Upon Watching Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk District

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District is one of the those hot button topics that Shostakovich enthusiasts and students of censorship love to discuss. One minute, Shostakovich's Op. 29 is rocking the charts in the USSR and abroad, perhaps inaugurating an new era in Soviet opera, and the next it is denounced from on high and Shostakovich has to wonder whether he will be having to pine for clean linen socks on his way to the eastern labor camps.

I'm interested in Shostakovich's desire to paint Katerina as a sympathetic character and the differences he made to the plot as compared with the book. Nikolai Leskov wrote Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo Uyezda in 1865 and echoed many of the social commentary expressed by Flaubert's Madame Bovary of 1856: adultery, murder, provincial boredom, and gender identity. Shostakovich and the playwright Aleksander Preis changed a few of the plot's events: They left out Katerina's dream of a cat with Boris' head, omitted the third murder of Katerina's nephew Fyodor, and changed the attitude of the chain gang to Siberia from mildly human to utterly evil.

The De Nederlandse Opera's 2006 DVD captures much of the work's power and brutality. I would say that it is one the best operas I've seen during this quarter of Opera History. The story, music, acting, and production design all worked together. True, the overt tragic eroticism of the whole thing may have been the linking thread that kept you captivated, even if it's a captivation of anticipatory tragedy. The production was dirty, literally. There was a thick layer of dirt over the whole stage in acts one and two. They also reminded me of Tatyana's room from the DVD I watched of Eugene Onegin, simultaneously a glass house and a prison. Lighting was very dark and stark, but very exciting. Yes, the lights were exciting! Especially when you get dust kicked up and people bust out flashlights. The police were excellent and reminded me of a sad, corrupt version of the bobby's from G and S's Pirates of Penzance. They could be funny, except that they eventually ship people off to Siberia. The only thing that didn't work was the chain gang not being by a river. When they say, "they've both drowned" in the end, they mean to say, "Katerina has strangled the other one with a stocking and somehow managed to hang herself with it!" Besides that I really liked this production.

Opus Arte DVD 965I wonder if there is a DVD version of Dzerzhinsky's The Quiet Don to compare with this piece. I'll have to look for that later. Here are a few life messages from Lady Macbeth:

  1. Don't eat too many mushrooms. We should have learned this already from Johann Schobart, Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit, and the author of The Horse Whisperer, but apparently we need nasty Boris to remind us. Oh, wait... That's not right. Don't eat rat poison! That's it. But we should know that from Dumb and Dumber anyway.
  2. Trombones are lascivious and explicit.
  3. Double bassoons are funny.
  4. Watch more CSI shows to figure out a better way to dispose of a body. Don't just put it in the cellar! And don't make love on the shallow grave you've put him in!

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