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lady macbeth of mtsensk

7 april 2020

It was probably not as scandalous for Nikolai Leskov to publish Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in Tsarist Russia as it was for Dmitri Shostakovich, seventy years later, to stage the opera version in Stalinist Russia. But Leskov's story is lurid enough that nobody could expect to launch it without a little controversy. The events imagined in Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District don't reflect well on any segment of the Russian population, or for that matter on the human race.

I reckon most people come to Leskov's novella via Shostakovich's opera. I certainly did. The Opera in Video database kept wanting to serve me up a 2006 production of Lady Macbeth from Amsterdam, so after starting out the pandemic with a few Wagner operas, I gave in and sampled Shostakovich. The contrast was marked. Wagner, while undeniably a heck of a composer, was fond of static, long-drawn-out stories: essentially undramatic. In Leskov's novella, Shostakovich found a short, kinetic story that lands one gut-punch after another.

Shostakovich and co-librettist Alexander Preys telescope the action of Leskov's novella into the compressed drama of the opera, drawing mostly from the first part of Leskov's plot. Katerina, the heroine, is unhappily married to the infertile, ineffectual Zinovy. Her overbearing father-in-law Boris plays domestic tyrant to the younger couple. Zinovy is away on business a lot, so Katerina starts carrying on with the young and attractive, if somewhat brutal, Sergei.

In Leskov's piece, the lovers commit three murders, first taking out Boris (actually Katerina does this on her own, with the help of a poisoned dish of mushrooms). Next up is Zinovy, strangled – and in the 2006 production, smashed on the temple with one of Katerina's many designer shoes. Leskov then introduces a third victim, the child Fedya. Fedya turns out to hold an interest in Zinovy's property, and must be done away with (pillow over the head – Katerina isn't committed to any single M.O.). The third murder must have seemed too much to the librettists; they omitted it from the opera.

Eventually these killers pay for their series of crimes. Leskov's long-ish denouement has Sergei and Katerina doing time and eventually meeting up again, a reunion that goes notably badly. In Shostakovich, the couple are shipped straight from their wedding to prison, and the bad ending occurs along the way.

More gets lost in translation from Russian than any other Western language. I am not sure if Leskov's Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District has much significance beyond its potboilerish plot. Is it just a Russian example of what the French call faits divers? Is it trenchant social commentary? Is it lighter, if still edgy – a satire of manners? Does it reflect on the commercial class represented by Boris and Zinovy, on their boorish, grasping behavior? Is Katerina a victim of one of the uglier wings of the patriarchy, or is she an type of the eternal temptress, devouring any man in her path? Is there some Russian subtext I will never be able to understand?

Internet commentary suggests that Shostakovich's opera has something to do with kulaks, the rising class of landowner peasants that arose (it seems) well after Leskov wrote the novella. Whatever Shostakovich might have been trying to say about kulaks, it famously failed to impress Stalin, who shut down Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and deterred its composer from dabbling in opera for the remainder of his career. Though oddly enough, Lady M had initial splashy success in the Soviet Union, and was only shut down after a lot of people had seen and loved it. Misunderstandings seem to have been rife in Stalin's orbit.

Shostakovich's opera is not tuneful, has no sympathetic characters, and as I've noted, lacks a discernible "cultural work," at least to 21st-century Americans. But it does offer what must be the most coveted of all parts for a xylophonist. I think I heard more xylophone in the three hours of this opera than I'd heard before in my entire life.

The 2006 Amsterdam production is visually ghastly (intentionally so), presenting images of squalor, confinement, and moral tunnel vision. The characters are trapped in a glass-and-steel cage throughout. The staging (by Martin Kusej) is ugly but memorable, and clearly reinforces the themes of the opera. I'm glad I watched it. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was rumored to be making a return to the Metropolitan stage in 2020-21. This now seems not to be the case, even if the season itself goes on. I hope there's a Lady M in New York some year soon, though, and that I can be there in person to see it.

Leskov, Nikolai. [Ledi Makbet Mtsenskovo uyezda, 1865.]

Die Lady Makbeth des Mzensker Landkreises. In Eine Teufels-Austreibung und andere Geschichten. Translated by Alexander Eliasberg. München: Musarion, 1921. 145-216.

The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. The Hudson Review, Winter 2012.