Erik Ross

Shostakovich and the sex-sick society

Wouldn’t it be titillating if we sang this in our underwear?

That seems the first and the last question asked of themselves by the visionaries of the Grand Theater of Geneva when staging Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which closed this week.

If you will allow me to expropriate Yiddish syntax: titillated, I wasn’t. Here’s the trailer — warning, it’s not safe for work.

It should’ve been a fine, sad show. And very Russian: this Lady Macbeth was written deep in the cold pit of Stalinist Sovietism. There are nods to the tastes of that system, especially in the huge crowd of “the people” or “the workers” who come on and off at regular intervals to illustrate the injustice of an unequal distribution of wealth.

But the opera was at the time — and should be still — a satisfying stolen victory for Shostakovich. The artist said something, in spite of speech codes. He said it on the pretext of a pat 1865 novella by Nikolai Leskov about blood and lust in the so-provincial-it’s-proverbial town of Mtsensk. In American terms, it’s Lady Macbeth of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.

A wealthy businessman’s wife, bored and neglected, falls in lust with one of her husband’s employees. After their first sexual encounter, which in this production is violent, lust grows into obsession. She — first with his help, then alone — commits a series of murders. For the sake of the sack, she ruins her life.

In the meantime, the lover quickly moves on to someone else, and — convicted of murder — they all join the cortège scraping its chains over the steppe as they are driven by sadists, on foot, to Siberia. Curtain!

Lust and murder; a tragic fall. Shostakovich was inspired by the post-Romantic verismo movement in opera, which, like the Ashcan School in American painting, tried to show life with the warts on. The most famous example of this kind of opera is certainly La Bohème, with its coldhanded maiden dying of consumption in a garret. “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì….”

But where Puccini gave luscious musical velvet in 1895, Shostakovich, in 1934, gives trombones and dissonance and disruptive percussion — including a wood-block and a whip. This is modern music and it doesn’t care to make you comfortable. That fits the bleak and unsettling story.

Unsettling is not the same as devastating. I think I detected, beneath the opera, the skeleton of the original novella. It contains intuitions about human nature that ring true: lust is a white-hot sin that can destroy everything; the same lust can be deadly boring after the first flush has cooled; even if your crimes are hidden, they will haunt you from within (“out, damn spot!”) so that your prettiest moments — in the opera, it’s a second wedding with the desired lover — are spoiled.

A very young Dmitri Shostakovich in 1925 (Wikipedia)

For Shostakovich, Stalin — I think — was Lady Macbeth. He’s saying that cruelty sparks a cycle. Conscience pricks. Violence escapes control; murders multiply. It all ends in Siberia.

That’s what this opera should’ve been.

What it was was a nosedive into a vat of manure. I thought of diving several times during this three-hour show (nine scenes in four acts with one intermission). We had great seats right on the lip of the first balcony. I could’ve flung myself over.

I could have joined the singers on stage. But I would’ve ruined my shoes: for the entire performance, the whole stage was covered in a thick layer of mud. Not a picturesque simulation — actual mud. I imagined the technicians hired to rake it back and forth into appropriately revolting heaps during intermission.
Thanks to a friend whose friend plays in the orchestra, I was there for the avant-première — the grand dress rehearsal. The musicians wore jeans. Some actors, in costume, wore rubber boots. Others simply wrecked their shoes, of which I suppose there are dozens of identical pairs backstage.
As they sang and staggered across the sea of dreck, the actors got muddier. The metaphor is not subtle: these people are being contaminated by the corruption of their environment.

The apartment of Katarina Izmailova and her rich husband Boris looks a lot like many apartments here in Geneva. It was a pristine quadrilateral with white ceilings, white walls and white floors, and, to sit on, a huge L-shaped sofa upholstered in white vinyl. The woman is childless – she sings about it – and the sterility of her environment speaks to her own, in a way.

But the director, Calixto Bieito, enjoys steadily degrading the whiteness of that space. Laborers and policeman enter the apartment and cover it with footprints.

One bled for the singers. Not only were they dirty — for much of the show, they were in their skivvies. Not only that: they were getting groped, assaulted and raped. We saw two onstage rapes — live and in person — within the first 40 minutes. A factory girl was gang raped by a crowd of 20 men as a foreman cheered them on from the balcony, thrusting in the air. Soon after, our heroine was raped in her kitchen. I dug my fingernails into the lip of the balcony.

