Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District is the greatest Russian opera of the 20th century and among all Russian operas is matched only by Boris Godunov. Set to a libretto by the composer and Alexander Preys, it depicts the brutality of mid 19th century Russian life and the plight of women enmeshed in a suffocating environment. One can only wonder at how much of contemporary Soviet experience was disguised in a czarist cloak. Composed in 1934 when Shostakovich was only 27 years old, the work is a monumental accomplishment, joining cynicism, black humor, and cruelty to an orchestral palette unlike any in opera. The orchestra mocks, laughs, despairs and finally concedes to a cruel world. Taking about 2 hours and 40 minutes to perform, it hits its audience with a tonal sledgehammer. There are five orchestral interludes in the work. Each is designated as such in the libretto. Additionally, the orchestra is everywhere as much an active participant in the action as the singers.
The opera premiered in Leningrad on January 22, 1934. Two days later it appeared in Moscow. It was a great success until Stalin saw a performance in early 1936. Immediately after, an unsigned editorial, ‘Muddle Instead of Music’, appeared in Pravda. It may have been written by Stalin himself. It certainly reflected his views on Shostakovich’s opera. The composer went from golden boy to pariah in an instant. Lady Macbeth was soon banned and his contemporaneous 4th Symphony was put in a drawer for 25 years. This symphony, one of the composer’s greatest, was too far from Soviet orthodoxy to have been performed after Lady Macbeth’s denouncement. If it had been played, the composer would likely have been killed. Shostakovich never wrote another opera, which is another crime that can be added to Stalin’s long list of atrocities. Had Verdi and Wagner been silenced at the same age, none of their works in the standard repertory would have been written.
In 1962 Shostakovich released a bowdlerized version of the opera, Katerina Izmailova, which never achieved much traction. From the 70s on, the original version has been increasingly produced at most of the world’s major houses. The Met first presented it in 1994 and brought it back in 2000 and 2014. The New Yorker’s critic Paul Griffiths review of the Met’s first performance was in many ways a xerox of Pravda’s 1936 notice. Mr Griffiths found the opera empty of soulfulness, ugly, and brutish.
Conductor James Conlon who conducted the first Met performance as well as the 2014 run is a champion of the opera. He wrote: “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…Even before Stalin’s reprimand, he delivered himself of an enigmatic, paradoxical work that speaks as if in tongues, in a language that simultaneously reveals and obfuscates, confesses and denies, equivocates and speaks truths, accuses and forgives.”
Lady Macbeth has gradually been winning a place in the standard operatic repertory. During the 2015-16 season it received 213 performance worldwide. Boris Godunov had 409 performances during the same season. In my opinion this opera is a unique work that will last a long time. Below are the five orchestral interludes as well as the graphic sex scene that so offended the world’s greatest mass murderer. One early listener called the scene pornophony.
Interlude 1 occurs between scenes 1 and 2. The work is in four acts divided into 9 scenes that are numbered consecutively regardless of which act they are in. A brief synopsis of the opera taken from the Wikipedia is below. I have corrected an error in its last sentence.
Interlude 2 is played between scenes 2 and 3. Scene 3 is set in Katerina’s bedroom and contains the setting of ferocious sexual intercourse that almost caused its composer his life. Wagner’s ‘Liebesnacht’ from Tristan, by comparison, is a church social. The music ends with both a bang and a whimper. The notorious trombone glissandos still disturb the prudish, at least they would if any could be found.
Interlude 3 is the great passacaglia that precedes scene 5. The music is bleak and of searing intensity. The longest of the interludes, it is now finding its way into the concert repertory.
Interlude 4 follows the discovery of Zinovy’s corpse by the drunken peasant in the wine cellar. It perfectly shows the jaunty black effervescence that Stalin beat out of the composer. After Lady Macbeth it’s gone.
The final interlude occurs after scene 7 set a police station where a posse of bored cops sets off to arrest Sergei and Katerina for murder. Scene 8 is at their wedding which is interrupted by the arrival of the Keystone Cops who take the murderous couple into custody. Interlude 5
The final act, consisting entirely of scene 9, is set in a temporary labor camp housing convicts on their way to Siberia. It’s too black for an interlude. My belief is that this troubling opera will continue to gain listeners and be widely recognized for the masterpiece that it is. If Dostoyevsky had written an opera, this would be it.
An English translation of the libretto can be downloaded here.
Scene 1: Katerina’s room
Katerina is unhappily married to Zinovy, a provincial flour-merchant. She complains to herself of her loneliness. Her father-in-law Boris, angered at her attitude in response to his saying that mushrooms are his favourite dish, says it is her fault for not producing an heir. She replies that Zinovy cannot give her a child – which Boris disdains; he then threatens her if she decides to seduce some youthful lover. Zinovy is called away on business, and Boris – against his son’s inclinations – makes Katerina swear before icon to be faithful. A servant, Aksinya, tells Katerina about the womanising new clerk, Sergei.
