Opera News: The Whole Truth

Notes on Lady Macbeth
By James Conlon
Originally printed in OPERA NEWS and reprinted with permission
December 10, 1994, Vol. 59 No. 6

“There is no situation, however loathsome, to which a human being cannot grow accustomed, and in each and every one of them he retains, so far as possible, his ability to pursue his meager joys; but Katerina Lvovna needed to make no adjustments: she could see her Sergei again, and in his presence even the road of penal servitude would blossom with happiness.” [Nikolai Leskov, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District]

“To make a tragedy the artist must isolate a single element out of the totality of human experience and use that exclusively as his material. Tragedy is something that is separated out from the Whole Truth, distilled from it … chemically pure…. It is because of its chemical purity that tragedy so effectively performs its function of catharsis….
… in recent times literature has become more and more acutely conscious of the Whole Truth—of the great ocean of irrelevant things, events and thoughts stretching away endlessly in every direction.”
 [Aldous Huxley, Music at Night]

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District is the most important Russian opera of the twentieth century. Considered from a host of viewpoints, Dmitri Shostakovich’s achievement is staggering. He realistically depicted the lowly status of Russian women and laid bare the hypocrisy and brutality of Soviet society; in one great gesture he created a musical vocabulary all his own, using the orchestra with novel mastery and virtuosity.

No modern opera has had greater political repercussions. Although operatic works often became symbolic political rallying cries (Verdi’s Risorgimento operas, Nabucco in particular), censorship historically has limited the scope of political statements. Given the climate he lived in, Shostakovich’s sardonic portrayal of the Stalinist police network in Lady Macbeth was an act of outrageous bravery. He was to pay the price the rest of his life.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that the world was deprived of what clearly could have been a giant of Russian opera. When one compares the twenty-six-year-old Verdi of Oberto with the composer of Falstaff, one is faced with the painful question of how far Shostakovich—only twenty-seven when Lady Macbeth had its premiere in Leningrad—could have developed as an opera composer had he not been abruptly silenced by Stalin’s criticism a year later.

The title character, Katerina, is a less than holy trinity—criminal, victim and lover. She is brutalized and humiliated by her environment. Married young to a rich landowner, subjected to constant abuse from her father-in-law, she is desolate in a loveless marriage and surrounded by a corrupt society. She murders twice and incites to murder. She marries her accomplice, causing his and her condemnation. She yearns, desires and loves with a passion that disdains all boundaries and defies all obstacles. It is clearly Shostakovich’s intention that she win and retain our sympathy, even our admiration.

Le crime passionel (almost always committed by a man) has been at the basis of opera seria since its origins. This story has been told often before. So why should Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk fascinate us? The answer lies not so much in the similarities to other librettos as in the differences—and above all in the eyes (and ears) through which we experience it. The compositional faculties of Shostakovich have put it in a unique context. Alexander Preis, drawing the substance from a short story by Nikolai Leskov (1831-95), has surrounded the domestic drama with an environment that is specifically nineteenth-century czarist, tacitly Soviet circa 1930 and metaphorically universal. No other opera score has so successfully fused “bourgeois drama,” social commentary, satire, high passion, tragedy and Huxley’s “Whole Truth.”

Lady Macbeth is not a tragedy either in Huxley’s or in the classical sense. These characters are neither high-born nor morally enlightened. They are not meant to fulfill great destinies. The opera’s universality lies more in its striking a chord that resonates with the mythical/Biblical stories of the futility of the pursuit of power. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a tragedy because the moral potential of a man born to lead is corrupted and damages the lives of his people. But no character in Lady Macbeth is “great,” so there is no fall from heroic heights.

Katerina’s “greatness” lies in her overwhelming desire to love and be loved. In Act I she plaintively observes that all other living creatures seem to have someone, and a poignant solo cello echoes her belief that “No love will be my fate here.”

Katerina commits murder solely to attain love. She is driven by sexual desire, and once she finds an adequate partner (she tells Sergei to “Kiss me so it hurts my lips … and the icons fall from their shelves”) she cannot help herself. This is the reason she incites pity as well as reprobation. We can feel simultaneously compassion and disgust. Katerina’s environment does not provide any area to sublimate her drives. (This is Shostakovich’s main social critique.) She never sells her soul—she alienates herself from society, from which she is inwardly alienated already. She is closer to Isolde and Salome than to Ortrud or Herodias.

