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About this Piece


1932; Suite arr. 1991

Length: 41 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, side drum, snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle, whip, wood block, xylophone), 2 harps, celesta, organ (ad lib), and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

"Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is the most important Russian opera of the 20th century. Considered from a host of viewpoints, Dmitri Shostakovich's achievement is staggering. He realistically depicted the lowly status of Russian women and laid bare the hypocrisy and brutality of Soviet society; and in one great gesture he created a musical vocabulary all his own, using the orchestra with novel mastery and virtuosity."

Thus conductor James Conlon began an essay he wrote for Opera News in 1994. With its earthy and graphic approach to sex and violence, and its sardonic view of Soviet society, the opera was a huge success when it first opened in 1934. Two years later, Stalin attended a performance and those same qualities were suddenly liabilities. A denunciation of the work appeared in Pravda, the government newspaper, and the opera was soon withdrawn, not to be staged again in the Soviet Union until after Stalin's death, and even then only in a bowdlerized revision.

Shostakovich and Alexander Preys wrote the four-act libretto based on Nikolai Leskov's story about the passions of a small-town merchant's wife. Bored and oppressed, Katerina takes a lover from among her husband's workers. When her father-in-law discovers the affair, she poisons him; when her husband returns home, she and her lover Sergei strangle him. The pair wed and plotted to assume the family business when their crimes are uncovered. Now convicts, Sergei abandons Katerina for another woman prisoner; Katerina pushes her rival into a river and then dives in herself.

Shostakovich uses the orchestra throughout as a vehicle for commentary and subtext, as well as for realistic evocations. Orchestral interludes tie the scenes together, and it is the orchestra that summons - sometimes humorously, sometimes savagely - ironic suggestions of dance hall and circus.

"Shostakovich's orchestra becomes positively nasty," Conlon wrote in Opera News. "It screams, storms, repulses, excites, bites back. It shifts at will from tone-painting to editorializing, from expressivity to parody. Apart from Katerina, only the Old Convict in the final act escapes Shostakovich's scathing commentary. Whereas Wagner's orchestra has been likened to the inarticulate voice of the subconscious, Peter Conrad writes that Shostakovich's 'orchestra pit is the cellar where the stinking body...has been discarded.' Its angry violence is akin to the early, iconoclastic Stravinsky and Bartók. It is an orchestra meant to overwhelm, pummel the stage into submission. But then it also can evoke deep pathos, loneliness, yearning, despair."

Conlon has conducted the work many times. Conceiving the idea of bringing its sweeping power before wider audiences, he arranged an orchestral suite in 1991, which he has now recorded for Capriccio. The following remarks come from his note for that recording.

"This suite is designed to render a part of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk more easily accessible to the non-operatic music loving public. It has been expanded from the five existing interludes to include both brilliant and expressive passages which simultaneously display the richness of the orchestration, reveal the extraordinary variety of dramatic moods, and weave it together in a linear fashion to 'recount' the story.

"After a single quotation from the moment of cataclysm in the final act, the story is retold, as if by flashback, in its proper sequence. No bridges or additional music have been composed, and only certain vocal lines have been transferred into the orchestra. I have attempted through the chronological arrangement of the excerpts to capture at least a part of the chilling dramatic power of what is surely one of the 20th century's greatest works."

After the quotation Conlon mentions, his suite begins with "In the Court of the Ismailovs," ominous music describing the compound of the Ismailov merchants, father and son, which opens the second scene of the opera. "Dangerous Tension" is from the beginning of the following scene, depicting the fatal boredom of Katerina.

"Katerina and Sergei I" graphically presents Katerina's self-destructive seduction, followed by the tragic passacaglia which is an intermezzo in the second act, coming between the murders of the two Ismailovs. "Katerina and Sergei II" is a more lyrical love scene from the second act. "The Drunkard" depicts the burlesque discovery of the younger Ismailov's corpse in the third act, and the "Arrival of the Police" is the Keystone Kops-like entry of the local law establishment to apprehend the murdering duo. "In Exile," from the opera's final scene, suggests the bleakness of guilt and Katerina's future as only Shostakovich could do bleakness.

John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications.