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Opera Club: Shostakovich’s ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’

Dmitri Shostakovich
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Libretto: Alexander Preys & Dmitri Shostakovich, based on a short story by Nikolai Leskov. Dutch National Opera, 2006
Sung in Russian, with English subtitles


This week’s opera recommendation sits somewhere between our categories of “classic” and “discovery”. Dmitri Shostakovitch’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is played regularly in opera houses around the world, especially those with sufficient financial and technical means, however, you would hardly call it a core repertoire classic piece. For one, the opera makes considerable demands on its performers – both vocally and physically – not to mention psychologically.

Its main character is Katerina L’vovna Izmaylova, wife of a provincial merchant, who feels entrapped in the numbing boredom and purposelessness of her own life, and whose self-abandoned leap into an emotionally-unleashed affair is the starting point of an unravelling tragedy. As the basis of their libretto, Shostakovich and his co-writer Alexander Preys used a short story about a murderous wife by Nikolay Leskov, with one crucial difference: the opera’s Katerina is a much more sympathetic figure, whose crimes seem justifiable in circumstances she experiences – the humiliations of her father in law, the ignorance and violence of her husband, the judgement of the workers at the mill.

Less cold-blooded than in the story, Katerina acts out of despair, when her emotional blossoming in the relationship with Sergey is punished. With its open handling of sexuality and its graphic murder scenes, the opera has a remarkable “verismo” approach, but it wasn’t as well suited to appraise the Soviet state as some had hoped. While Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was an instant critical and popular success after its premiere in January 1934, Stalin was not so impressed when he joined the audience to see the revised version two years later. His entourage famously left the performance before the fourth and final act, and instigated an open attack on the piece in the press, which accused the composer of producing “muddle instead of music”.

Judge for yourself in this intense, crass, but entirely convincing production by Martin Kušej’s at the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam, with an outstanding Eva-Maria Westbroek as Katerina, and Mariss Jansons conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra in a musically-compelling performance from 2006.

See all our previous Opera Club recommendations here.