Opus 29: Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1930-1932), Act 4

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, op. 29 (1930-1932), Act 4
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, Act 2, Act 3.)

In the wood, right in a grove, there is a lake,
Almost round, and very deep.
And the water in it is black,
Black like my conscience.
And when the wind blows in the wood,
On the lake waves rise up,
Huge waves, and then it’s frightening.
In autumn there are always waves on the lake,
And the water’s black and the waves huge.
Huge, black waves.

(Translations, again from the EMI album’s notes, are by Joan Pemberton Smith.  The musical excerpt covers the first four lines of the text above.)

Late in Act 4’s single half-hour scene, Katerina Ismailova numbly delivers this aria, relating the force of her guilt.  It’s a finely nuanced piece of vocal writing, set over a low orchestral pause with tremorous woodwind figures for the waves that depict her pangs of conscience.  Too, it’s a shift in her character.  Some of the horror expressed in the orchestral music earlier, particularly the passacaglia that follows Boris’ murder, could be ascribed to Katerina’s awareness of the gravity of her crimes, but that works as an abstract and mostly unrealized understanding at best; the appearance of the ghost in Scene 5 offers the most concrete opportunity for an attack of conscience but Katerina is more terrified at being confronted, and bickers with her deceased father-in-law as she did when he was alive.

The narrative arc of the opera makes a corresponding shift:  The final act comes across not as a musical satire with undercurrents of tragedy, but as a tragedy laced with a few satirical details.  This turn in the story and in the musical style — directly expressive and simpler to follow — keeps the opera’s tone fresh, and prevents exhaustion with Shostakovich’s furiously kaleidoscopic style from setting in as it does in The Nose and The Golden Age.  The move into overt tragedy is apparent from the act’s opening chorus, sung as a group of convicts being marched to Siberia (Katerina and Sergey among them) make camp for the night by a river.  An old convict delivers the first lines of the prisoners’ song, which is then picked up by the full chorus as they lament the difficult road and describe “the echoes of groans of the dying” along it:


Despite its bleakness the music is oddly warmer than most of what’s come before, as Shostakovich directly expresses the prisoners’ hardship — certainly resonant with the difficult years in which he composed the work — rather than keeping a chilly, ironic distance from the events onstage.

This tone continues as Katerina, bribing a guard to gain access to the male prisoners’ camp, seeks out Sergey for comfort, only to hear him accuse her of ruining his life.  Her brief, affecting song suggests a glimmer of light in the darkness around her, made more heartbreaking by the inevitable betrayal that will follow it:

Seryozha!  My dearest!
At last!
Even the pain in my legs has gone,
And the tiredness, and the anguish…
Everything’s forgotten,
Once I’m with you,
Seryozha, Seryozha!


The shift in tone isn’t complete; the plot machinations deploy the same blackly humorous musical style as in earlier acts.  After rebuffing his wife, Sergey pursues another female prisoner, Sonyetka, with the same affected lyricism that he earlier used on Katerina.  Sonyetka offers her affections in exchange for his wife’s wool stockings, and Sergey cruelly gets Katerina to give them to her under the pretense of needing them to protect his own injured legs from his manacles.  He further humiliates her by carrying off Sonyetka in full view of the women’s camp.  The scene builds to a head as the female convicts taunt Katerina — a final instance of ugly crowd behavior — and a male sentry leers at Sergey and Sonyetka’s tryst.  Katerina finally stops trying to break past them to get to Sergey and freezes in despair:

Shostakovich is capable of writing subtle, touching, quietly devastating music, as in the earlier excerpts of Katerina’s solo vocals, but for his emotional climaxes he prefers to pull out the stops.  (In this recording he is aided tremendously by Rostropovich and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, who aspire here to near-Maynard Ferguson levels of trumpet wailing.)  It’s not so much psychologically penetrating as psychologically battering but the style works well for him.

In fairness, the outburst above is immediately followed, in marked contrast, by Katerina’s song about the lake.  Sonyetka then strolls by after her dalliance with Sergey in order to taunt Katerina, who pushes her into the river and jumping after her in a climactic murder-suicide.  The opera lets out a final musical exclamation before the prisoners are marched offstage, reprising their opening chorus.

The Richard Taruskin quotation that I mentioned in the Act 2 post, here gleaned from a Google Books search of his essay collection Defining Russia Musically, is less extreme than I characterized it earlier this week:

So ineluctably has the opera come to symbolize pertinacious resistance to inhumanity that it is virtually impossible now to see it as an embodiment of that very inhumanity.  . . .  And yet it remains a profoundly inhumane work of art.  Its technique of dehumanizing victims is the perennial method of those who would perpetrate and justify genocide, whether of kulaks in the Ukraine, Jews in Greater Germany, or aborigines in Tasmania.

It’s a defensible statement but not, I think, a correct one.  Dehumanizing a story’s victims, or any villains left alive at the end, is a perennial method throughout much art, and while it arguably makes for worse narrative more often than not, the precise use to which the author puts it has a lot to do with how morally ugly it is.  Lady Macbeth, in echoing the USSR’s dekulakization campaign, does tap into a disturbing vein of Soviet politics, but it surely doesn’t function as propaganda.  Propaganda has no use for late crises of conscience in its protagonists, or for that matter the frenetic, dark-edged circus atmosphere surrounding the actions it would be promoting as right and good.  Further, Preis’ and Shostakovich’s libretto doesn’t agitate recognizably for any action or worldview — no class or character other than Katerina is actually shown to be good, and the authors don’t try to establish their central character as anything other than sympathetically human.  Whether Katerina’s guilt and her final, despairing act of violence redeem her at all is a matter of audience reaction — Shostakovich leaves room for ambiguity here, another decidedly non-propagandistic quality.

The opera’s tragic turn in Act 4 doesn’t wipe out the effect of its incipiently tragic but still gleeful depiction of violence earlier, although this applies not just to the murdered landowners but also to the violence against Katerina and Sergey, against the cook and the atheist schoolteacher.  As problematic as the dispatching of Boris and Zinovy is, isolating that strand of the opera distorts its overall impact.  Lady Macbeth too reflexively channels the official political mood of Shostakovich’s time and leans a little too heavily on stock Soviet villains, but not fatally so.  For me this is highlighted but not really worsened by the composer’s youthfully abstract and excessive illustrations of violence — only with a little more age and bitter experience would he begin to compose music from a stance of moral authority.  Except for the portrayal of Katerina’s final betrayal and humilation, Taruskin is correct that the opera is not a humane work.  But it is very human in its emotional intensity, and it scathingly satires those who abuse their power over others, and those who sadistically look on as they do so; its problems shouldn’t be ignored (no artwork’s should) but its value as commentary, as storytelling, and as viscerally exciting music surpasses its flaws.  All told it is an edgy, extraordinary musical drama.


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