Saved from the gulags - Features - Music - The Independent

Saved from the gulags

Shostakovich's opera 'Lady Macbeth' was condemned by Stalin and rewritten by the composer. So how did the original survive, asks Tom Rosenthal. And what is it like to perform?

Seventy years is a long time for the Royal Opera to wait before producing its premiere of one of the few truly great operas of the 20th century - although it's not entirely their fault. Dmitri Shostakovich was only 28 when the Maliy Theatre in Leningrad put on the first of 83 performances of his second opera in 1934. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is a sensational tale of adultery, lust, sadism, violence, greed and murder set in the merchant class of mid 19th-century provincial Russia. And Russian musical theatre had never, till then, seen or heard anything like it. It was a staggering success. Even in the topsy-turvy world of Soviet culture, Shostakovich was suddenly at the top, the dominant figure in Russian music, not least, perhaps, because Stravinsky, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev had already gone into exile.

Seventy years is a long time for the Royal Opera to wait before producing its premiere of one of the few truly great operas of the 20th century - although it's not entirely their fault. Dmitri Shostakovich was only 28 when the Maliy Theatre in Leningrad put on the first of 83 performances of his second opera in 1934. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is a sensational tale of adultery, lust, sadism, violence, greed and murder set in the merchant class of mid 19th-century provincial Russia. And Russian musical theatre had never, till then, seen or heard anything like it. It was a staggering success. Even in the topsy-turvy world of Soviet culture, Shostakovich was suddenly at the top, the dominant figure in Russian music, not least, perhaps, because Stravinsky, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev had already gone into exile.

Then, on 26 January 1936, Stalin and a group of his senior apparatchiks went to hear the opera in Moscow. They left after the third of its four acts. Two days later Pravda ran an anonymous leading article, in which the cognoscenti detected the prose style of Joseph Stalin himself, under the heading "Muddle instead of Music". It contained passages like: "singing is replaced by screaming... the music quacks, hoots, pants and gasps in order to express the love scenes as naturally as possible." This attack was not merely hurtful to the composer. It blighted his life and his career for years. It was one of the many ironies of Russian musical history that the power of Stalin's attack was enhanced by his more or less simultaneous warm approval of a long-forgotten, party-line opera by Ivan Dzerzhinsky, based on Sholokhov's faithfully Soviet novel Quiet Flows the Don. Dzerzhinsky's piece was at first a failure, but was rescued and improved with the assistance and mentorship of Shostakovich.

In those days Stalin's writ ran wide, sometimes even as far as America, where one magazine described Lady Macbeth's violent eroticism as "pornophony". Without access to Stalin's table talk it's difficult to establish whether he and his gang objected to the frequent displays - and vivid musical interpretations - of lust, the sadistic violence or the creaking suspicion that Shostakovich's uninhibited portrayal of Tsarist Russian life was in some sinister way an attack on the Soviet system. After all, the road to Siberia was much the same in both periods and the unspeakable conditions of the ancient penal colonies and the contemporary gulags altogether too close for political comfort.

Whatever Stalin's reasoning, his musical criticism had an appalling effect on Shostakovich, who re-wrote the opera, toning it down in accordance with Pravda's strictures, thus emasculating his greatest non-symphonic work. He had at least a partial protective device in that he re-named it Katerina Ismailova, after its heroine, but this musical retreat remained unperformed anywhere until 1963. I remember seeing it at the Bolshoi in the mid-1970s and Covent Garden-goers with long memories will doubtless recall it being mounted there also in 1963. (It was conducted by the polymath Edward Downes, who also translated the libretto into English.)

The original version stayed in purdah until a few years after Shostakovich's death in 1975. In 1979 Mstislav Rostropovich conducted a wonderful recording of the authentic work, with his wife Galina Vishnevskaya as the female lead and Nicolai Gedda as her lover. Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya inscribed it to the composer: "to our beloved friend, and mentor, we dedicate this work in the hope that at least in some measure it may prove to be worthy of his immortal genius."

Shostakovich's opera started with the novella of the same title by Nikolai Leskov (1831-1895). It has rarely been out of print in English and there's a timely and admirable new translation by Robert Chandler just out in paperback. In the preface Gilbert Adair draws one's attention to the plot's parallels with film noir and the fiction of Raymond Chandler and James M Cain. Certainly the basics of the story, bored wife (Katerina), with voluptuous body and sexually unsatisfactory husband (Zinovy), taking macho, swaggering lover (Sergei) and not only killing for him but making him kill with her, sounds like a precursor of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Andrzej Wajda's Polish film version of 1962 came out as Fury is a Woman in English.

In fact Leskov's masterpiece and Shostakovich's opera have many differences. In the book, Katerina gets pregnant by Sergei, triggering off a sub-plot involving her claim, via the expected baby, to the Ismailov fortune. This leads to a third murder, (after those of father-in-law, Boris Ismailov, and husband), to be rid of the inconvenient child cousin who stands in her way. In the novella Boris takes Sergei down to the cellars to flog him. In the opera, in a deeply sadistic scene, Boris forces Katerina - after whom he also lusts - to watch, while he flogs Sergei in front of the other serfs. (Those who saw David Pountney's wonderful production at ENO might remember that he staged much of the opera in an abattoir and had Boris whip Sergei symbolically while belabouring a carcass, thus giving new meaning to the old phrase about flogging a dead horse.)

But while Shostakovich, who is also co-author of the libretto, cuts whole scenes, he also adds some. Most notable of these is the comic wedding of Katerina and Sergei and its interruption by the viciously satirised police (did Stalin think he meant the KGB?) following the discovery of the husband's body by a drunken peasant. In the book Sergei humiliates Katerina on the journey to Siberia not only with the teenage Sonyetka, but also with the mature Fiona who does not appear in the opera.

