Lady MacBeth of Chongqing

Posted by Reading Time: 3 minutes

Op-Ed Commentary: Chris Devonshire-Ellis

May 28 – “Truth is stranger than fiction” runs the old adage, and the circumstances surrounding the recent events in Chongqing certainly seem to have been bizarre by any stretch of the imagination. You all know the story by now, of course, or at least the bits that have been “released” for public consumption. However such tales of murder, intrigue and downfall do have their artistic precedents; and in the case of Bo Xilai, his wife Gu Kailai and the businessman Neil Heywood, an almost uncanny resemblance to a Soviet-era opera, “Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk.”

Art-cribbing references from Shakespeare are either going to be trashy or bang on, and in this typically Russian tragedy, Dmitri Shostakovich, Soviet composer par excellence was not going to let anyone down (except himself, Stalin strongly objected to the plot in ways we shall see have similarities today). In Shostakovich’s opera – based on the play by Russian journalist Nikolai Leskov (how I love the reference to that occupation given the recent tribulations of Melissa Chan) – murder, high society, and arrogance are followed by police investigations, back-stabbing, infidelity and exile. Plus insanity on the part of Katerina, driven mad by loss of status and an uncaring husband trying to distance himself from the unfolding events. Sounds familiar?

Katerina Izmailova is the wealthy, yet bored, wife of businessman Zinoviy Izmailov, who is regularly away traveling and neglects her. Cue one lover, Sergei, whose evening trysts with Katerina are uncovered by Katerina’s elderly and possessive father-in-law. Here, poisonous mushrooms are substituted for cyanide, and the old goat expires, to be buried in a cellar nearby. There is much rejoicing (but given this was written in 1933, a lack of Ferraris in the plot) and partying among all the locals as Katerina shows off her wealth and status to all. She’s free of both her father-in-law and eager to show off her position in society. Drunk, one local peasant crawls off to the cellar in search of booze and finds the body. Eager to punish Katerina for her perceived arrogance and high-minded ways, he runs off to the local police. The party stops, and Katerina is arrested. We move forward a bit, and she’s disgraced, about to be shunted off to Siberia with her lover. He of course has a roving eye, and there are incidents and jealousies aplenty as she uncovers the truth about Sergei. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it too is suitably tragic.

The story isn’t exactly the same as the Chongqing episode, which would be too strange. But the basic premise remains constant: wealthy landed gentry lauding it over peasants, the uncovering of an illegal tryst, murder and downfall. In effect, the opera tells the same story, about the mighty brought down through a combination of arrogance, corruption and divorce from social reality. In Shostakovich’s opera, we end up feeling a little sorry for Katerina. With stories circulating that Gu Kailai has terminal cancer and that this affected her mental state, we may yet get a tragic, yet corrupt heroine in Chongqing too. Quite where Bo Xilai fits into the plot and the retribution, if any is to be meted out to him, remains to be seen – that portion of our 2012 version has still to be acted out. But for Shostakovich, Stalin was not amused – apparently seeing himself referenced as the old man Katerina murdered. Shostakovich was purged, lost several positions of power, was humiliated in the media, and the opera was banned. Consequently, the story of corruption and vice seems just as relevant today in Chongqing as it did in Mtsensk 80 years ago. Life indeed follows art.

Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the principal of Dezan Shira & Associates. He is a fan of Russian opera and classical music.

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Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk (Netherlands Opera)

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