Shostakovich, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, 1934

Shostakovich Stalin and Soviet art

Stunningly original or a tool of the Stalinist regime? He was both. His struggle to compose under the Stalinist regime was epitomized in his “Anti-formalist Rayok’ – against the “Zhdanov Doctrine His first, satirical opera, The Nose, was criticized in 1929 by RAPM (Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians ) as "formalist". But his second opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District  in 1934 triumphed. It was described as "the result of the general success of Socialist construction, of the correct policy of the Party", and as an opera that "could have been written only by a Soviet composer brought up in the best tradition of Soviet culture".  Two years later after Stalin and the Politburo attended a performance it was denounced in Pravda (written by Stalin?) as "muddle Instead of music" and "coarse, primitive and vulgar" (translation here). Thus began the Soviet ideological crackdown on music, and art in general. Yet its themes should have been welcome. Indeed he had planned it as “the first part of a trilogy depicting the oppression and liberation of women before, during and after the Revolution.” (More from the Guardian)

The Opera

The opera is based on Nikolai Leskov’s novel  which made Katerina a monster; Shostakovich reinstated her.  Then only 26, he presented a version that leaves the audience confronted, torn between condemnation and sympathy. He made the opera “a cry for help – a plea for personal freedom, and for the rights of the individual to be respected.” The music achieved this, according to The Independent: He pours all his compassion into music of such sublime beauty and tenderness that the listener has little choice but to side with Katerina’s passion, sensitivity, love, sexuality, vulnerability, dignity and strength. The Guardian says of another production: The work bursts with lust, ennui, sex, defiance, crime – and the politics of freedom… The music is pungent, salty, sinewy and multi-layered, dense with ironic references to popular and folk tunes, rich in what Dante called vulgari eloquentia. Katerina Izmailova is a truly modern heroine, honest to herself and the world, with her erotic defiance of oppressive social surroundings, conventional morality
and the law. Watch Antonio Pappano setting the scene for the opera. And here’s a clip of Shostakovich himself playing the Entracte to Act III.

Our Production

Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, conductor James Conlon. Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, Vladimir Vaneev and Vsevolod Grivnov (2008). DVDs courtesy Pat & Ewan Cameron, English subtitles.