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