Opus 29: Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1930-1932), Act 2

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, op. 29 (1930-1932), Act 2
CD:  “Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, Galina Vishnevskaya, Nicolai Gedda, Dimiter Petkov; Ambrosian Opera Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Mstislav Rostropovich (EMI 7 49955 2; more recently reissued)

(Previously:  Act 1.)

The musical highlight of Lady Macbeth‘s second act is the interlude between its two scenes, which cuts in as a priest begins a requiem for Katerina’s just-murdered father-in-law.  Even in a career full of orchestral excesses it rates as Shostakovich’s most awesomely over-the-top moment:

Act 2 continues in the same lurid mode as Act 1, with more emphasis this time on the second half of the sex-and-violence bill.  As Scene 4 opens, Boris discovers Sergey leaving Katerina’s room through a window and whips him in front of the household staff, then locks him in a storeroom.  Katerina poisons him and frees her lover as he dies.  In Scene 5, set once more in Katerina’s room, she is visited by Boris’ ghost — the sole supernatural event that links her to Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth and a seemingly perfunctory holdover from Leskov’s story — before Zinovy intrudes on her and Sergey and they strangle him to death.  Shostakovich’s musical style maintains its dark, knife-edged satire; in particular, Sergey’s beating parallels his earlier abuse of Aksinya, with the workers looking on and laughing and the violence depicted onstage for a somewhat uncomfortable length of time.  (The EMI ablum helpfully mixes in whipcrack sound effects.)  It probably speaks to my own cultural environment that I feel comparatively blase about the killings in the story — a This American Life episode about the relatives of murder victims that I listened to recently makes the point early on that we consume an awful lot of recreational depictions of murder — but for me the pitch remains somewhere in the neighborhood of a Coen brothers movie.  Richard Taruskin, pushing too far in the other extreme, once called the opera a justification of genocide due to the plot’s unsettling closeness to the USSR’s policy at the time towards wealthy rural landowners; I hope to unpack that some more later (probably around Act 4) but for now suffice it to say that Lady Macbeth’s criminal goings-on, while not unproblematic, reminds me less of propaganda than of Peter Stormare putting a leg through a wood chipper in Fargo.

Another way in which Shostakovich’s opera is very much of its time is that all of its villains are caricatures.  And, indeed, most of its characters are villains; Katerina, its only emotionally rounded figure, seems like a human walking around within a cartoon.  Being familiar with the opera in isolation, I first found this perplexing, than as an idiosyncracy of its satirical tone.  But, with reference to Shostakovich’s previous film collaborations and ballet scenarios — especially Alone, which shares with Lady Macbeth a conservative approach to storytelling — the caricatured antagonists pop out as a common feature of Soviet storytelling at the time.  I don’t know to what extent it was a quasi-official necessity versus a stylistic hallmark of the time.  It certainly prevents the tragic side of Shostakovich’s tragicomedy from reaching the depths of other, more dramatically nuanced operas of the 20th century — although I used to think Lady Macbeth did pretty well on that score until I saw Janácek’s Jenůfa and Britten’s Peter Grimes.

It works well within Shostakovich’s satirical frame, though.  Boris functions as the opera’s foremost heavy, a comical yet tyrannical head of household.  The character can play either as a legitimately powerful figure or as an old man puffed up with his self-regard; Dimiter Petkov, in keeping with the present album’s weightiness, gives him a robust presence.  Boris’ song on his night patrol early in Scene 4 is the high point of his characterization, as he lecherously talks himself into turning his sexual attention to his absent son’s wife.  Shostakovich sets this leering reverie to a series of misshapen waltz gestures:

Zinovy, in contrast, is every bit the spineless, querulous, impotent husband; when he bursts in on Katerina and Sergey the scene initially plays like a bedroom farce, though per Shostakovich’s M.O. the gleeful comedy veers soon enough into more dangerous territory.  Here (beginning with Zinovy’s repeated “We’ve heard it all! We’ve heard it all!”) the pair sing their accusations against each other over each other in a duet that strikes me (perhaps just because I’m an opera naif) as cleverly backward-looking, along the tradition of operatic duets where it’s impossible to follow either character’s words.  Werner Krenn sings Zinovy’s part with appropriate timidity, in contrast to Vishnevskaya’s viperous delivery of Katerina’s insults:

Katerina calls to Sergey at the end of the above excerpt, and soon enough the husband has been strangled in an alarmed swirl of music.

Sergey himself isn’t precisely a villain and gets a little bit more shading than the others, though he is ultimately a satire of a self-serving manipulator, who in handling Katerina alternates between coarseness and an assumed tone of wounded romanticism.  A short aria early in Scene 5 paints this perfectly, in a piece of character work like something out of Shostakovich’s literary satirical heroes  Gogol and Mikhail Zoshchenko, but darker at the edges.  Sergey pleads with Katerina that he’s “a sensitive person, you know,” and pushes her to make him her lawful husband:

Katerina Lvovna, Katenka,
I’m not like other men,
Who don’t care about anything,
So long as they’ve got a woman’s soft body
To caress.
I’m a sensitive person, you know,
I can feel what love is.
Oh why did I fall in love with you,
And burn with passion just for you?
Can it really be an honour for you,
An eminent merchant’s wife,
To be my mistress?
Oh Katya, what I’d give to become
Your husband in God’s eyes!

Despite the thinness of the characters, Shostakovich’s music does find some tragedy in the murders, if not sympathy for the victims themselves.  To return to the Scene 4 interlude — a solemn, gigantically scored passacaglia, the longest stretch of unaccompanied orchestral music within the work — it adds gravity to the fact of Boris’ death.

To some extent this reinforces the composer’s sympathy for Katerina; it is the event being marked as tragic, I think, as opposed to her own morals or actions being musically judged.  In another way, the music again seems to distance itself from the story and pull back to a longer view:  The destruction of this petty villain is a tragedy in motion, and that darkness seems to be a wider context within which Shostakovich places the opera’s frenetic, nearly nihilistic, not entirely gleeful comedy.

(Updated to add the final excerpt and the text to Sergey’s song to Katerina, and to make the Taruskin quotation indirect.)


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