On a recent tour through Europe, I made opera stops in Paris and London to see Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti (1797-1848) and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Shostakovich (1906-1975). However, my first destination was Ljubljana, Slovenia, for a non-musical conference. There, I was told that 13 Slovenes die each day, while only nine are born. With a population of fewer than 2 million, Slovenia—the most prosperous region of the former Yugoslavia—is disappearing. Of course, the rest of Europe, old as well as new, is going with it. Why?
This is not a question I thought I would be addressing in an opera review. However, I saw the two operas mentioned with this question subliminally haunting me. As it turns out, they provided some insights into possible answers, because both dealt with disordered passions. Both featured heroines bathed in blood from the murder of their husbands, with whom they had fruitless unions. There are, so to speak, incipient population crises in both Lucia and Lady Macbeth if one extrapolates from their central premises. While this is hardly the point of either opera, it is nonetheless the result.
Neither opera production was trying to make this point, either, though both were set in more contemporary times. Opera staging today seems to require transposing the original time in which an opera is set—in this case, the 17th century for Lucia and the 19th century for Lady Macbeth—to something more modern. Thus, I was not surprised to see a late 19th-century setting for Lucia and a 1950s setting for Lady Macbeth. I was also prepared to be irritated, as I often am by such transpositions, which usually reveal nothing more than the poverty of the director’s imagination and a kind of temporal provincialism. Yet both of these settings worked in a way that provided convincing interpretations.
Lucia was my first visit to the Opera Bastille, a modern construction whose outsides are on the inside. Thus, the gray military gymnasium in which Lucia was set segued perfectly into the institutional gray walls of concrete that enfolded the audience. We could believe we were there.
The story in brief: Young Lucia is in love with her family’s rival, Edgar- do, with whom she secretly swears undying love. When her brother Enrico learns the truth he is appalled and promises her to family friend Arturo in a political and financial alliance. To persuade Lucia, Enrico forges a letter from the absent Edgar- do that supposedly reveals Edgardo’s infidelity. Lucia is deceived and, in despair, agrees to the arranged marriage. Edgardo returns unexpectedly and furiously denounces Lucia for her supposed betrayal. Lucia goes mad; murders her new husband on their wedding night; and, in the famous mad scene, appears to believe she is married to Edgardo. She expires, after which Edgardo commits suicide. Curtain.
The military gym was festooned with ropes hanging from the ceiling, benches, and pommel horses. When Lucia entered with her maid, she began playing with these in a frolicsome, highly athletic way. One bench was placed over another and used as a teeter-totter. The ropes were made into a swing in which Lucia, played by French soprano Natalie Dessay, swung out over the orchestra pit. How distracting, I thought at first. However, the precariousness of what she was doing, while singing some very difficult arias, was clearly meant to convey Lucia’s immaturity. The same perspective was provided for Edgardo. The lesson was that extremes of passion are a product of immaturity and cannot provide the foundation for a future.
Lucia’s passion ultimately leads to her madness. After killing her husband, she emerges from the bridal chamber drenched in blood, singing her wild hallucinations. The silliness of some of Donizetti’s bel canto writing was brilliantly played as a part of the madness. Dessay acted every single note in one of the most riveting opera performances I have ever seen.
Somehow the magnitude of Lucia’s suffering transcends the circumstances that brought it about and is terribly moving. Still, this was not a celebration of passion but a denigration of it, enforced by some crudity, including simulated copulation by a soldier and a chambermaid at the outdoor celebration on the wedding night. There was no noble or romantic gallantry offered as an example of passion successfully sublimated by love into some kind of lasting relationship that could serve as the basis for family and children.
At Covent Garden, the Royal Opera House made a substantial contribution to the Shostakovich centenary by reviving Richard Jones’s 2004 prize-winning production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Lady Macbeth is a harrowing tale—a “tragedy-satire,” according to Shostakovich—in which the suppressed wife of a merchant murders her father-in-law with rat poison after he discovers her with her lover. She then murders her returning husband, is caught by the police and sent to Siberia, and later commits suicide there while drowning the mistress of her unfaithful lover in a lake. And Katerina is the one with whom we are supposed to sympathize.
Jones used the 1950s as a setting to reinforce the banality, the falseness, the disposability of everything. It also raised the interesting question as to whether Shostakovich himself would have set it in this era if he could have gotten away with it. Would he have shown it taking place in the Soviet Union rather than Nikolai Leskov’s short-story setting of 1860s Russia?
Shostakovich said he saw Katerina as the “tragic portrayal of the destiny of a talented, smart and outstanding woman, dying in the nightmarish atmosphere of pre-Revolutionary Russia.” Change that to: the destiny of a country, Russia, dying in the nightmarish atmosphere of the Soviet Union, and we get closer to what we are shown. In 1936, it is lucky that the offended Stalin left the opera early and that all he heard was “noise instead of music,” as announced in Pravda several days later. Otherwise, had he seen it to the end, he would have probably killed Shostakovich for this subversive work.
It is difficult to divine what this piece means outside of the Soviet times in which it was written, but here is a try at decoding it: Lady Macbeth is an acerbic morality tale of how unhinged passion becomes if it cannot anchor itself in love—a completely different way to reach the lesson of Lucia. We can pretend this opera is about women’s liberation or about the stifling of a passionate spirit by the forces of provincial convention, but in any case love is denied at every turn. There is no love in Lady Macbeth—not between husband and wife, father and son, workers and boss, priest and God, or even between lovers. Consider the manic musical parodies of lovemaking, and the hugely ironic Tristanesque music at the beginning of scene five sung by an impassioned Katerina to an already disinterested, loutish Sergey.
As a consequence, this loveless society is drenched in alcohol, cupidity, and lasciviousness. Everything is coarsened; everything is false; everything is a lie. This, of course, would be true anywhere that love is so completely absent, but the Soviet Union took a particularly bizarre and surreal turn due to the total lie upon which it was based regarding the nature of human beings. The opera has been criticized for presenting grotesque caricatures instead of real people; but when reduced to this level, people do become caricatures of themselves. The deprivation of love dehumanizes; it leads to terrible things. This cruelty is what Shostakovich shows. It hurts to watch and, at times, to listen.
This was particularly true of the fourth act, as the prisoners are marched to Siberia and where Katerina suffers her ultimate humiliation and betrayal. This act was searingly well done and left some unforgettable images. I have never seen projectile vomiting in an opera before; however, when Katerina, seized by the realization of her degraded situation, throws up, it provides one of the most human and devastating moments in this chilling work. It is a very human reaction of physical revulsion to what had been ingested for most of the preceding three acts, as if life itself—at least, as led like this—is a form of rat poison against which one’s system totally rebels.
Disordered sexual passions make for great operas, which can make explicitly clear that the price for these passions is death. But in life, these passions lead to something slightly less macabre—declining birth rates. In today’s Europe, the fruitlessness of sexual disorder is not blood-soaked drama, but the slow-motion disappearance of entire nations. In the United States, someone dies every 13 seconds, while a child is born every seven. This does not mean that our passions are in good order. It does mean, however, that we are not going to disappear any time soon, and that there is hope that America, in the early 21st century, will not serve as a convincing setting for future productions of Lucia di Lammermoor or Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk.