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Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Shostakovich’s 1934 opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk enjoyed immediate popular success, but in 1936 the Stalinist regime condemned it, and Shostakovich became the subject of the dictator’s dangerous scrutiny.

Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on September 25, 1906, and died in Moscow on August 9, 1975. He composed Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo uezda) between October 1930 and December 1932. The libretto was written by Shostakovich and Alexander Preis, based on a novella by Nikolai Leskov. The premiere was given at the Maly State Opera Theater in Leningrad on January 22, 1934, conducted by Samuil Samosud. The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s first full concert performances of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk are those of January 25 and 27, 2024, at Symphony Hall and January 30 at Carnegie Hall. The BSO’s first performance of music from the opera was presented in the form of an extended orchestral concert suite arranged by James Conlon, who led two performances in Boston and one in Hartford, January 4-6, 1996.

In addition to the vocal soloists and chorus, the original 1932 score calls for a very large orchestra: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, piccolo clarinet, two clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (triangle, flexatone, woodblock, tambourine, snare drum, whip, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, glockenspiel, xylophone), celesta, 2 harps, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses).

An offstage band is also included in the 1932 edition of the score: 2 cornets in B-flat, 2 cornets in E-flat, 2 trumpets, 2 alto horns, 2 tenor horns, 2 baritone horns, 2 bass horns. (The 1935 version also includes an organ [ad lib.] in the Passacaglia between Scenes 4 and 5.)

Duration is approximately 160 minutes.



Scene 1. Katerina, lonely and bored wife of the merchant Zinovy Izmailov, bemoans her fate. Her father-in-law Boris crudely upbraids her for being childless. As Zinovy prepares to leave on a business trip, Boris forces Katerina to promise she will remain faithful. Sergei, a new worker, arrives. The cook Aksinya gossips that he is a well-known womanizer.

Scene 2. In the courtyard, the male workers amuse themselves by groping Aksinya. Katerina comes to her aid, expressing sorrow over the oppression of Russian women. Sergei flirtatiously challenges Katerina to a wrestling match. Boris enters and scolds Katerina for her improper behavior.

Scene 3. Sleepless Katerina laments her loveless life. Sergei comes asking to borrow a book. Katerina yields to his sexual advances after briefly resisting. Smitten with passion, she accepts his vow of eternal love.


Scene 4. Boris, in the courtyard, recalls his youthful sexual conquests. Perhaps Katerina would welcome his affections? Seizing Sergei as he leaves through Katerina’s window, lashes him viciously as Katerina looks on, then locks him in the storeroom. Katerina prepares mushrooms for Boris, lacing them with rat poison. Boris dies, realizing Katerina has murdered him. After leaving to free Sergei, Katerina feigns grief in a traditional lament. The Priest prays for the dead man.

Scene 5. Sergei and Katerina enjoy another night of love. Sergei worries about their future, but she lulls him to sleep—until Boris’s ghost appears, cursing her for eternity. Zinovy returns and Sergei hides. Zinovy interrogates Katerina, then beats her with Sergei’s belt. After a desperate struggle, Katerina and Sergei strangle Zinovy and hide his corpse in the cellar.


Scene 6. It is her wedding day with Sergei, but guilt torments Katerina. After she and Sergei leave to join the wedding festivities, a shabby peasant comes sings a tipsy song and breaks the lock the cellar, searching for liquor. Discovering Zinovy’s corpse, he runs off to the police station.

Scene 7. Offended they were not invited to Katerina’s wedding, the police chief and his men complain about low pay and scarce bribes. They question a teacher about his atheistic beliefs. The shabby peasant arrives to tell them about discovering the corpse, and they run off to the wedding.

Scene 8. Guests and the local priest celebrate the wedding feast with traditional toasts and songs. Katerina notices the cellar’s broken lock. She tells Sergei they must flee, but the police arrive first. Distraught, she confesses her guilt and they are arrested.


