Written when the composer was only 26, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is the greatest opera written after the death of Puccini. It’s combination of satire, suffering, audacity, energy, inspired vulgarity, and youthful abandon make it unique on the lyric stage. Add to this perhaps the most brilliant score ever written for the theater and you have an opera that is unique.
A huge success after its premiere in 1934, it disappeared after Stalin saw it in 1936. The mass murder was a prude and walked out before the performance ended. Shortly thereafter an unsigned article appeared in Pravda and the opera was finished. Shostakovich was almost finished as well. His 4th Symphony which was in rehearsal at the time and which was sure to be as unsatisfactory to Stalin as was the opera was withdrawn and didn’t receive it first performance until 1961 – eight years after Stalin’s death. Shostakovitch managed to save himself by producing the 5th Symphony which hued to the Socialist Realism model which was required of all artists by the communist hierarchy.
Stravinsky also didn’t like the opera. The disapproval of the most overrated composer of the 20th century and the opera loving monster who ruled the Soviet Union for more than 25 years delayed the acceptance of this work as the masterpiece it is for some time. But it is now recognized as a colossus of the art.
Shostakovich never completed another opera after his near death experience with Lady Macbeth. Thus, 20th century opera is among the long list of Stalin’s victims. The composer’s youthful exuberance was also a casualty of the regime’s disapproval. It was henceforth replaced by a morose hiding of the his true feelings. Fortunately for 20th century music his genius remained intact and we likely have more great symphonies and string quartets than we would have had if Shostakovich had devoted more time to opera.
The performance below was recorded in Amsterdam in 2006. It features Eva-Maria Westbroek in the title role. She also sang the part at the Met last fall. The staging in this performance departs from the libretto in many spots, but it true to the essence of the piece. The subtitles are in Dutch, so if you’re not familiar with the story consult one of the many synopses of the opera readily available on the web. Since YouTube videos come and go like money in the federal treasury I’ve added a link that will allow you to download the audio of this performance.
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
Eva-Maria Westbroek – Katerina Lvovna Ismailova
Christopher Ventris – Sergey
Vladimir Vaneev – Boris Timofeyevich Ismailov & Old Convict
Ludovít Ludha – Zinovy Borisovich Ismailov
Carole Wilson – Aksinya & Femme prisonnière
Alexandre Kravets – Shabby Peasant
Nikita Storojev – Chief of Police
Alexander Vassiliev – Priest & Guard
Valentin Jar – Teacher
Lani Poulson – Sonyetk
Netherlands Opera Chorus
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Mariss Jansons, conductor
Live recording. Amsterdam, 2006