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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Music By Dmitry Shostakovich
Libretto by Alexander Preis and Dmitry Shostakovich
after a story by Nikolai Leskov

Canadian Opera Company
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
February - March 2007

Reviewed by Ralph Lindheim

The Canadian Opera Company's second production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk-the first was about twenty years ago-was a popular and critical success. The singing was on the whole good and the orchestral playing was remarkably fine. The staging of the opera-though set in some unspecified place at a time redolent to my mind of the 1920s and 1930s, far from the provincial Russia of the middle of the nineteenth century, where Leskov placed his tale-was theatrically vivid. Up until the last scene featuring convicts being marched to Siberia, the crowd scenes with the large chorus required by the opera were treated in a highly theatrical fashion, emphasizing the satirical and grotesque aspects of the reality these characters of the opera inhabited and represented, And the sex scenes, for which the opera is notorious, were graphic enough to abash some of the more prudish members of the audience.

The choice of a chicken processing plant for the setting of the first three acts could be ridiculed or at least questioned, but it served well enough as an background suggesting the mechanical, automaton-like nature of modern capitalistic life, whose soullessness gave rise to the sexual rebellion of the heroine, Katerina Lvovna Izmailova, but also eventually came to colour and even determine the activity of this sexually driven character. More compelling visually was the two-tiered stage with the cramped apartment of Katerina and her husband set off in contrast to the vast factory underneath, thereby making all too palpable the narrow confines within which Katerina felt bored and trapped. There was a problem, however, with the costumes, which apart from a priestly cassock and shawls for the convict women did not give us a unified sense of the time and place in which this version of the opera was taking place, though they did not fail to add to the satiric intentions of the production.

The singers looked good and acted well. The soprano singing the title role, Nicola Beller Carbone, is perhaps the trimmest diva on the planet at this moment but she sang powerfully and well and was particularly moving in her last arias. The men, especially the baritones and basses, were notable as is expected in a Russian opera. Special mention should be given to Timothy Noble who sang the role of Katerina's lecherous father-in-law, to Alain Coulombe as the priest who in a humorous turn inappropriately brought up that famous "Russian" writer Gogol when administering the last rites to Boris Timoveyovich and was outrageously plastered during the wedding scene, to Robert Pomakow as the Chief of Police with his squad of Keystone cops, doubling as soulless, paper-pushing bureaucratic clerks, and to Pavel Daniluk as an old convict in the last act.

Truly worthy of the audience's enthusiastic applause was the performance of the instrumentalists in the orchestra pit. Their playing, under the strong direction and control of the conductor Richard Bradshaw, was a constant delight and, more important, a revelation, for the interplay of music and text, of voices and instruments, was especially suggestive and powerful in a hall in which the acoustics are so lively and good. At times the orchestra commented caustically on the feelings and actions of the characters by depicting both the lovemaking of the heroine with her lover, Sergey, and, in the next scene, the whipping of Sergey by her father-in-law in two musical sequences that have a sustained musical crescendo to suggest sexual and psychosexual arousal followed by either a coarse, exaggerated, musical depiction of detumescence or a simple musical collapse suggesting emotional and physical exhaustion. So often in the opera the music either commented explicitly and often negatively on the sentiments expressed by the singers or presented a bizarre and unexpected contrast to the sung words. In fact, throughout the opera a strange, intentionally uncomfortable tension between the music and its libretto is felt.

Shostakovich and his librettist must have seen all too clearly the ambiguities and tensions within their source for the opera, the short story with the same name by Nikolai Leskov published in 1865. There, as my colleague Professor Kenneth Lantz suggested, Katerina exchanges in the course of the story one form of imprisonment for another. [1] The story--and this holds true of the opera--cannot therefore be read simply as elevating Katerina above her society and offering unqualified support for female liberation, though there are moments when the listeners are expected to sympathize entirely with its heroine, to share her frustration and rebellion against the oppression and undervaluation of women in her society, and to enjoy the expression of her youth, her energy, and her vitality, Yet though she breaks free from the milieu in which she is considered a cook, a sexual toy for the pleasure of men, and a breeding cow for producing an heir of the business, her liberation by and through sexuality leads her into a series of murders, each progressively more horrible and cruel, to sexual dependence on a man who is unworthy of her, to a psychological deterioration as she becomes shriller and more possessive, and to a complete loss of control over the instinctual forces that come to drive her. Before her final suicidal and homicidal act, she, like Anna Karenina before her death, wants to pray, to express contrition for sins committed but, unlike the later heroine of Tolstoy's novel, she cannot: she involuntarily recalls with the chill of its loss what her lover remembers so sarcastically, namely, the nights of passion that led them to commit so many murders. She is powerless to change and can only follow the destructive dictates of an unleashed nature that is less than human. In the opera we are spared many of the horrors perpetrated by Katerina in Leskov's story--it is her lover who strikes the blow that kills her husband, and the murder of the child that leads to her capture in the story is avoided altogether in the opera--but the music nevertheless precludes an indiscriminate approval and elevation of her above her patriarchal milieu.

The COC staged the original version of the opera composed in 1932, which is not as smooth and bowdlerized as later revisions of the opera by Shostakovich. Though the original version contained much that is recognizable and conventional-arias, duets, trios, and choruses characteristic of so many 19th century operas--what is novel and striking about Shostakovich's work are the glaring contrasts, the far from seamless flow from one of the parts or fragments to the other. Instead, the opera yokes together, at times without any transition, expressionistically staccato visions of modern economic life with farcical mockery of the corrupt institutions of church and state. The last act begins with a moving, compassionate dirge for soloist and chorus mourning the hardships and horrors of convict life but is soon offset by the grating mockery of Katerina by the other female convicts and Sergey's new love, Sonetka., illuminating something that Leskov remarks openly, namely, the inhumane treatment of some prisoners by others. And the two short arias for Katerina in the final act also clash, one pathetically cataloguing the pain caused a suddenly dependent Katerina by the betrayal of her lover and the second menacingly describing the dark waves raised in a deep lake by inclement autumn weather, suggesting of course the dark and destructive forces that are to determine the heroine's final act.

Musically, the opera presents a patchwork of materials stitched together by the pastiche-like citation and combination of conventional numbers from Russian operatic classics, such as a Glinka romance that seems out of place, given the words that are sung to it, and parodistic reminiscences of the choruses from Boris Godunov [2] as well as direct quotations from that opera's tavern scene as well as Boris's mad scene. Added to the mix are prominent intrusions from decidedly lower musical culture, the music of operettas, dancehalls, and the circus. Most of these musical quotations, which highlight discontinuity rather than its opposite, do more, however, than just sarcastically mock the conventions they parrot; like the title of Leskov's story, they also remind us of prominent precedents and thus give voice to the ways in which the characters and their music relate to the archetypal figures of literature and to the powerful musical culture of the past. They suggest thereby that Shostakovich's art in the twentieth century reflects the dynamism, intensity, and complexity of the artists, both literary and musical, who preceded him, while at the same time projecting the non-canonical disharmony, cacophony, sordidness, and irrationality that govern the characters populating the world created by both the short story and the opera inspired by it.


  1. See Kenneth A. Lantz, "Leskov's 'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk' and Its Place in His Work" in And Meaning for a Life: Festschrift for Charles A. Moser on the Occasion of his Sixtieth Birthday, ed. Peter Rollberg, (Columbus: Slavica, 1997).
  2. From a talk by Professor Simon Morrison of Princeton University given at the University of Toronto, Feb, 3, 2007. The title of the talk was "The Denunciation of *Lady Macbeth*."
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