none more so than the ‘tragedy-satire’ which the young Dmitri Shostakovich cre­ated out of this same Leskov novella.

The opera caused a sen­sa­tion at its pre­miere and was soon play­ing to packed houses in Len­ingrad and Moscow. Then, in Jan­uary 1936, the great Leader and Teacher saw it and the show hit the buf­fers. ‘Be­fore Stalin saw it,’ Shostakovich re­called, ‘I was a boy who needed a good spank­ing. After­wards, I was a state crim­i­nal.’

Things were never the same again. As David Fan­ning re­marked in his pro­gramme es­say for An­dreas Kriegen­burg’s su­perla­tive 2017 Salzburg Fes­ti­val pro­duc­tion, Shostakovich’s ‘daz­zling the­atri­cal­ity, the glee­fully ma­li­cious satire, the panache, the phe­nom­e­nal self-con­fi­dence’ van­ished af­ter 1936. From there on, ev­ery­thing was driven in­ward. No bad thing, per­haps, given the real-life hor­rors that were about to en­gulf the Rus­sian peo­ple.

But there was an­other loss. Leskov de­scribed his novella as ‘a tragic por­trayal of a tal­ented, smart and out­stand­ing woman, dy­ing in the night­mar­ish con­di­tions of pre-rev­o­lu­tion­ary Rus­sia’. This had been the clincher for the twenty-three-year-old Shostakovich, who had planned to write a trip­tych of op­eras ‘ded­i­cated to the po­si­tion of women in Rus­sia in var­i­ous epochs’. Un­cle Jo’s in­ter­ven­tion put paid to that.

Ka­te­rina Iz­mailova is an eigh­teen year old who, to es­cape poverty, has mar­ried a ru­ral mer­chant, a te­dious wid­ower with a fond­ness for the bot­tle. Five years into a child­less mar­riage, she’s se­duced by Sergei, a hand­some young stud on the es­tate. When the af­fair is dis­cov­ered, Ka­te­rina’s killings be­gin: first, her preda­tory, bul­ly­ing fa­ther-in-law (rat poi­son in the mush­room stew), then her hus­band, and, fi­nally, a young boy, her hus­band’s nom­i­nated heir. Since Shostakovich wished to show Ka­te­rina as a vic­tim of so­ci­ety rather than a com­mon crim­i­nal, he omit­ted this fi­nal atroc­ity.

Love is Shostakovich’s lodestar. Any­one who gets in its way is mocked or di­a­bolised: the goat­ish fa­ther-in-law, the wimp­ish hus­band, the drunken pri­est, the ve­nal po­lice­men who are por­trayed as a species of Key­stone Cop. (The teenage Shostakovich had played for silent films in Len­ingrad pic­ture houses.)

It’s a score awash with off-the-wall dance mu­sic, which Mariss Jan­sons and the Vienna Phil­har­monic played with true an­ar­chic verve. There’s no bet­ter con­duc­tor to have in charge of just about any­thing th­ese days than Jan­sons, and how the Vienna Phil­har­monic played for him! Dur­ing the ri­otous in­ter­lude that fol­lows the grubby workman’s dis­cov­ery of a corpse in the wine cellar, the en­tire dou­ble-bass sec­tion ap­peared air­borne, like fig­ures in a Dis­ney an­i­ma­tion.

Even to­day, one hears complaints about the opera’s ‘pa­rade-ground vul­gar­ity’. Yet it’s pre­cisely this mix of high tragedy and low farce that is its glory. By the time Stalin saw it, some things had been toned down – Sergei’s

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