We can almost condone Katerina’s first murder. She is a creature of instinct and has a primitive sense of justice. Her murder of Boris is the act of an outraged, victimized young woman who, like Tosca, avenges the torture of her lover and seeks to protect him. Sergei’s role must be looked at more carefully. He is neither noble nor heroic. His ambition seems to be to seduce his masters’ wives, then move on. She sacrifices her “kingdom” and life for this illusory, elusive partner. Leskov’s title already shows us that the story is not about the couple but the woman.
Shostakovich goes further by showing that if there is nobility of spirit to be found anywhere in this shabby society, it is only in the woman and in her capacity to shower love on unworthy objects. She typifies the boundless soul, the capacity for passionate love, hatred, spirituality and sensuality, of Mother Russia. In the Dostoyevskian tradition, Shostakovich confronts the “failed saint” at the heart of the worst criminal and the potential criminal in even the most refined and civilized humanitarian. Katerina is not a murderer by nature.

Like Marfa in Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, Katerina exhibits inexhaustible devotion and forgiveness. Both women commit suicide. Marfa goes in determined harmony with her convictions and conscience, while Katerina, in a final act of vengeance and humiliation, murders her last rival while taking her own life. The spiritual gulf that separates Katerina from Marfa is a reflection of their diverse environments but not of their innate qualities. Both, in their Russian way, find a counterpart in Wagner’s self-sacrificing heroines.

At first, opera’s tragic heroines were almost exclusively ill-fated lovers. If they sinned, it was at the altar of love. The great heroines of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century opera, however, who are not at all guilty, transcend and define Western society’s highest image of itself. The German heroines are noble, loyal and self-sacrificing, the Russians soulful, poetic and compassionate, the Italians ardent and generous.

As one approaches the middle of the nineteenth century, heroines bravely confront societal prohibitions, pay the price but keep their integrity. Isolde and Sieglinde break taboos; Violetta, though by profession corrupt, redeems and is redeemed through love. Later antiheroines (some depraved)—Carmen, Manon, Salome—are creatures of instinct, unscrupulous, amoral, who live for the moment. Curiously, most are French. Their playing-out of the femme-fatale motif was as interesting to the nineteenth-century French as the great self-sacrificing heroines were for the Germans.

Part of Katerina’s fascination is that we see her murder. In opera, the heroine as murderess is a rarity. Many are catalysts of the murder but do not carry it out, keeping with classical tradition. Tosca, ushering in the twentieth century, is the first heroine to murder onstage. Unlike the Princess de Bouillon in Adriana Lecouvreur or Jack Beeson’s Lizzie Borden, she does not premeditate: Tosca kills in self-defense. And like Katerina, she is motivated by vengeance in an atmosphere of despair.

Just as Benjamin Britten chose to eliminate one more dead apprentice from Crabbe’s The Borough and give Peter Grimes a visionary Byronic touch, so Shostakovich removes Katerina’s most heinous crime (the murder of the nephew—the point in Leskov’s story at which Katerina permanently loses our sympathy) and imbues her with a touch of Tatyana’s poetic yearning. Rejecting the role of victim, taking destiny into her own hands, she can also be viewed as a pioneer. She acts with the means available to her and becomes the logical extension of the gradual development of more complex heroines.

Shostakovich would not allow himself the Wagnerian mythological catharsis of redemption, nor the despairing eroticism of Puccini. He shunned the moist-eyed self-indulgence of the late nineteenth century. The use of parody and satire as trademarks in all Shostakovich’s orchestral works is as intrinsic as Mahler’s interwoven “vulgarity” is in his symphonies. Shostakovich prevents himself and us from identifying too deeply with any person or situation in the course of the evening. The dramatic use of irony and distance is as rigorously disciplined as in Alban Berg’s formal structures or Bertolt Brecht’s “alienation effect.”

Shostakovich’s harsh view of the characters in Lady Macbeth comes across memorably in his musical treatment of sex. When Katerina goes to bed with Sergei in Act II, the score reaches a Tristan-like peak of erotic rapture:
The vocal line then just as quickly begins to deteriorate, mirroring Sergei’s shallowness, as he begins to discuss Zinovy’s return.