Scene 9. Now convicted criminals, Sergei and Katerina march in a convoy bound for prison in Siberia. Sergei blames Katerina for ruining his life. Still in love, she gives him warm socks he says he needs for his wounded feet. But Sergei gives them to Sonyetka, his new love. Sonyetka and the prisoners taunt Katerina. Pushed beyond endurance, she grabs Sonyetka and throws her off the bridge as they cross the Volga, then jumps in herself. Both drown as the convicts trudge on.

Harlow Robinson

Program Note

When Dmitri Shostakovich completed Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in December 1932, he was the reigning enfant terrible of Soviet music. At the age of 26, he was already celebrated as the composer of three symphonies, a controversial and wildly experimental opera (The Nose), two ballets (The Golden Age and The Bolt), plus scores for popular films and theatrical productions. When asked his opinion about Soviet composers after his 1927 tour to the USSR, Sergei Prokofiev had replied: “Shostakovich is the most promising of all of them.”

Personally, too, Shostakovich’s life was thriving. On May 13, 1932, he married Nina Varzar. Their romance blossomed during the time he was composing Lady Macbeth, and he dedicated the opera to her. In fact these years in the early 1930s were perhaps the happiest period in the composer’s life. But ironically it was the political storm that erupted in 1936 over Lady Macbeth that would destroy his feelings of contentment, security and peace of mind and cause him to doubt the chances even of his own survival in Stalin’s totalitarian Russia.

Shostakovich called Lady Macbeth “a tragedy. I would say that it could be called a tragedy-satire…. The musical material contrasts strongly from that of my previous opera The Nose. It is my deep conviction that singers should sing in opera. Therefore all the vocal roles are singable, in cantilena style. In some of the moments of extreme pathos, the orchestra expands to enormous size.”

The libretto, by Shostakovich and his collaborator on The Nose, Alexander Preis (1906-42), was based on a well-known 1865 novella by the Russian writer Nikolai Leskov (1831-95). “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” his best-known and most popular work, tells a powerful story of sexual passion and crime set in his favorite provincial merchant milieu. The “Lady Macbeth” of the title is 24-year-old Katerina Lvovna Izmailova, trapped in a loveless marriage to a older merchant. Shostakovich and Preis made numerous changes to Leskov’s story, most importantly transforming Katerina from a cold-hearted serial murderer to a sympathetic character. Here, she is the victim of an overwhelmingly repressive and brutal society. So monstrous is her lecherous father-in-law that Katerina’s adultery and murders of him and then her husband seem completely defensible. (The libretto also omits Katerina’s third murder, of a distant relative, a rival for the family fortune.) Her struggle against Boris and Zinovy comes to represent the awful plight of women in Tsarist Russia, where they were treated as little more than property.

Written for a dramatic soprano, Katerina’s music is folksy, lyrical, and mostly melodic, but never descends into sentimentality. In sharp contrast, her odious and violent father-in-law Boris Timofeyevich, a “character baritone,” sings in short and abrupt phrases, devoid of melody, often in waltz time seasoned with comic bassoon and trombone accompaniment. For Katerina’s “pitiful” husband Zinovy, Shostakovich used what he called “musical denunciation,” combining his high tenor with wispy alto flute. Shostakovich considered Katerina’s opportunistic lover Sergei (a tenor) a “sugary and gallant nonentity,” and gave him music of exaggerated but insincere sweetness.

Minor characters also make strong impressions. The priest sings in a comically stilted version of liturgical chant exposing his lack of humility and spirituality. For the riotous scene in the police station (Scene 7), Shostakovich reveals the ludicrously inflated self-importance of the chief and his men as they sing in blustering, stentorian vocal lines set mostly in grotesquely incongruous waltz time. Just before he discovers Zinovy’s stinking corpse, the shabby peasant (tenor) staggers through a raucous drinking song clearly indebted to Varlaam’s song in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Act IV opens with the despairing dirge-like anthem of the old convict (bass), answered by the chorus: “our thoughts are joyless, the guards are heartless.”

