Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (opera)

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (opera)

"Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District" (Леди Макбет Мценского уезда in Russian; "Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo Uyezda" in transliteration) is an opera in four acts by the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. It sets a Russian libretto by Alexander Preis and the composer, inspired by and named after the famous story by Nikolai Leskov. The opera is sometimes referred to informally as "Lady Macbeth" when there is no confusion with Verdi's "Macbeth". It was first performed on 22 January 1934 at the Leningrad Maly Operny. Shostakovich dedicated the opera to his first wife, the physicist Nina Varzar.

The work incorporates elements of expressionism and verismo. It tells the story of a lonely woman in 19th century Russia, who falls in love with one of her husband's workers and is driven to murder.

Despite great early success, on both popular and official levels, "Lady Macbeth" was the vehicle for a general denunciation of Shostakovich's music by the Communist Party in early 1936. After being condemned by an anonymous article (sometimes attributed to Stalin) in "Pravda", the Communist Party newspaper, it was banned in the Soviet Union for almost thirty years.Many people thus know the opera primarily for its role in the history of censorship.

The composer later revised the opera; as Op.114, it has two new entr’actes, a major revision to Act 1 Scene 3, and some smaller changes elsewhere. The revised version was first performed, renamed "Katerina Izmailova", on 26 December 1962 in Moscow at the Stanislavsky-Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theatre. Shostakovich preferred the revised version, but since his death the original version, Op.29, possibly with some early revisions, is more often performed.



Act 1

"Scene 1: Katerina's room" Katerina is unhappily married to Zinovy, a provincial merchant. She complains to herself of her loneliness. Her father-in-law Boris says it is her fault for not producing an heir, but she blames her husband Zinovy for not being able to make her love him. Zinovy is called away on business, and Boris makes Katerina swear to be faithful. A servant, Aksinya, tells Katerina about the womanising new farm hand, Sergei.

"Scene 2: The Ismailovs' yard"

Sergei and his comrades have been teasing Aksinya. Katerina confronts him; they wrestle; she is thrown. When Boris appears, she says that she tripped.

"Scene 3: Katerina's room" Katerina goes to bed. Sergei comes to borrow a book, then embraces her, and they make love.

Act 2

"Scene 4: The yard" One night a week later, Boris sees Sergei climbing out of Katerina's window. He catches him and whips him as a thief, then has him locked up. Katerina gives Boris some poisoned mushrooms and as he is dying she retrieves the keys to free Sergei.

"Scene 5: Katerina's room"

Katerina and Sergei are together. After he falls asleep, she sees Boris' ghost. Later she hears Zinovy returning. Although Sergei hides, Zinovy sees his clothing and guesses the truth. Together Katerina and Sergei kill Zinovy.

Act 3

"Scene 6: Near the cellar"

Katerina and Sergei prepare to get married. A peasant finds Zinovy's body in the cellar and goes to fetch the police.

"Scene 7: The police station"

The police complain about not being invited to the wedding. The peasant arrives and gives them the opportunity for revenge.

"Scene 8: The Ismailov 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.

Act 4

"Scene 9. A temporary convict camp near a bridge"

On the way 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 a river and jumps in herself. They are swept away and the convict train moves on.

Critical reactions

One criticism of the work focused on its sexual content, particularly the way in which the action is depicted in the music. The music critic of the "New York Sun" called it "pornophony" (Taruskin), while Stravinsky described the opera as "lamentably provincial", considering the musical portrayal primitively realistic Wilson, page 96] .

The thrust of the "Pravda" criticism was in terms of morality; it condemned the opera's sympathetic portrayal of the murderess. This criticism was revived by Taruskin in his 1989 article, where he interprets the work as "a justification of genocide". Daniil Zhitomirsky accuses the work of "primitive satire" in its treatment of the priest and police, but acknowledges the "incredible force" of the last scene

At the time, the composer justified the sympathetic portrayal of Katerina in Soviet terms, saying she was a victim of the circumstances of oppressive, pre-revolutionary Russia.


Further reading

*Taruskin, Richard (1989). "The Opera and the Dictator: the peculiar martyrdom of Dmitri Shostakovich." "The New Republic", March 20, 1989, pp. 34-40.
*Wilson, Elizabeth (1994). "Shostakovich: A Life Remembered". Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-04465-1.

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