The famous pornographic trombone glissando (which apparently shocked Stalin) is explicit in its upward thrust and its detumescence. Shostakovich pays the weak husband, Zinovy, the ultimate insult of making him a secondary tenor and assigning the alto flute, with its flaccid timbre, to follow him around. The driving two-note motif for the workers’ molestation of Aksinya, the cook is closely related to the later theme for Sergei and Katerina’s violent lovemaking.

The atmosphere of decadence in Lady Macbeth is exemplified by the Shabby Peasant, a debauched successor to Mussorgsky’s Simpleton and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Grishka Kuterma in The Invisible City of Kitezh. The holy fool, or yurodivy, a Russian phenomenon that dates back at least to the Middle Ages, is able to hear and see what others cannot, then to communicate these visions in an enigmatic language. Both Mussorgsky and Shostakovich perceived themselves as yurodivy. The Shabby Peasant, an Unholy Fool, wandering in and out of backyards, bedrooms and wine cellars seemingly at will, personifies two national vices, that of the informer and that of the alcoholic. Galina Vishnevskaya says Shostakovich referred to the informer as the “Dynamo of Soviet Society.” The great circus interlude that follows the Peasant’s discovery of the body is a vulgar hymn to that Dynamo. Fed by and dependent on such information, the police state is currupt, tyrannical and Philistine. The police station scene (which doesn’t appear in Leskov’s story) acidly ridicules the entire political/military apparatus.

In Lady Macbeth, every opera convention is to be found—arias, love songs, yearning monologues, love duets, a ghost, an interrupted wedding feast, lamenting choruses and the typical adulterous love triangle (tenor loves soprano, with evil baritone nemesis).

Nothing is allowed to escape Shostakovich’s icy gaze. Whenever a situation approaches operatic cliché, just when the listener might become swayed by pathos or melodrama, the satiric ax falls. When the lecherous Boris thinks about Katerina lying sleepless in her bed, Shostakovich evokes Richard Strauss’ Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier:
Even the revered Mussorgsky is quoted. Shedding crocodile tears for the father-in-law she has just murdered, Katerina cites the chorus that has to be goaded into urging the throne upon Boris Godunov.

Leskov’s reflection on a quotation from the Book of Job, “Curse the day that thou wast born, and die,” seems to articulate the essence of Shostakovich’s musical concept. As Leskov sees it, “Those who do not wish to pay heed to these words, those to whom the thought of death, even in this sorry situation, appears not a blessed release but a cause for fear, must try to drown out these wailing voices with something even uglier than they. The ordinary man understands this perfectly: at such times he gives free rein to all his brutish ordinariness and proceeds to act stupidly, jeering at his own feelings and at those of other people. Not particularly soft-hearted even at the best of times, he now becomes positively nasty.”

Shostakovich’s orchestra becomes positively nasty. It screams, storms, repulses, excites, bites back. It shifts at will from tone-painting to editorializing, from expressivity to parody. Apart from Katerina, only the Old Convict in the final act escapes Shostakovich’s scathing commentary. Whereas Wagner’s orchestra has been likened to the inarticulate voice of the subconscious, Peter Conrad writes that Shostakovich’s “orchestra pit is the cellar where the stinking body… has been discarded.” Its angry violence is akin to the early, inconoclastic Stravinsky and Bartók. It is an orchestra meant to overwhelm, pummel the stage into submission. But then it also can evoke deep pathos, loneliness, yearning, despair.

In the final moments, a chorus of convicts (guilty and innocent alike) echoes the cry of the Simpleton at the end of Boris Godunov, an outpouring of compassion for the lost people of Russia—and by extension, for the world. It is here that the work becomes universal. We are all prisoners. Katerina has escaped through the only means possible. The rest of us will live out our days in our terrestrial labor camp.

Shostakovich, taking on the Mussorgskian mantle, assumed a role that would become his salvation in the decades to come. Early forced to curb his youthful outspokenness, he nevertheless, by assuming the paradoxical character of the yurodivy, could continue to speak through his music for the rest of his life. In Lady Macbeth too, even before Stalin’s reprimand, he delivered himself of an enigmatic, paradoxical work that speaks in tongues, in a language that simultaneously reveals and obfuscates, confesses and denies, equivocates and speaks truths, accuses and finally forgives.
OPERA NEWS, December 10, 1994 ©1994 The Metropolitan Opera Guild, Inc.

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