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Opera Vs. Politics: Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth

When Dmitri Shostakovich took only three months to produce his brilliant and popular Fifth Symphony, in 1937, it was evidence of his pure, creative genius. It was also an act of self defense.

Three years earlier, Shostakovich had released a new opera, called Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Based on a lurid story, it combined vivid and exciting music with graphic violence and sexuality — and it was an instant hit. Over the next two years, it was performed almost 200 times in Leningrad and Moscow, and was produced on stages from London to New York to Argentina. Early in 1936, three different productions of the opera were being staged in Moscow alone.

Then the bottom fell out. In January of 1936, a delegation of Soviet officials, including Joseph Stalin, attended the opera at the Bolshoi — and reportedly walked out before the final act even began. Almost immediately, an article appeared in the government newspaper Pravda, denouncing the opera. It was unsigned, but many think it originated with Stalin himself.

In a now-famous diatribe, the Pravda article described Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as "muddle instead of music." It accused Shostakovich of bypassing "simple, accessible musical language" in favor of "quacks, hoots, pants, and gasps." Many in the Soviet artistic community saw this not just as an attack on one opera and one composer, but as a government effort to control all artistic expression.

The denunciation put Shostakovich under extreme pressure, and he feared not just for his freedom, but perhaps his life, as well. He responded by quickly composing his more traditional and approachable Fifth Symphony, which he called "a Soviet artist's reply to just criticism."

Shostakovich never completed another opera, and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk vanished almost completely until the 1960s, when it reappeared in a new, less controversial version. Today, that revision is no longer necessary, and the original score is heard and admired for what it is — a devastating yet beautiful drama, filled with music and messages that stay with the listener long after the curtain falls.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us a production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk from the Vienna State Opera. Soprano Angela Denoke gives a remarkable performance as Katerina, the unforgettable title character, with tenor Misha Didyk as Sergei, in a performance led by conductor Ingo Metzmacher.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.