Why Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was too scary for Stalin

With its passionate heroine, sexy plot and lovely music, Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was a huge hit. Then the Party saw it - and silenced it. By Tim Ashley

On January 26 1936, Joseph Stalin went to the opera in Moscow. This was nothing unusual. But on this occasion, the consequences were to prove dire. The opera was Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, by Dmitri Shostakovich, then only 29, and the darling of the Soviet avant garde.

A huge hit at its Leningrad premiere two years previously, Lady Macbeth had clocked up nearly 200 performances in the Soviet Union and been enthusiastically received in Copenhagen, Prague, New York and London. Such was its popularity that, in January 1936, there were three productions running concurrently in Moscow alone.

Shostakovich was in the audience on the night of Stalin's visit. Any expectations he might have harboured of meeting the dictator were quashed when the official delegation swept out in high dudgeon before the final scene. Two days later, Pravda, the Communist Party's official mouthpiece, went on the warpath with its now-infamous editorial entitled Muddle Instead of Music.

"Singing is replaced by shrieking," the article raged. "The music quacks, hoots, growls and gasps to express the love scenes as naturally as possible." The opera's success abroad was held up as "tickling the perverted taste of the bourgeoisie with its fidgety, screaming neurotic music". There was also an open threat of danger to Russia's artistic community. "The ability of good music to enthral the masses has been sacrificed on the altar of petit-bourgeois formalism. This is playing at abstruseness - and such games can only finish badly."

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk vanished almost overnight, and from that moment onwards Shostakovich was faced with a lifelong struggle to maintain his artistic integrity in the face of totalitarian oppression.

For months, he lived in terror of the secret police knocking at his door. He withdrew his Fourth Symphony while it was still in rehearsal - it was not heard until 1961 - and only managed to rehabilitate himself with its successor, the Fifth, still among his most popular works. It was subtitled A Soviet Artist's Response to Just Criticism.

That Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk had been singled out as the rationale behind a drastic shift in government artistic policy is now beyond dispute. The crisis ushered in the age of Socialist Realism, in which writers and composers were constrained to take the triumph of the proletariat as their only subject, and - alarmingly - both publicly to confess their bourgeois formalist failings and denounce those of their fellow artists.

It seems ironic now that the work was condemned, given that its socialist credentials were in many respects impeccable. Completed in 1932, when Shostakovich was only 26, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was planned as the first part of a trilogy depicting the oppression and liberation of women before, during and after the Revolution.

Shostakovich's source was the eponymous tale by Nikolai Leskov, published in 1865. Leskov, a journalist turned novelist, describes, with the chattiness of a gossip columnist, the ghastly career of Katerina Izmailova, the wife of a provincial merchant and mill-owner, who takes a lover from among her husband's workmen. She murders both her father-in-law and her husband before being deported to Siberia. There she also kills her lover's new mistress and finally herself.

Shostakovich took the bare bones of Leskov's narrative, but significantly altered its balance of sympathies. "We have to divide the opera from the book," says soprano Katarina Dalayman, who plays Katerina in a new production at Covent Garden next month - the first to use Shostakovich's original score.

"In the book, she's much colder, but here, she's absolutely understandable." Shostakovich himself saw Katerina as the "tragic portrayal of the destiny of a talented, smart and outstanding woman, dying in the nightmarish atmosphere of pre-Revolutionary Russia.

"I feel empathy for her," the composer added. "She is surrounded by monsters."

The monsters include her impotent husband Zinovy, her atrocious father-in-law Boris - who bullies her, but would also like to bed her himself - and her lover Sergei, who promises fidelity, but who in reality chases everyone in a skirt. Murder, the opera argues, is, catastrophically, a woman's only means of revolt in the male-dominated hell of the Tsarist epoch.

"You have to believe that you, as an individual, would probably end up doing the same thing in Katerina's position," says conductor Antonio Pappano. "Otherwise, she is just another monster and you have to throw her on the heap with the rest."