There are some critics who see Shostakovich's ardent admiration for Katerina as a heroic fighter against the stultifying boredom of merchant Russia as an attempt to turn her not into Leskov's, (or Shakespeare's), Lady Macbeth but into Flaubert's Madame Bovary. I don't think that even remotely works, yet the composer spares the operatic Katerina from the scene in the book when her baby is born in prison and presented to her by the warders whereupon she turns away with the words: "Oh. Who cares?" He simply, like Leskov, has her, literally, go down fighting as she drowns the hated Sonyetka.

It is an overpowering work and, no matter how one hates Stalin, one can see why such a fiercely anti-authoritarian and satirical opera would have been such anathema to him. The new Covent Garden production, in the hands of the controversial director Richard Jones, should be at least stimulating. The conductor, Antonio Pappano, has previously performed it superbly at the Monnaie in Brussels with the British tenor Christopher Ventris who again sings Sergei in this production. The Katerina is Katarina Dalayman. The third major role, that of the father-in-law Boris, is taken by John Tomlinson who sings the role for the first time.

Tomlinson, at 57, is in his prime. A flowing mane of greying hair and a luxuriant beard give him a faintly piratical air and equip him to give vent to his gifts as an actor which, almost uniquely among world-class operatic basses, are fully equal to his vocal powers. For a decade now he has been the Wotan of choice among Wagnerians and de rigueur in the role at Bayreuth. His other Wagner roles, almost equally admired, include Gurnemanz, Hunding and Hagen, but he is far more versatile than that would suggest. He has also sung major roles by Mozart, Verdi, Beethoven, Handel and Monteverdi. When we met backstage at Covent Garden I reminded him of something the director Steven Pimlott had said of Seneca in Monteverdi's Poppaea: "he's played by a bass and, like all good basses from Sarastro onwards, what he says must be right!" to which Tomlinson replied that yes, basses, on the whole are wise.

But, of course, like most generalisations, this does not hold up, particularly among some of Tomlinson's greatest roles. His Baron Ochs in Rosenkavalier was far from wise but Tomlinson made his preposterous lechery and his comical vanity into a figure of fun who never entirely forfeited our sympathy. As Gollaud in Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande (to be revived at Glyndebourne this summer), he provides this rather terrifying man with great dignity, so that we don't merely hate him. As the Machiavellian Cardinal Borromeo in Pfitzner's Palestrina he manipulates and inspires the hapless Palestrina, the blocked composer, with such fire and skill that hearing and seeing him, as I did, he seemed in the pomp of his puffed up rages, almost to levitate.

Tomlinson must be the only celebrated international opera star to have a degree in Civil Engineering, which he earned at Manchester University before training as a singer for four years with a scholarship to the Royal Manchester College of Music. Apart from some Gilbert and Sullivan at university he had never done any stage work before he trained, but is clearly a natural and has profited from working with such directors as Ian Judge, Jonathan Miller and Harry Kupfer. His range is extraordinary, from Bluebeard to Leporello, from the four baddies in Tales of Hoffmann to Attila and Oberto (which he directed as well as starred in at Opera North). Perhaps the most striking was his shaggy, white sheepskin-clad, hippy Oreste in Strauss's Elektra, an operatic character who cannot be more than 25 years old. Tomlinson not only sang faultlessly but he made you feel that he really was this tormented, conflicted young man, driven on by his victimised, crazy sister. As he put it when we spoke: "When he goes on stage he knows that he's got to kill his mother in 20 minutes. That's a huge psychological weight to carry... The thing about being an opera singer, rather than a straight actor, is that you are synthesising your performance from the music that's been written."

We spoke about the ageing process in singers and he said that it meant that it took longer to warm up, in the same way that ageing athletes take longer to regain muscle tone. When I pointed out that in the recent Lady Macbeth at the Monnaie, Donald McIntyre (whom Tomlinson regards as the greatest Wotan of the preceding generation), had sung the tiny role of the Old Convict at the end, Tomlinson observed that he wasn't sure that five weeks of intensive rehearsal for so little singing would appeal to him. But he did admit that if he had to stop singing the great roles (not - he hoped - for another 10 years) he could well turn to either straight acting or to directing.

When I asked about his unusual beginning as a civil engineer, he said that there was great integrity in engineering and science which was useful to him and his operatic work. It also teaches you to think logically. The closest he came to criticism of some of today's operatic excesses was: "I don't believe that in the arts anything goes. It can be so 'creative' that it loses integrity."

One can't help wondering what he - and we - will make of the Richard Jones version of Lady Macbeth when it is revealed this week. I saw Tomlinson before rehearsals had begun and I can't be sure that neither he nor Jones was joking when he said that all he knew at this point what that it was to be set in Alaska, which, if true, is a little odd for so quintessentially Russian an opera.

But it is at least clear that Tomlinson is looking forward to doing Boris Ismailov because "it's both highly comical and deeply sinister. I think Boris is the most horrible man I've ever played. He's completely seedy. There's no element of nobility or honour or pride." All, surely, great qualities in the inner life of a great operatic bass.

One of the few major bass roles Tomlinson has not yet essayed is Marshal Kutuzov in Prokofiev's War and Peace. Covent Garden could do a lot worse than to follow Lady Macbeth with the only other truly great 20th-century Russian opera and Tomlinson, with his reading of Cyrillic script and his wonderfully enunciated Russian - not to mention his singing and his acting - seems made for it.

'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk': Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020-7304 4000), Thursday and 5, 8, 14, 17 and 20 April

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