Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District

based on Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 horror story ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District’
premiered in 1934, an instant success with public and critics
savagely attacks by Stalin in 1935 and withdrawn from the repertory for 3 decades
Leskov’s Plot 1 – Katerina commits four murders- wife of Zinovy Borisovich Izmailov- childless and powerless- father-in-law is called Boris Timofeevich- flirts with the new clerk called Sergei and he visits her room soon after which becomes a regular occurence- Boris catches the clerk one morning and beats him unconcious
Plot 2 – Boris promises to whip Katerina but she kills him the next morning with rat poison and nurses Sergei back to health- Katerina visited in bed by big cat which she sees as ghost of Boris
Plot 3 – Sergei worries about the return of Katerina’s husband- Zinovy does return and Katerina provokes him by fondling Sergei in front of him, she then strangles him when he gets angry and finished him off with a candle stick- the corpse is stowed in a cellar
Plot 4 – Katerina becomes pregnant and petitions to have family business transferred to her own name due to inexplicable disappearance of her husband- but Zinovy’s nephew turns up called Fedya and moves in who claims to be heir to family business- Katerina and Sergei suffocate Fedya whilst he is ill in bed- seen though by crowd of churchgoers and flogged and sentenced to exile
Plot 5 – the rest takes place among a convicts march- Sergei resents Katerina and rejects her affection, instead preferring the attention of two other women – Fiona and Sonetka- he talks Katerina out of her woollen stockings and uses them to pay for Sonetka’s favours- they taunt Katerina but she pulls Sonetka overboard – they both die
Mtsensk District “a decidedly nowhere place in the Russian provinces near Ryazan” (Emerson)
Leskov’s original story narrated by fellow resident of Mtsensk District
Shostakovich changers to narative: – role of Boris (father-in-law) is “vastly expanded and eroticised”- Fedya (the nephew) is completely eliminated because the killing of a child creates a negative impression – also changes the way in which Katerina and Sergei are caught: the crime is exposed when Katerina immediately confesses seeing that flight is impossible: police never obliged to make arrest or embody state authority- only Sonetka retained – Fiona is unecesssary
Emerson on the change: “the law-abiding world appears more ludicrous and self-serving than the two criminals”
Shostakovich’s police (Act III) offer light-hearted and often comic relief whilst the real drama unfolds in the soul of the heroine, Katerina
Act IV – very different to the buffoonery of act III- state authority becomes stern and ineluctable in the person of the prison guards marching the herd of convicts to Siberian exile
more subtle change Katerina’s enduring passion for Sergei becomes the subject of mockery from everyone, not just Sergei and Sonetka
Emerson on the result of the mockery: “Katerina is increasingly isolated on stage and, in a complementary move, spiritually elevated”
example of spiritual elevation Katerina’s final arioso: ‘In the woods there is a lake’ – gives voice to her guilt which makes her subsequent death seem more like self-punishment than spiteful revenge
Emerson’s “spiritual elevation of the heroine” – occurs throughout the opera- puts strain on Leskov’s detached, amoral tale
possible Soviet themes in the plot: – condemnation of repressive world of Russian merchant (capitalism)- call for woman’s liberation from that world
1932 Party Resolution – re-organised the arts- removed power from proletarian organisations- set stage for Socialist Realism
figure of Macbeth a power obsessive – symbolic of capitalist greed
Soviet 1930s officially optimistic
Katerina’s crimes as freeing gestures that liberate her from social oppression?
Leskov’s narrator takes no real stance, never really reveals his thoughts – we never see the heroines thoughts, only her deeds: she seems to have a marked lack of conscience
Leskov link to Macbeth use of the Lady as “handmaiden to murder” (Emerson)
key to Shostakovich’s changes: – to address the silence of the heroine and restore Shakesperian depth and evolution of character
Katerina’s vocal setting – almost the only part to be characterised by freely flowing, lyric song- “a passionately lyrical musical profile that continually undermines her criminal record” (Emerson)
Emerson on Katerina 1: – “the orchestra is always on Katerina’s side” e.g. of famous passacaglia between acts IV and V which render the heroine’s acts of violence “pathetic and definsible”- ” She casts her lyrical confessions against the crudeness of her world, and against the parody embodied by the other characters.”
Emerson on Katerina 2: – surrounded by “one-dimensional, either trivial or evil” characters e.g. dissonant and grotesque music- when other characters become lyrical it is only as a sign of their insincerity and the orchestra punctuates this with strident interruptions- ” In defending his heroine as an energetic and talented woman perishing amid patriarchal cruelties, Shostakovich had to present her- paradoxically- as passive, as a blameless victim of her environment”
Emerson on the changes: – “The changes Shostako- vich made in the character of his heroine were all in the direction of trapped innocence and ‘purification through suffering’, precisely those traits that Leskov had excised from his own tale”- “the mixing of pathetic and grotesque in this opera releases Katerina from all serious moral obligations”
Shostakovich’s Katerina blame free? – dominant stance throughout is or lyrical and alienated victim- repentant and regrets that she was forced to murder- listener feels that her environment drove her to her acts, and that her inner life still strives for purity
Emerson summary: “Shostakovich’s orchestral narrator […] rehabilitates the heroine by continually revealing lyrical inner surfaces, hidden virtues that cannot be reflected in the outer deed. Where Leskov’s Katerina cannot be saved, Shostakovich’s Katerina does not need to be saved”