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Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Hong Kong

Every year, the Hong Kong Arts Festival invites a foreign opera house to perform. Two years ago, there was the Welsh Opera House entertaining the audience with Puccini’s La Bohème. Last year, Italy’s Teatro Regio di Parma occupied the stage with Verdi’s Rigoletto. This year, the Latvian Opera House brought its cast , chorus and orchestra for the production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

Composed by Shostakovich in 1932, the story illustrates the extra-marital affair of young, rich Katerina with a womanizing worker named Sergey. For her affair with the worker, Katerina murders her father-in-law, Boris Timofeyevich and her husband, Zinovy Borisovich Izmailov. Arrested by the local militia during her wedding with Sergey, Katerina is sent to Siberia. After discovering Sergey’s affair with another female prisoner, Sonyetka, Katerina kills her and commits uicide.

It was hard to understand why the opera was suggested as being suitable for viewers aged 16 or above. First, did the opera include nude scenes? Second, did the opera encourage to have extra-marital sex? Third, did the opera beautify an affair through justifying it as a way for Katerina to have a better life, rather than sitting around and complaining about being bored as the wife of a rich merchant?

Unfortunately, it appeared that the Arts Festival submitted to the “moral pressure” in rating the opera thus. If there were viewers concerned about morality, then they should have considered the ending of the opera. The end emphasized that Katerina paid a heavy price for her love-adventure, while Sergey just continued his womanizing.

As for the actual performance – the Latvian Opera may be less well-known than the Welsh Opera and Teatro Regio di Parma. However, the performance was first-class. Take the stage design. In the arrangement of Katerina’s house under the broken, collapsed factories, the set director, Ieva Jurjane evoked a typical Russian town failed in the industrial revolution. The stage design also represented modernity. Visually, it raised the question as to whether Katerina is a figure of the past or there are lots of Katerinas nowadays – who lament the lack of love and passion after marrying into money.

The chorus‘s voice-over also contributed to the excellence of the production. The wide variation of voice and action, articulating the fighting between Sergey and Katerina, demonstrated the inner struggle of the woman, who knew the importance of being a wife but was able to feel true passion in her interactions with Sergey.

Even today, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is a controversial opera. It continues to unsettle the audiences. In the Soviet time, it was deemed politically incorrect for such things as its portrayal of soldiers accepting bribes from Katerina for her right to meet Sergey in the detention camp in Siberia. In modern times, it annoys people for its sense of moral guardianship in its depiction of an extra-marital affair. It may also cause one to wonder why a married person may obtain more joy in an hidden affair, and come to a number of disturbing conclusions.

The Latvian Opera did a superb job with this difficult performance, and the Hong Kong music scene was the richer for it.

Brothers War

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Jonathan Mok

Jonathan Mok lives in Hong Kong. He reviews music and literature. Some of his chief interests include American and Middle Eastern politics.