Dmitry Shostakovich Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District
Opera in four acts (original version, 1930–32)
Libretto by Alexander Preis and Dmitry Shostakovich after the short story of the same name (1865) by Nikolai Leskov
Sung in Russian with German and English surtitles
Print programme (PDF)
Ferruccio Furlanetto, Boris Timofeyevich Izmaylov
Maxim Paster, Zinowy Borisovich Izmaylov
Nina Stemme, Katerina Lvovna Izmaylova
Maxim Aksenov, Sergey
Evgenia Muraveva, Aksinya / Woman Convict
Andrei Popov, Shabby Peasant
Oleg Budaratsky, Porter / Sentry
Boris Stepanov*, Foreman
Igor Onishchenko, Millhand
Vasily Efimov, Coachman / Drunken Guest
Alexey Shishlyaev, Chief of Police
Valentin Anikin, Policeman / Officer
Ksenia Dudnikova, Sonyetka
Andrii Goniukov, Old Convict
Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus
Ernst Raffelsberger, Chorus Master
* Member of the Young Singers Project – supported by the Kühne Foundation
‘It’s not for you to judge me’
‘No one presses his lips to mine, no one caresses my white breast, no one tires me out with his passionate embraces’: in Katerina’s great monologue from the third scene of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District the language is plain. And Shostakovich clothes the words in music that makes this woman’s longings powerfully immediate. Since her marriage to the merchant Zinovy Izmaylov, Katerina’s life has been dominated by emptiness, loneliness and emotional coldness. Nikolay Leskov sets the novel on which the opera is based at a remove from the great cities in the district of Mtsensk: society here is provincially narrow-minded and there is an ever-present undercurrent of violence. Men have the upper hand over women: Katerina has to minister to her impotent husband as well as her tyrannical father-in-law Boris.
At the time of her wistful monologue she has already got to know Sergey, a new workman, and the most brutal side of his character: had Katerina not inter-vened, egged on by his comrades, he might have succeeded in ravishing Aksinya the cook. But Sergey is attractive and a daredevil. While Zinovy is away on business, he pays a visit to Katerina at night and easily overcomes her initial resistance: the act of love has never been rendered in music with such drastic immediacy.
For Katerina, Sergey, whose calculating ambition she overlooks, soon becomes more than a passionate lover. The feelings she harbours for him form a place of refuge, an alternative utopian world that must inevitably collide with the actual reality of her life. But then, acting out of an instinctive, all-too-human impulse to free herself, Katerina revolts against her oppressors. Surrounded by brutality, she herself resorts to brutal means, carrying them to extremes in murdering first her father-in-law and then her husband.
This will earn Katerina the epithet of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Those equating her with Shakespeare’s murderously ruthless protagonist, however, only reflect the view from outside. Whereas Leskov’s narrator remains ambivalent towards his title character, Shostakovich repeatedly expressed his intentions in this piece, writing for example in an article that appeared at the end of 1932, shortly before he completed the opera, that he understood the story ‘as a tragic portrait of the fate of a talented, clever and exceptional woman in the nightmarish conditions of pre-Revolutionary Russia’. However one might view this historical concretization and reference to pre-Revolutionary conditions as a sop to Stalinist cultural ideology, social contextualization remains at the core of the statement: the perpetrator as a victim of his living conditions.
In an opera, of course, this relativization, which is also a relativization of moral judgement, must first and foremost be audible. ‘It is pointless spending any time arguing about how I justify all these crimes’, writes Shostakovich in 1934, ‘because that happens far more obviously through the material of the music.’ Is ‘justify’ too strong a word? Perhaps, but essentially the only characters to whom the composer responds with genuine empathy are Katerina and – in Act IV – the convicts together with whom she is making the arduous journey on foot to Siberia. By contrast, the other figures are depicted in brash, often cartoonish exaggeration, unmasking the essence of these characters. This is especially true of groups such as the police, who are caricatured mercilessly as doltish representatives of state authority. In calling Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District a ‘tragedy-satire’ Shostakovich succinctly encapsulated these extremes of musical contrast.
First performed in 1934, the young composer’s opera became a sensational success, also with the majority of the critics. But in January 1936 Stalin attended a performance, and only a few days later an article demolishing the work appeared in Pravda. The fact that in the two years since its premiere it had also caused a furore abroad in the West only seemed to confirm its worthlessness as a work of art and popular edification: for the Party, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was too dangerous and was banned forthwith. For Shostakovich nothing would ever be the same again.
Translated by Sophie Kidd