Scene 2: The Izmailovs’ yard
Sergei and his comrades are sexually harassing Aksinya. Katerina intervenes. She berates him for his machismo and asserts that women are as brave and capable as men. Sergei is willing to prove her wrong and they wrestle; she is thrown down and Sergei falls on top of her. Boris appears. She says that she tripped and Sergei in trying to help her, fell down also. The other peasants back her up. Boris however is suspicious and roars at the peasants, telling them to get back to work before ordering Katerina to fry some mushrooms for him and threatening to tell Zinovy all about her behaviour.
Scene 3: Katerina’s room
Katerina prepares to go to bed. Sergei knocks on her door with the excuse that he wants to borrow a book because he cannot sleep, but Katerina has none; she cannot read. As she is about to close the door he continues attempting to seduce her by remembering their wrestling match earlier that day. He gets into the room and forces himself on her. After this is done, she tells him to leave, but he refuses and she agrees to embark on an affair with him. Boris knocks on the door and confirms that Katerina is in bed and locks her in. Sergei is trapped in the room, and the two make love.
Scene 4: The yard
One night a week later. Boris, unable to sleep due to unease about thieves being on the prowl, is walking in the courtyard in the pre-dawn darkness. He, remembering his own youthful days as a rake and knowing Zinovy’s low libido, is considering seducing Katerina himself to fulfill his son’s marital duties. He spots Sergei climbing out of Katerina’s window. He catches him and publicly whips him as a burglar, then has him locked up. Katerina witnesses this but cannot stop him because she remains locked in her room. When finally she manages to climb down the eavestrough-drainpipe the other servants restrain her on Boris’ order. After being exhausted by beating Sergei, Boris demands some dinner, saying that he will whip Sergei again the next day and dispatches a servant to call Zinovy back, saying that Zinovy to be told that there’s trouble at home. Katerina adds rat-poison to some mushrooms and gives them to him. As he is dying, calling for a priest, she retrieves the keys to free Sergei. The priest, called by the arriving morning shift of workers who find Boris in agony, arrives: Boris vainly tries to tell him that he was poisoned and falls back dead pointing at Katerina. Katerina, weeping crocodile tears, convinces him that Boris has accidentally eaten poisonous mushrooms and he says a prayer over Boris’ body.
Scene 5: Katerina’s room
Katerina and Sergei are together. Sergei querulously says that their affair will have to end due to Zinovy’s impending return and wishes he and Katerina could marry – Katerina assures him that they’ll marry but refuses to tell him how she’ll arrange it. Sergei then falls asleep; Katerina is then tormented by Boris’ ghost and cannot sleep. Later she hears Zinovy returning. He has been called back by one of the servants with the news of his father’s death. Although Sergei hides, Zinovy sees Sergei’s trousers and belt and guesses the truth. As he and Katerina quarrel, he whips her with the belt. Hearing Katerina’s cries, Sergei emerges and confronts Zinovy, who then tries to escape and call the servants. Katerina stops Zinovy: she and Sergei then proceed to strangle Zinovy, who’s finally finished off by Sergei with a blow on the head with a heavy candlestick. The lovers hide the corpse in the wine-cellar.
Scene 6: Near the cellar
Following Zinovy’s disappearance he has been presumed dead. Katerina and Sergei prepare to get married, but she is tormented by the fact that Zinovy’s corpse is hidden in the wine cellar. Sergei reassures her and they leave for the wedding ceremony. A drunken peasant breaks into the cellar, finds Zinovy’s body and goes to fetch the police.
Scene 7: The police station
The police are complaining about not being invited to the wedding and vainly try to distract themselves by tormenting a “nihilist” schoolteacher because of atheism when the peasant arrives and gives them the opportunity for revenge.
Scene 8: The Izmailov garden
Everyone is drunk at the wedding. Katerina sees that the cellar door is open, but the police arrive as she and Sergei are trying to escape.
Scene 9. A temporary convict camp near a bridge
On the way of penal labour to Siberia, Katerina bribes a guard to allow her to meet Sergei. He blames her for everything. After she leaves, Sergei tries to seduce another convict, Sonyetka. She demands a pair of stockings as her price. Sergei tricks Katerina into giving him hers, whereupon he gives them to Sonyetka. Sonyetka and the other convicts taunt Katerina, who pushes Sonyetka into an icy river ; she then throws herself into the river. They are swept away and the convict train moves on.