The large orchestra acts as a narrator and commentator. Five orchestral interludes link the scenes. A passacaglia (a repeating bass line) anchors the interlude between scenes four and five, tracing Katerina’s growth from innocence to crime, while an antic silent-movie-style galop erupts between scenes six and seven. But the most daring use of the orchestra comes during Katerina’s first violent and frantic sexual encounter with Sergei—the opera’s most notorious, controversial, graphic, and lurid episode. Against the background of a pounding can-can, thrusting trombones depict the act of penetration, then slide suggestively downward (this almost always gets a laugh) after the end of intercourse.

Two productions—one in Leningrad, one in Moscow—opened nearly simultaneously in January 1934. Audiences flocked to see them: by the end of 1935, Lady Macbeth had been performed 83 times in Leningrad and 97 in Moscow. Arthur Rodzinsky conducted the American premiere in Cleveland in January 1935, and then at the Metropolitan Opera on February 5. For the most part, the reviews were extremely positive, although Igor Stravinsky, never a fan of Shostakovich’s music, saw the semi-staged production in New York and dismissed it as “nothing but doom and gloom.”

But Shostakovich did not have long to bask in his fame. In early 1936—fully two years after its premiere—the official Communist newspaper Pravda launched an attack on Lady Macbeth. The review (“Muddle Instead of Music,” published on January 28) was unsigned, but recent research indicates that its author was an ambitious journalist named David Zaslavsky. He was dutifully expressing the opinion of the top Party leadership, including Stalin, who had attended a performance of the opera at the Bolshoi Theatre on January 26 and left in disgust before the end. Zaslavsky denounced the opera as “coarse, primitive and vulgar” and the score as “a deliberately dissonant, confused stream of sound.”

The attack on Shostakovich signaled a radical shift in Stalin’s cultural policy as he moved to solidify his absolute power over all fields of artistic activity under the banner of “socialist realism.” Soviet officials also understood that the opera’s satirical attacks on authority and patriarchal oppression could be interpreted in different ways—even as a veiled criticism of contemporary Soviet reality.

Shostakovich’s masterpiece disappeared from Soviet theaters, his brilliant career suddenly in jeopardy. Even before it was banned, Shostakovich had had second thoughts about some of the opera’s more crude and sexually explicit moments and made numerous changes for the first edition published in the USSR in 1935. In the late 1950s, after Stalin’s death, Shostakovich himself prepared a new, revised, less lurid and more “vanilla” version of the opera, retitled as Katerina Izmailova. Entirely excised was the orchestration of the scene of sexual intercourse, replaced with a bland march. Whether he made these modifications as a result of ideological pressure or because his own aesthetic ideas had changed with age and maturity is a matter of debate. Today, the preferred version is the rugged original 1932 score, rediscovered in 1979.

For Shostakovich, the consequences of the Lady Macbeth affair were life-changing. Almost overnight, his opera was transformed from a model for Soviet composers to a symbol of corruption and “formalism.” Many believed he could be arrested at any moment, like so many others in the cultural community at the time, including his own close friends and associates. Initially, Shostakovich had intended Lady Macbeth as the first in an operatic tetralogy about Soviet women. This project never came to fruition. Indeed, during the remaining years of his life, Shostakovich never completed another opera, despite several attempts. It seems safe to say that the scandal that erupted over Lady Macbeth played a major role in putting him off opera after such a brilliantly promising beginning and must be considered a tragic loss to modern theatrical and musical history.

Harlow Robinson

Harlow Robinson is an author, lecturer, and Matthews Distinguished University Professor of History, Emeritus, at Northeastern University. His books include Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography and Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood's Russians. He has contributed essays and reviews to The Boston Globe, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Symphony, Musical America, and Opera News, and program essays to the Boston Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Aspen Music Festival, and Metropolitan Opera.