The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.0372 Thursday, 7 February 2002
Date: Wednesday, 06 Feb 2002 20:03:16 -0800
Subject: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
Early in the 20th century two composers wrote operas around a woman
trapped in an unhappy marriage, tyrannized by a domineering in-law, who
takes a lover in her husband's absence. One of these, Dmitri
Shostakovich's _Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk_, has affinities with its
Shakespearean namesake, but they are less than the title implies.
The heroine, Katerina Ismailova, is basically a psychopath, or at least
these tendencies come out through boredom and abuse. Shostakovich and
his librettist do their best to create sympathy for her, but in the
version of the opera/film I saw last week, they don't quite succeed.
She is like Lady Macbeth in her remorseless attitude about the two
murders she commits: the poisons her father-in-law after he catches her
with her lover, Sergei. Later her husband comes home and catches her
also, and she and Sergei garrote him and hide the body in the cellar.
The next scene is K & S's wedding, where a peasant (sort of a village
idiot) finds the body in the cellar. He immediately goes to the police.
This opera was well received when first performed in 1932, but censors
forced Shostakovich to cut some of it. But in 1936 Stalin and a crew of
henchmen walked out on a performance at the Bolshoi; the critics
obligingly panned it, and before long Shostakovich was labeled "enemy of
the people" and the opera was deemed pornography. Shostakovich then gave
up on opera, but before he died in 1975 he gave the original uncensored
score to the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. Her husband is Mstislav
Rostropovich, a conductor well known to PBS audiences, and they recorded
a production in 1979. This recording was the soundtrack for the 1992
film that I saw. This was directed by Petr Weigl, filmed in
Czechoslovakia. It has English titles.
The film medium allows for explicit sex scenes that would be too steamy
on stage. They are not romantic in the least, but seem to underscore the
principals' longing for romance and their total inability to have it.
Weigl cut a great deal, and these cuts included the most explicit
allusions to Shakespeare: the appearance of the father-in-law's ghost,
and a porter-at-the-gate scene in which the police at the station
rejoice because now they can go to the wedding and drink.
The newlyweds are carted off and the rest of the setting is a forced
march to a labor camp. Sergei takes up with another woman, and the arias
given him and all of them betray the shallowness of their emotions.
The music is simply magnificent, more than makes up for the
implausibilities and gaps in the story. It also seems to me an
interesting use of Shakespearean material, even when it strays far from
I don't know the full details about the film, but this was on a DVD and
is currently available. For anyone interested, I have four pages of
program notes I'd be glad to copy and send to you.
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