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

By Logan Martell

Making its premiere on January 22, 1934, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” is adapted from a novel of the same name written by Nikolai Leskov. The opera was banned for nearly thirty years by the Communist Party in Russia after it was deemed to be offensive; one performance at the Bolshoi Theatre was attended by none other than Joseph Stalin, who sat through the opera with great disapproval, much to Shostakovich’s growing fear.

Short Plot Summary

The opera begins in Mzensk, Russia sometime during the 1840s. In a wealthy home Katerina bemoans her dull, comfortable life. Her husband, Zinovi, enters to bid her farewell; he is called away on business to attend to a broken dam. Before he leaves he makes her swear on an icon that she will be faithful in his absence. His father Boris is witness to her pledge. When Zinovi has left, the servants of the house begin to harass the cook, Aksinias. Leading the pack of servants is Sergei, a recent hire. When Katerina comes to Aksinias’ rescue, Sergei engages her in a flirtatious wrestling match. Boris enters the scene, voicing his disapproval, and informs them that he will tell Zinovi what has been going on in his absence. Later that night, Sergei visits Katerina in her room, offering to keep her from her boredom. When Boris comes to remove the candles and lock the door to Katerina’s bedroom, Sergei hides himself inside, thus the two are locked in together that night. The next morning, after Sergei escapes through the bedroom window, he is fiercely beaten by Boris, who has waited for him. Boris orders Sergei to be locked within the cellar while Katerina cooks something for him to eat. She readies a plate of poisoned mushrooms, which Boris eats before he dies swiftly. When Zenovi returns, Sergei and Katerina have been in bed together and so Sergei hides again. Zinovi has heard rumors of what has been occurring in his house. He denounces Katerina for her infidelity before she calls Sergei from his hiding place; together they strangle Zinovi and dump his body in the cellar.

Some time later, a peasant has discovered the body of Boris and rushes off to file a police report. When the police arrive at Katerina’s home she is holding a celebration for her marriage to Sergei. The newlywed couple is hauled off to jail while they insist on their innocence. As the prisoners are being marched off too Siberia, Sergei has begun to flirt with another prisoner named Sonetka. He convinces Katerina to give him her only pair of warm stockings, which he then gives to Sonetka. When Sonetka mocks Katerina about having lost her lover, Katerina shoves her into the nearby river before leaping in to drown herself, finally putting an end to the string of murders.

Watch and Listen

Here is a production of the full opera from 2005.


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