Students See Revival of Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District” at Met Opera by Danielle Ranucci
On Sunday, October 2, a group of Princeton students traveled to New York City to see the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District.”
“I’ve never been to an opera before,” said Sydney Moore, an undergraduate junior who was on the trip. “I’m really looking forward to listening to some Shostakovich.”
To prepare for the show, the students attended a lecture by music professor and Soviet archival historian Simon Morrison. Morrison’s lecture provided literary, musical, and historical context for “Lady Macbeth,” and dispelled some popular misconceptions.
Morrison explained that Shostakovich’s opera was based on an 1865 short story by Russian novelist Nikolai Leskov. While other Russian authors were also writing Shakespeare-inspired stories around this time, Leskov’s story explored much darker depths than any of them.
Leskov’s “Lady Macbeth” is the story of a quadruple murder, in which a woman named Katerina Ismailova is assaulted by a peasant, has an affair with him, and goes on to kill her cruel father-in-law, her cheating husband, and her husband’s innocent young nephew. Ultimately, Katerina and the peasant are sent to Siberia, where she dies killing the peasant’s new lover.
In his lecture, Morrison discussed how Shostakovich portrayed the story’s heroine more sympathetically than Leskov’s story. The opera omits the infanticide, for instance. It also fleshes out Katerina’s motives, showing her as a victim of societal degradation and abuse.
Shostakovich used music to develop this more sympathetic portrayal. When the composer was younger, he used to play popular polkas, waltzes, and galops to accompany silent films. Shostakovich despised playing such music. However, Morrison explained that, when writing “Lady Macbeth,” Shostakovich returned to these popular music genres, adding atonality to them “to show the characters’ wasteland of existence.”
While most of the men in the opera sing unmelodic fragments, Katerina is one of the only characters to sing heartfelt melodies. The contrast between her melodiousness and the other characters’ atonality emphasizes her humanity and mistreatment at their hands.
Morrison wrapped up his lecture by debunking some popular misconceptions. When “Lady Macbeth” premiered in Russia in 1934, it was a hit, and it stayed so until 1936, when an anonymous critical review appeared in the Soviet newspaper Pravda. According to popular belief, that review was written by Stalin, caused the opera to be banned, and made Shostakovich stop composing operas.
According to Morrison, the review was actually written by an opportunistic journalist who just wanted to earn money to pay his Communist Party dues. The subsequent crack-down on Shostakovich was caused by a rivalry between two other high-ranking Soviet officials. The opera also wasn’t banned right away, and this incident didn’t cause Shostakovich to stop writing opera—he went on to draft others. (Morrison also published his findings in an October 6 New York Times article, which can be read here: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/06/arts/music/shostakovich-lady-macbeth.html).
The Met’s production of Shostakovich’s opera set the story’s events during 1950s Soviet Russia. It featured dazzling staging, singing, and storytelling.
While some of the students on the trip hadn’t attended an opera before, they were very impressed by “Lady Macbeth.”
“I was completely blown away,” reflected undergraduate senior Eric Periman. “I thought the quality of the music, the cast, and obviously the storyline itself, was incredibly gripping. I feel really lucky to have been able to see it.”
Faculty members also reflected on the opera’s contemporary significance.
“Leskov wrote that while he had been writing [‘Lady Macbeth’], he experienced real hallucinations and ‘the effect of overstrained nerves and isolation almost drove’ him to delirium. Shostakovich’s opera in the Met’s version conveys a similar horrifying effect by means of 20th-century music and provocative innovative performance,” said Ilya Vinitsky, professor and Chair of the Slavic Languages and Literatures Department. “It is eerie how much it tells us about the senseless violence and atrophy of a moral sense, which we witness in the contemporary world.”
The visit to the Metropolitan Opera to see Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District” was sponsored by the Program in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies.