How do we reconcile art and government? Should art — produced by the artist who is necessarily a subject of a government, history and age — be likewise subjected? And should art be treated as inseparable from the artist, their political beliefs, and their particular social perspectives?
These questions inform our understanding of the place and purpose of art: art as separate from the artist and ordinary life or art as contained within a real world of practicality and politics and profit. These questions are inescapable from considerations of Shostakovich’s second opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, in the political and artistic context of Soviet Russia under Stalin.
The libretto, unfaithfully based on an 1865 Russian novella, is a grotesque, symbolic and radical study of the cross-section of twentieth-century provincial life, and its absurdity and injustice. Katerina Izmailova, to whom the title ironically refers, laments the drudgery of her existence, her cold marriage of five years, her inability to read, and her lack of purpose and drive. She, as woman and wife, has little more freedom than a dog who is obedient and loyal without question; she is a symbol of the respectability of her husband, a prize hard-sought and won and placed on a shelf, remembered only in the kitchen or in bed, unimportant and irrelevant, but once picked up tightly clenched in a fist and prized with great passion.
Katerina drifts, directionless, into the lewd grasp of a menial, Sergei; and, after being raped by him, falls in love with him and, after murdering her father-in-law and husband, remarries. By the end of the fourth act Katerina has killed three people — lastly the woman for whom Sergei leaves her — and herself, ending a cacophony of celebration and lament, chaos and boredom.
And yet one pities Katerina and condemns the people she has killed. She neither sought liberation nor to upset the social hierarchy, but busied herself with loving again and marrying again only to return to the kitchen at suppertime and bed at bedtime and television at any other time. Katerina’s prison is inescapable because she is unaware of it: She does not protest the injustice of her predicament, but seeks, if not amusement, then change. And, unable to change, betrayed, tormented by the chaos and fury of meaninglessness and irrelevance, confined and without hope, she leaves her tedious world to the quiet of the grave.
Shostakovich, in 1936, following two years of the opera’s international success, was censured in an anonymously authored article titled “Muddle Instead of Music” for his adherence to the contemporary formalist movement, condemned for valuing form and style over content, judged as lacking a ready, accessible moral and therefore irreconcilable with Soviet, socialist ideology.
Lady Macbeth was not performed again in Russia for thirty years, until 1961. Shostakovich did not compose another opera.
Seeing the opera today one recognizes the outrageous modern world amidst the dissonance of Soviet Russia. Art, despite censure, has endured and triumphed. Katerina Izmailovna in 2022, as in 1934, still triumphs, finding death, if nothing else, to be in her power, to be, if nothing else, her own.
Nickolas is a columnist for the Paper Crane.
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