Following on from the Landing Book Shelves foray into Russian literature, with Tolstoy and Pasternak, we have Nikolai Leskov (1831-1895) with The Enchanted Wanderer (first serialised in Russkiy Mir, St Petersburg, 1873) which was translated by Ian Dreiblatt. Technically this isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a Landing book, since I only bought it this year and it has sat on my bedside table more or less ever since. I have been reading it over the last week or so in between a couple of the inevitable library finds (I must do a library books blog post soon with a few ‘recommends’).
I had been browsing in the Rathfarnham Map and Bookshop but I was about to leave empty handed when this smart Melville House edition (2012) of the Leskov caught my eye. Melville House is another of those publishers that has had the smart idea of publishing lesser known classics (Hesperus and Persephone are also publishers of forgotten classics) and in particular Melville specialises in novellas. The blurb on the back jacket says that many of the titles published have never been seen in book form before. I’m already lusting after more books from the publishing list, but they will have to join the mental book queue.
I hadn’t heard of Leskov before, but when I read the back jacket for some biographical details, I let out a small cry of delight. At this point you should be warned that I am about to digress somewhat from the topic of The Enchanted Wanderer. The reason for that unseemly public outburst was my discovering that Leskov had written a novella called Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (first published in 1865). The significance of that piece of information is that it provoked in me a burst of nostalgia. I went to see the operatic adaptation of Lady Macbeth by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) on an Art College trip to London with my sister several years ago. The production was an English National Opera piece at the Coliseum. Our night at the opera was the final item in a packed day of sightseeing. I remember being in the bar of the coliseum feeling tired, footsore and too scruffy for the wonderful surroundings. Strangely enough, I don’t recall that anyone else batted an eyelid even though everyone seemed much smarter than we were.
I have been trying to pin down the date of the London trip because unusually for me, I don’t have a programme saved. As far as I can tell from my friend Google, it was the spring of 1987 though I don’t know the exact date as I’m not sure how long the opera ran. This was to be my first opera and a dramatic start to opera going it proved to be indeed. Our seats were up the Gods, for the princely sum of £5 if my memory serves me correctly. It still amazes me that you could go to a production of such quality for so little cost at that time and of course, in such a fabulous building.
Leskov’s book ticks all the dramatic boxes for passion, murder and jealousy and it was turned into a four act opera with some changes in the action. I’ll just briefly set the scene so as not to spoil the plot too much. The plot of Lady Macbeth tells the story of provincial merchant’s wife Katerina Ismailova, who is unhappily married to Zinovy Ismailov. She is Zinovy’s second wife and is constantly berated by her father in law Boris for not producing an heir for the estate. Enter a new farmhand called Sergei who is attracted to Katerina and the plot thickens. Set against the background of provincial life, Leskov tackles the themes of adultery, the subservient role of women and murder. Here’s a plot summary of the book if you want to know who dun what and to whom.
Shostakovich’s opera was written in 1932 and first performed in 1934, but fell foul of Stalin in 1936 and disappeared from the public eye until the 1960s. I discovered from an article in the Guardian from 2004 that the sex and violence in the opera didn’t go down too well with the party leadership, though Lady M had been a great success with audiences in Moscow and St Petersburg. When it first re-surfaced, the opera was produced in a bowdlerised form but later staging of the opera returned to the original version. Here’s a review that I dug up from The Spectator of 5 June 1987:
No problems whatsoever with David Pountney’s shattering production of Shostakovich’s second opera. The tragedy is that it should have been his last: Stalin’s notorious denunciation of 1936 effectively silenced a 27-year-old opera composer of genius. For this reason if no other, Pountney’s updating the work to the 1930s and setting it in an abattoir is an act of neat gallows-humour revenge. Brimming with pole-axing coups de theatre, brilliantly conducted by Mark Elder and graced with a central performance by Josephine Barstow [Katerina]that is remarkable even by that singing actress’s own Himalayan standards, this is without doubt the best show in the West End, and to miss it would be sheer insanity. Oh, and it was absolutely ready on the first night.
I remember that the whole production, from the music to the singing, to the spectacular set design absolutely overwhelmed me. It probably wouldn’t have been the opera that anyone would recommend as beginner’s choice, but for me it was a brilliant way to start. You were picked up by the scruff of the neck and flung in at the deep end. And it was sung in English, which helped considerably. I think it was also the first time that I heard Willard White (Boris) sing and though I can’t claim to be an operatic expert, even I can tell that he had (and probably still does have) a wonderful voice and a charismatic stage presence.
We might have been high up in the theatre, but the opening bars of the music made an immediate impact on us. You should have seen weary students (and me), preparing to settle down in the comfortable seats and recover from the day’s exertions, jerk upright at the first dramatic notes of Shostakovich’s score. This is the first time I’ve thought about that trip for years and even now I can remember the excitement and the shocking action of the plot. I don’t think it will surprise anyone too much if I mention that Katerina (Lady Macbeth) comes to a sad and sticky end, as tragedy seems to be a staple ingredient of operatic stories. I was reading about the later revival of the opera by ENO a few years ago and I’ve included a picture of the programme as I can’t locate one from 1987. Maybe sometime I’ll get to see Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk again, but I’ll certainly look out for a copy of the book.
All this was quite a digression from The Enchanted Wanderer, so I may have to return to him in another blog post. Meanwhile, I hope you are all enjoying your summer reading. Any recommendations?