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The Story of 'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk'

Dmitri Shostakovich's opera is in four acts, which together have nine scenes, joined by orchestral interludes. The libretto is based on a story by Nikolai Leskov. At times, the opera's ill treatment of its main character, Katerina, is almost too much to bear. And while she herself is not entirely sympathetic, Shostakovich makes it clear that the people around Katerina bear much of the blame for her tragic fate. The story is set during the 19th century — and it's pointedly critical of Russian society. There are still debates about which society the composer was targeting: czarist Russia of the 1800s, or the Soviet system that Shostakovich dealt with every day. But there is little debate about the ultimate power of his music, and the drama it conveys.

ACT ONE opens in Katerina's bedroom. Her full name is Katerina Lvovna Izmaylova, and she's married to Zinovy Izmaylov, who comes from family of wealthy merchants. Alone in her room, she reflects on her dull and unhappy life. Boris Izmaylov, her brutish father-in-law, looks in on her and wonders if she'll be fixing his favorite mushroom dish for dinner. She says yes, but says it coldly, and he berates her for failing to produce an heir in five years of marriage.

Her husband Zinovy then learns that he must leave home for a time, to tend to some business. In front of all their workmen, Boris humiliates Katerina — forcing her to kneel down and pledge that she'll be faithful to Zinovy while he's away. Meanwhile, a female worker named Aksinya points out Sergey, a newcomer in the crowd, and says he's a notorious womanizer.

In the next scene, after Zinovy has gone, the workmen manhandle and molest Aksinya in a disturbing scene that verges on rape. They're interrupted by Katerina. As the boss's wife, she makes them stop their assault and listen as she praises the strength of women. Sergey challenges her to prove her strength by wrestling with him. The two are grappling when Boris suddenly appears, and catches them in a suggestive position. Katerina tells Boris that she stumbled, and Sergey was helping her up. The unlikely story is backed up by a character called the Shabby Peasant — a local drunk — and Boris orders everyone back to work.

That night, in her room, Katerina again sings of her loneliness. After she undresses for bed, Sergey quietly knocks at her door. He talks his way into the room, and confesses that he, too, is bored and frustrated. Before long, he seduces her and the music graphically evokes their lovemaking. As the act ends, Katerina weakly tells Sergey to leave — but they're still languishing together as the act ends.

ACT TWO opens in a courtyard at the Ismaylov home. Boris is on the lookout for intruders. He remembers his youth — and his prowess at seducing married women.

Thinking of Katerina, alone in her room with her husband away, Boris decides he should pay her a visit, to ease her frustration. But when he approaches her door, he hears voices inside. Sergey is already there. Boris keeps Katerina's door locked, but Sergey has been coming and going through the window, and Katerina is saying goodbye.

Boris goes back to the courtyard, and catches Sergey as he's climbing down from Katerina's room. He gathers his workmen around, calls for a whip, and gives Sergey a brutal beating. With her door locked, Katerina climbs down a drainpipe and tries to intervene, but Boris stops the beating only after he's exhausted himself. He tells the workmen to lock Sergey in a storage room and orders Katerina to fix mushrooms for his dinner. She agrees. But she also laces Boris's mushrooms with rat poison.

As Boris eats, he begins to feel a stabbing pain in his stomach. Sensing that he might die, he calls for a priest. While Boris writhes on the ground in agony, Katerina takes the keys from his pocket, so she can release Sergey from the storage room. Boris soon dies, and when the priest arrives he asks what happened. Katerina says Boris had just eaten some local mushrooms, which had killed several others lately, and the priest thinks nothing more of it.

Later, in Katerina's bedroom, she wakes Sergey and kisses him passionately. He wants more than just a secret affair with Katerina — he wants her as his wife. She says they'll find a way, but as Sergey is sleeping, she sees the ghost of Boris, rebuking her from a corner of the room.

Sergey wakes, and warns Katerina that her husband is sure to return soon — and he's right. Before long, Zinovy is heard on the stairs. When he knocks at the door, Katerina gives Sergey time to hide, and lets Zinovy in. He says he's heard rumors that she's been cheating on him, and she responds sarcastically. The two argue, and when Zinovy starts beating her, Katerina calls to Sergey for help. Sergey grabs Zinovy and holds him down, while Katerina strangles him. Sergey then bludgeons Zinovy with a candlestick, and he dies.

Katerina and Sergey drag the bloody corpse into the cellar, and make a feeble attempt to cover it with stones. Back outside, the two embrace, and as the act ends, Katerina says Sergey can now be her real husband.

As ACT THREE begins, Sergey and Katerina are about to be married. They're standing outside the cellar, on their wedding day. Remembering what's down there, Katerina admits that she's afraid for their future.

After they head for the church, the Shabby Peasant appears. He eyes the locked cellar door, thinking there might be a stash of liquor behind it. He breaks the lock, and is almost overwhelmed by the stench. Entering the cellar, he discovers Zinovy's corpse, and runs off to tell the police.

The next scene is at police headquarters, where the officers are complaining about low wages. In a satirical song, they say there's no way to get by without taking bribes. The police chief is unhappy about more than his low salary. Katerina, now a wealthy merchant's widow, has failed to invite him and his officers to her wedding celebration. So when the shabby peasant arrives to report a corpse in Katerina's cellar, the chief promptly rounds up his men and heads off to investigate. They don't really take the drunk's report seriously, but it does give them an excuse to crash the party.

Meanwhile, Katerina has noticed the broken lock on the cellar door. In a panic, certain that someone has discovered the body, she tells Sergey they should take all their money and leave town immediately. Before they can go, the police arrive. Tormented by guilt, and convinced that she's about to be arrested, Katerina gives herself up. Sergey tries to escape, but he's quickly captured, and they're both led away in handcuffs.

In ACT FOUR, Sergey and Katerina are with a group of convicts, on a long march to a remote prison. It's dark and bitterly cold, and the column is settling down for the night on a riverbank. The men and women are being separated, but Katerina bribes a guard so she can go to Sergey. She greets him tenderly, but he ignores her. Then he coldly says that he's through with her — that she has ruined his life.

After an emotional lament, Katerina leaves, while Sergey seeks out an attractive young prisoner named Sonyetka. He flirts with her, and she seems receptive. But she also says that her wool stockings are torn. She's cold, and needs a new pair.

Sergey promises to get her some. He goes back to Katerina. Lying, he says that his leg irons are causing him so much pain that he can't continue — she'll have to go on without him. Unless, of course, he can find a pair of stockings to protect his legs. Still lovesick, Katerina gives him hers. He quickly makes excuses, and goes back to Sonyetka with the stockings. Sonyetka puts them on, and mocks Katerina, who then watches as Sergey carries Sonyetka off behind some bushes. Other women tease Katerina, and titter at what's going on out of sight.

As morning approaches, guards are rounding up the prisoners to continue the march. Sonyetka is standing alone on a bridge, above the rushing river. Katerina calmly walks up behind her, and pushes Sonyetka into the water. Katerina then jumps in herself, and both women are swept away in the current. The guards say there's no way to save them, as they prod the remaining convicts on down the road.

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