The notion that opera is a glamorous and frivolous entertainment for the social and cultural elite may be a convenient stereotype, but for those who have experienced it nothing could be further from the truth. The vast majority of operas address subjects that are both real and relevant. Love and death, religion and sex, power, friendship and betrayal are fundamental concerns of the human condition and to hear them expressed through the elemental voices of music and drama is to make a connection with their significance that is profound and enjoyable.
Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is a perfect example. The composer intended it to be the first of four operas focusing on the plight of women throughout different eras of Russian history. “I want to write a Soviet Ring of the Nibelungs,” he said. “It will be an operatic tetralogy about women.” The initial success of Lady Macbeth was astounding, receiving more than 200 performances in its first couple of years alone. At one point Moscow had three separate productions running simultaneously. To the Soviet authorities however, feminism was a threatening concept. A few days after Stalin walked out of a performance of the opera, Pravda described the work as a “cacophonous and pornographic insult to the Soviet people”. The message of the article was unambiguous. Unless the composer of this “degenerate opera” changed his ways, things could end very badly. The piece was banned and Shostakovich became “an enemy of the people”. He never wrote another opera.
There is something puzzling about the extreme and drastic nature of the official response to the piece. Taken at face value, the story of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk can be seen as a perfectly valid argument for the need to overthrow Russia’s Tsarist autocracy. And the music offers no particular challenge to those who at the time believed that operas should be tuneful and popular. It has to have been the result of a far more sensitive button being pressed.
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk takes place in a narrow-minded and provincial town of stifling mediocrity, where the male characters are impotent idiots, violent thugs, or both, and the women are almost all victims of physical and emotional abuse. In fact the significant changes that Shostakovich made to Nikolai Leskov’s short story on which the opera is based, all increase our understanding of Katerina, the triple-murderess in question, and encourage us to feel sympathy for her as a victim of her circumstances and conditions. “A turn of events is possible in which murder is not a crime,” Shostakovich wrote. 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 composer agreed that the piece might more accurately be called “Desdemona” or “Juliet of Mtsensk”.
Shostakovich wrote that the opera is “the truthful and tragic portrayal of the destiny of a talented, smart, and outstanding woman, dying in the nightmarish conditions of pre-revolutionary Russia”. Dedicated to his new bride, it is, in part, unquestionably about the power of love, especially new love, to drive us to irrational and extreme acts. But the extra justification he gives Katerina’s crimes show that the work is also about the oppression of women generally. “I wanted to unmask reality,” Shostakovich said, “and to arouse a feeling of hatred for the tyrannical and humiliating atmosphere in a Russian merchant’s household.”
Set in the 19th century, written in the 20th, and performed in the 21st, Lady Macbeth allows us at English National Opera to argue the continued relevance of opera louder than ever. Around 14,000 Russian women die each year as a result of domestic abuse, a crime that is still not classified as such in Russia. “If he beats you, he loves you” is even a Russian proverb. In her book Sex, Politics and Putin, Valerie Sperling argues that the contemporary sexualisation of political figures, in particular the machismo image of President Putin, reinforces gender norms in Russia that are misogynistic, and used as platforms for power. In passing sentence recently on the members of the Pussy Riot punk-rock group, the judge claimed it was their feminism that lay at the heart of their anti-religious beliefs, and therefore their crime. The implication is that women are dangerous unless they are at home – a home that in Lady Macbeth, Katerina finds intolerably boring and suppressive. No wonder Stalin didn’t like it.
Political revolutions can be quick, but it seems social evolution is a longer process. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is a cry for help – a plea for personal freedom, and for the rights of the individual to be respected. It is a cry that in some places continues to be unheeded. History shows that history is easily ignored. Our ability to correct the errors of our past is more limited than we care to admit. Shostakovich’s music is at its most beautiful when it expresses the empathy he feels towards the vulnerable. It is at its most important wherever and whenever these victims still exist.
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