Shostakovich dubbed the opera a "tragedy-satire": the score derives much of its power from the garish double perspective it forces on the listener. Katerina's soul-destroying loneliness and violent sexual passion is expressed in music of soaring lyricism. "It's very beautiful - sometimes on the edge of being too beautiful," says Dalayman.

However, Katerina's music constantly collides with the bilious satire meted out by Shostakovich to all the other characters, much of it loaded with baleful parodies of other composers' works. Sergei, whom Pappano describes as "a real macho without the complexity of a Stanley Kowalski - shallow, attractive and good in bed," gets exaggerated, swaggering rhythms - like Trovatore, Pappano says, but with none of Verdi's heroism.

Boris fulminates at Katerina in tones reminiscent of the Commendatore in Mozart's Don Giovanni. "But he hasn't got the same moral high ground," says director Richard Jones. "It's very promiscuous, the whole thing."

Different people, it seems, hear different allusions in the piece. Shostakovich's debt to Mahler, his great hero, is almost universally recognised throughout the piece. Jones, however, says he hears "Rossini in Siberia", while Dalayman catches echoes of Wagner's Siegfried and Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore. Pappano draws comparisons with Liszt's gaunt B minor Piano Sonata and the trilling eroticism of Strauss's Salome. The end result is still disquietingly in-your-face. "It's vulgar in a lot of places, and it's brash and brazen," Pappano says. "It's music that batters your front door down."

Whether Shostakovich set out to be provocative is unknown. Jones believes not. "I think it's the work of an idiot savant," he says. "I think he was totally unprepared for the charges of moral subversion that he had to meet. It's written so vigorously, you could not have been looking over your shoulder while you were writing it."

The exact reason for the opera's official condemnation is still the subject of debate, though its heated, jolting style, far removed from the solid solemnity of Socialist Realism, was doubtless a major factor. Some have argued that Stalin saw himself in the domineering, hypocritical character of Boris. Others believe that he considered the minor figure of a Tsarist police chief, who indiscriminately arrests people on account of their beliefs, to be a personal attack.

Most assume, however, that it was the opera's sex scene that gave the greatest offence. This comes in act one, when Katerina allows herself to be seduced by Sergei. At this point, there are no stage directions in either text or score, but the music, complete with ejaculatory trombone slides, leaves nothing to the imagination.

Though the opera's view of sexual relationships is bleak, it's also subversive. "It says stuff about how sexuality is very threatening to social structures," says Jones. "I think that kind of anarchic sexuality wouldn't have been pleasing to the Communist Party."

Lady Macbeth's disappearance in 1936, however, was not the end of its fortunes during the Soviet period. In the post-Stalin thaw of the late 1950s, Shostakovich produced a revised, bowdlerised edition that he re-titled Katerina Izmailova. It was first performed in Moscow in 1963, with Khrushchev in the audience looking on benignly, and was heard at Covent Garden later the same year.

To the end of his life, Shostakovich maintained that Katerina Izmailova was the definitive version of the work. He even went so far as to condemn a 1966 film of the opera, possibly because it restored some of the music from the original version. In private, however, he asked his friend, the conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, to record the 1932 score if he ever managed to leave the Soviet Union. Rostropovich did so in 1979, after which most opera houses in the west reverted to it.

Shostakovich never completed another opera, which leaves most people with mixed feelings. Without the condemnation of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, he might not have composed many of those remarkable symphonies and chamber works that bear witness to the agony and atrocity of one of the most hideous periods in human history. Yet Shostakovich was also, as Pappano puts it, "a theatrical composer": he had a natural gift for the stage, and the ferocity, cruelty and compassion of Lady Macbeth are overwhelming in performance. That it was never to have a successor can only fill us with sadness.

· Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is in rep at the Royal Opera House, London WC2, from April 1-20. Box office: 020-7403 4000.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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