So allow me to share some rather quick observations about my early weekend, which, since I am a lazy bastard, started very early this Friday – I knew this was going to be a strange one when I saw that someone came to our page by doing a search “Jeff Scholes 2007” – now for those who know who Mr. Jeff Scholes is this should be enough of a shock to fill many weekend afternoons of frightened shivering and utter confusion – I suppose there exists out there a new “2007” version.
So I got the new 2006 production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk directed by Martin Kusej and Nikolaus Lehnhoff at De Nederlandse Opera which is available on Netflix and Amazon. Simply judging by the photo on the cover of this 2 DVD version (includes an hour long documentary about the production) one can already tell that this is a rather brave and very perverse version of the classic which, although controversial, did not explicitly make all the points that Kusej-Lehnhoff version makes: including the implication that Sergei rapes Katerina, that Katerina is a virgin after years of marriage to Zinoviy who, in turn, looks rather weak, and that Boris Timofeyevich is clearly intending on seducing his daughter-in-law and only her affair with Sergei prevents him from proceeding with the plan – one cannot help but wonder how this opera was ever permitted on stage before it’s inevitable condemnation and banishment from “pure” Soviet opera stage in 1936.
As is well-known, young Dimitri’s second opera has first premiered on January 22nd of 1934 at Leningrad Maliy Theater – it was well received and was only “condemned” in 1936 after the great Georgian himself found it vulgar and, of course, anything the fearless leader did not like was against the very essence of the progressive Soviet operatic culture – only in 1960s the opera was revived under a new name – Katerina Izmailova – and with some changes. This is how Tim Ashley (of The Guardian) eloquently describes the event of the opera’s unfortunate banishment.
On January 26 1936, Joseph Stalin went to the opera in Moscow. This was nothing unusual. But on this occasion, the consequences were to prove dire. The opera was Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, by Dmitri Shostakovich, then only 29, and the darling of the Soviet avant garde. A huge hit at its Leningrad premiere two years previously, Lady Macbeth had clocked up nearly 200 performances in the Soviet Union and been enthusiastically received in Copenhagen, Prague, New York and London. Such was its popularity that, in January 1936, there were three productions running concurrently in Moscow alone.
Shostakovich was in the audience on the night of Stalin’s visit. Any expectations he might have harboured of meeting the dictator were quashed when the official delegation swept out in high dudgeon before the final scene. Two days later, Pravda, the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, went on the warpath with its now-infamous editorial entitled Muddle Instead of Music.
“Singing is replaced by shrieking,” the article raged. “The music quacks, hoots, growls and gasps to express the love scenes as naturally as possible.” The opera’s success abroad was held up as “tickling the perverted taste of the bourgeoisie with its fidgety, screaming neurotic music”. There was also an open threat of danger to Russia’s artistic community. “The ability of good music to enthral the masses has been sacrificed on the altar of petit-bourgeois formalism. This is playing at abstruseness – and such games can only finish badly.”
Eva-Maria Westbroek plays Katerina and is absolutely amazing in this difficult role given the fact that she is mostly half-naked throughout the majority of the opera. Christopher Ventris (Sergei) is as much of an asshole as originally intended (by 28 year old Shostakovich who, by the way, dedicated the opera to his first wife – talk about subtlety). And illustrious Vladimir Vaneev is Boris Timofeyevich who, indeed, dies like a rat (or not quite like a rat, according to the drunk priest).
In general, it is a very cheerful opera – if I have not yet persuaded anyone, check it out for yourself! Here are some pictures of all the fun one will have during the four acts of this classic of Soviet opera!
P.S. Martin Kusej also did Strauss’ Elektra which is next in my queue and hopefully it is as good as this production.