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Stalin Once Banned This Opera in Russia, but Audiences Still Enjoy It


When Joseph Stalin gives your opera a scathing review in Pravda, history is certain to seek out a spot for you.

Such was the case for Dmitri Shostakovich, whose “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” has actually taken its place within the history books as a classic modern opera, but additionally as an infamous moment in opera history. In 1934, it was the toast of Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was known then, before setting off on a tour of the Soviet Union for nearly two years. However it was became a reviled piece of music after Stalin, wanting to see what all of the fuss was about, attended a performance in January 1936 in Moscow.

The Soviet leader called it “muddle as a substitute of music, an unsightly flood of confusing sound” and “a pandemonium of creaking, shrieking and crashes” in a review attributed to him in Pravda, then the official newspaper of the Communist Party. The opera was banned for a long time within the Soviet Union, and Shostakovich feared being arrested. It returned to Russian stages, in a revised version, in 1962 under Nikita S. Khrushchev (though Shostakovich’s original opera is the usual now).

As “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” returns after eight years to the Metropolitan Opera on Sept. 29 (for six performances through Oct. 21), the timing feels suddenly urgent against the backdrop of Russia’s war in Ukraine. This production, which premiered in 1994, was first directed by Graham Vick, who died in 2021, with sets and costumes by Paul Brown in a vaguely Nineteen Fifties setting. For some, the opera stands as testament to at least one composer’s patriotism, but additionally to his disdain for the ruling party, all wrapped up in dissonant, volatile music and a raw depiction of lust, violence and the struggle for truth and freedom.

“I believe each note he wrote was about him and the way he saw the world he was living in, and in that context ‘Lady Macbeth’ is a fully seminal work,” said the British director Tony Palmer, whose film “Testimony” in 1988 starred Ben Kingsley as Shostakovich. “Many of the Russians knew instinctively that Shostakovich spoke for them, which says quite a bit concerning the power of his music. That’s why it should at all times resonate, particularly at this moment.”

That resonance feels particularly strong for the conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, who’s making her Metropolitan Opera debut with this production.

“The parallel straight away is that Putin is attempting to destroy artistic expression just as Stalin did,” Ms. Wilson said, referring to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. “This opera, to me, appears like a direct affront to that, so it is a vehicle for me to channel this incredible anger that I even have toward Putin.”

Ms. Wilson, who’s Canadian with Ukrainian roots, for the past several months has been conducting the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, which she conceived this spring, and organizing along with her husband, Peter Gelb, the final manager of the Metropolitan Opera. They helped line up the Ukrainian musicians, in addition to performance dates and funding, with the help of the Ukrainian government, for a tour across Europe (and in Washington and Recent York), so moving from that have to “Lady Macbeth” felt like a natural segue, she said.

“I even have cousins who’re fighting, they usually are writing to me and thanking me for what I’m doing with the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra,” Ms. Wilson said. “What it’s for me is the sensation of doing justice to indicate that we will really perform Russian music while shouting at Putin.”

Anger is a theme that runs throughout “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.” Based on the novella “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” by Nikolai Leskov, it tells the story of Katerina, a girl trapped in a loveless marriage who falls in love with a village employee named Sergei. The opera’s depiction of their affair is extremely sexual, and after a few heat-of-the-moment murders gone incorrect, the lovers are exiled to a Siberian labor camp and Sergei takes a latest lover. The tragic ending, on an icy river, has a few of Shostakovich’s most jarring and riveting music. It was an enormous success — for a temporary spell.

“What quite a lot of people don’t realize is that there was an 18-month gap between opening night of this opera and when Stalin went to see it,” Mr. Palmer said. “There have been more performances of this opera in Russia those 18 months than operas of Wagner, Puccini or Verdi.”

Despite his fear of backlash after Stalin’s review, Shostakovich continued to be incredibly prolific. In 1937, he unveiled his Fifth Symphony, which was a triumph each with the Communist Party apparatchiks, who saw it because the composer honoring the roots of classical Russian music, and with the intelligentsia of Russian culture who saw it as a requiem for the Great Purge, which Stalin had unleashed the yr before.

“Shostakovich put all the pieces that he defends as a human and a composer into ‘Lady Macbeth,’ but his genius is that he found a option to compromise and exist in that world after that,” said Kirill Karabits, the Ukrainian-born chief conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in England. “He desired to remain true to himself but write in a way that satisfied the authorities.”

“His music after ‘Lady Macbeth’ is different since it has so many layers,” he added. “He was hiding his criticism. Are his finales glad endings? Or are they glad endings through struggle?”

For the Russian soprano Svetlana Sozdateleva, making her Metropolitan Opera debut in a task she has sung several times in Europe, the opera stands by itself for what Shostakovich intended as an artist and a human being: the facility of affection and betrayal.

“A very powerful thing for me is the theme of all-consuming powerful love and the way vital it was for Shostakovich to portray such deep feelings and create such a posh character,” Ms. Sozdateleva said. “What’s remarkable is that by the tip of the opera, she is a murderer, however the audience is sympathetic to her.”

Shostakovich’s understanding of his heroine — and his own reality within the Stalin era — plays into the opera’s rocky history, not to say its legacy as daring art stuffed with messages and even musical notes which can be still being deciphered.

“If you happen to wrote a line of poetry that said, ‘Stalin was a nasty man,’ you then were dead,” said Mr. Palmer, the director of the Shostakovich film. “But for those who wrote a harsh tune that claims it, it was quite a bit harder to prove.”

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