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January 30, 2007

Muddle Instead of Music


Thanks to the well connected Sister of the Flea, I was afforded the opportunity to take in the third and final dress rehearsal of the Canadian Opera Company's "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk", opening at Toronto's new opera house, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. From an unpromising shell in early stages of construction, the finished opera house has transformed into a juiced-up version of Sadler's Wells; all windows and stairways and a rush bar on every level. The interior proved to be even be better than its inspiration. Particularly impressive is an internal glass staircase, reportedly the longest of its kind in the world. Once inside the hall itself any possible expectation I might have had of the space was exceeded. I doubt there is a bad seat in the house and the all important acoustics were apparently flawless. Jack Diamond: Well done.

But aside from that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play? Suffice to say I kept expecting Troy McClure to enter stage right dressed as Lenin. The Economist has some nerve recommending this as anything but self-parody. Dmitry Shostakovich’s sole artistic purpose was to avoid being sent to Siberia by a gangster dressed up as a socialist. To this end his works are an unrelenting critique of bourgeois taste. Soviet audiences applauded for fear of the labour camps; Toronto's opera-goers for fear of looking stupid. It is something beyond irony, beyond grotesque, to be surrounded by studied, oafish laughter at any point an ill-educated establishment felt it could participate without making a faux pas ("She called him a rat! Ha ha! The height of wit!"). I could say that the piece lacked the subtlety of a holodeck mise-en-scène performance by the bridge crew players of the mid-'80s Enterprise. I think instead I shall let Pravda do the heavy lifting.

Shostakovich was in the audience on the night of Stalin's visit. Any expectations he might have harboured of meeting the dictator were quashed when the official delegation swept out in high dudgeon before the final scene. Two days later, Pravda, the Communist Party's official mouthpiece, went on the warpath with its now-infamous editorial entitled Muddle Instead of Music.

"Singing is replaced by shrieking," the article raged. "The music quacks, hoots, growls and gasps to express the love scenes as naturally as possible." The opera's success abroad was held up as "tickling the perverted taste of the bourgeoisie with its fidgety, screaming neurotic music". There was also an open threat of danger to Russia's artistic community. "The ability of good music to enthrall the masses has been sacrificed on the altar of petit-bourgeois formalism. This is playing at abstruseness - and such games can only finish badly."

Quite. We also left in a high-dudgeon before the final scene which goes to show it is possible to find common ground in the unlikeliest company. The lyrics are vulgar and the music a cacophony. It is somehow no surprise to me Joseph Stalin had a more refined aesthetic sense than Canada's ersatz society. Shostakovich only rehabilitated himself with his Fifth symphony, "A Soviet Artist's Response to Just Criticism". Let us see if the opera company follows his lead into their second season.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at January 30, 2007 06:57 AM


I don't think the director has any grasp of human history or what human nature is really like.

Though the opera's view of sexual relationships is bleak, it's also subversive. "It says stuff about how sexuality is very threatening to social structures," says Jones.

Gee it's a good thing homo sapiens didn't discover sex until recently. Imagine what we could have accomplished if everything weren't being undermined by sex all the time. Clearly sex was the downfall of Pharonic Egypt, Hellenic Greece, the Roman Empire, the Mongol Empire, the Mughal Empire, the German Empire, the Third Reich, the Japanese Empire, the British Empire, and so on.

It's a good thing people were having lots of sex in the 20th century and not, say, fighting to rein in totalitarianism. Who knew it could be so easy?

Posted by: Chris Taylor [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 30, 2007 10:47 AM

This is one place where Pravda may have been right about the petit-bourgeouis formalism. The opera is substantially less complex in its view of sexuality and fidelity than the worst of the John Hughes oeuvre. And the notion it had even a passing resemblance to the Scottish play is an offense to the Bard.

Posted by: Ghost of a flea [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 30, 2007 11:19 AM

I am a bit of a Shosty-hata (especially the overly bombastic Fifth), but the short-and-sweet Festive Overture is not at all bad.

Posted by: Chris Taylor [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 30, 2007 05:36 PM

A freind of mine's father who sadly recently died was an uber-Shasty fan. So good was his collection that the Shasty Society of GB has accepted it all and will display it for all to see.

Posted by: Andrew Ian Dodge [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 31, 2007 03:53 AM