I peeked: an unlucky actress had her dress hiked up over her hips to reveal what was supposed to be her nakedness, but was really a fawn-colored “dance belt.” Her rapist had his back to the crowd so that we could get a full view of his behind. The director had instructed him to simulate sexual thrusts in time with the music. From my vantage point, I could see the trombonists moving the slides of their instruments along with the baton as the man on stage executed his rape, obedient to the same metronome.

Decadent? One might say so. To even the gender scorecard, there was a “playful” violation of a young male prisoner by some policemen a few bars later.

What society produces this? I don’t want to put all the blame on the Geneva-people. A little research found that the director is Spanish and has had a long career all over northwestern Europe. This particular production actually came to light — if that’s the right expression — several years ago in Flanders. The leading soprano, Aušrinė Stundytė, is Lithuanian. She sings the Russian libretto faultlessly and with passion. And still I felt sorry for her.

Dirt, in art, has its place. I think of the brutality and perversity in the film version of Cabaret (1972), which serves its cutting portrait of Weimar. I think of the grotesque faces in a Flemish painting of the crucifixion from 400 years ago that help us to ask, “how could we be so cruel?”

Unsettling themes can discomfit the right people: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk became the vehicle for a general denunciation of Shostakovich’s music by the Communist Party in 1936. After being condemned in an anonymous article in Pravda — “Сумбур вместо музыки” — “Muddle instead of music” — which conspirationnistes attributed to Stalin himself, the opera was banned. It resurfaced only in 1961.

In Geneva, Lady Macbeth had little of whatever Shostakovich might have been trying to say about the human condition. It strove for content-less-ness; for emptiness of soul.
The Grand Theater of Geneva on May 4, 2023 (photo by the author)

The Grand Theater of Geneva has a facade from the 1870s — the kind that gives you tastefully-draped muses playing cymbals with their milky fingers. It opens onto a grand square with a mounted general in a bicorne, and, beyond him, the gates of the University founded by John Calvin, which is set in its own park. The gates are literally gilded.

What was going on behind the façade? We were covering ourselves in mud: a liturgy of the sex-sick society.
After the body of her first victim is discovered, stinking, in a shed, a gang of police come to ransack our heroine’s perfect house. This is represented by a gang of actors disassembling the white panels of the walls, floor and ceilings and hauling away the set in pieces so that all that is left is a bare steel scaffolding standing on the mud. That opens the way for the “shlep to Siberia” segment.
Is it saying anything? Not really. Except: your life is a sham, your society is a sham, and your apartment is a sorry joke. You may have a vague memory of order and purity, but we know what a swine you really are.
The conductor, when he came up for the curtain call, revealed his back soaked in sweat from the effort of controlling the musical machine. Singers with decades of training strove to create a pleasing tone while sprawled on their backs with their legs in the position of Richard Nixon’s fingers. And for what?
That’s the question Europe is asking itself today. “For what?” We don’t have an answer.

And so we take another hit, induce another orgasm, and wait for them to take down our house. We never pray. Sex is for public places; God hides, shamed, in the bedroom.

Near the end of the performance, some blueish lights flashed on with peculiar brightness. The choristers jumped and whooped and humped like monkeys in a cage. In a Brechtian gesture, the director had searchlights shine on us, the audience.

I did not feel sullied. I was a little angry.

To its credit, this broken opera — like its novella-ancestor — did manage to show that sin has consequences. It did so not by its content but by its form. Where are we now? We’re paying stagehands to cover our stages in mud. We are hiring Lithuanian sopranos to be raped in collapsible kitchens. Foucault published Discipline and Punish (1975) and The History of Sexuality (1976), conflating sex and power. Sex and the Single Girl (1962) became Sex and the City (1998). The hellish became frivolous. Now, we’ve got a frivolous hell.

As those bluish lights glared up my nose from below, I thought: they’re going to do it to us. They’re going to do it again. Because this show, unless something changes, can only end in Siberia. The glockenspiel thumped and I could nearly see the profile of Mustapha Mond. I thought, “My God, they’re going to put us there again.”
About the Author
Born in Wisconsin, Erik Ross is a priest of the Dominican Order who lives in Switzerland and comes often to Israel. For many years, he was stationed in Poland. He has long been active in Jewish-Christian conversations. He writes here with the permission of his major superior.