What if Emma Bovary had seen Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk?

On Thursday I had the good fortune to see Shostakovitch’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. It was the depiction of a woman in the provinces of mid-nineteenth century Russia married to an impotent dullard, with a father-in-law whose own lecherous feelings towards her made him see her as a licentious whore. If she is not one in practice, he knows she must be one in intent. The father-in-law keeps constant watch on his daughter-in-law to make sure she is not doing with another what he wishes to do to her himself. She is unfulfilled in every sense and knows there must be something better in life. Eventually, despite the menacingly watchful guard of the father-in-law she manages to take a lover.

The scene in which she first meets her lover impresses upon us just how appalling her predicament is. The men under her husband’s employ are gang-raping a servant girl. Fifty or so men are on stage inciting the soon-to-be lover of Katerina into the rape. He has set about his task enthusiastically. Katerina is such a strong, confident woman she is able to walk into this situation and take control of it, saving the girl. Yet she is so powerless that she must fall in love with this man, even as she watches him rape another, because he is actually the best of a remarkably bad bunch. Such was the Russia that the Bolsheviks wished to transform.

The lover is good-for-nothing. A woman less desperate would have been able to see that. If Emma Bovary had been watching Lady Macbeth, at that point when she attends the opera, she would have recognised it too. She would, like the rest of us, have been pleased when Katerina kills her father-in-law after he discovers her lover and has him brutally flogged. When Katerina next kills her husband this too would have seemed – if not quite morally correct, then certainly a very understandable way to proceed. We want happiness for Katerina.

But at some point, as Katerina begins to pay the cost for what she has done, through her enduring guilt, would not Emma have called out to Katerina ‘don’t take that path’. To be bored, unfulfilled, to live a mean life – all would be better than the path she was instead choosing. Katerina’s murders are discovered. As she ends up in a convict labour camp watching her husband making love to one of the other convicts, would not Emma have thought to herself ‘Thank heavens I have a husband who loves me? A husband who is able to bear me children. Sophisticated and cultured surrounds. Thank heavens I am not Katerina’.

We, the observer, can see that distinction. We can see that life in the Russian provinces at not such a different period of time from that of Emma’s, is a nasty brutish violent existence. We can see that Emma is surrounded by culture, material comforts, company, purpose in life, albeit in menial domestic roles. We see, further, that Emma can have – and does have – both domesticity and romance. What would Katerina have given to have Emma’s life? A husband who loved and cared for her, the possibility of children, and lovers if need or whim dictated. Luxury. Would Katerina have admonished Emma?
‘Stop, go no further along this path of self-destruction, be happy with what you have, it is so much more than it might be.’

Yet even though Emma’s life is as blessed as Katerina’s is wretched, even though we feel that Emma chooses her fate, whilst Katerina’s is forced upon her and even though we feel that Katerina has a nobility of spirit keeping her pure even as the scummy world around her drags her down, a spirit that is not obvious in Emma, still we empathise with Emma.

And, in fact, it is precisely that Emma does choose her fate which makes her character admirable. Never does she give up on her dream and hopes. The lines that stand out for me in the book are:

They knew one another too well for any of those surprises of possession that increase its joys a hundred-fold. She was as sick of him as he was weary of her. Emma found again in adultery all the platitudes of marriage.

She knows what she wants is impossible and yet she will not give up. She does what we all want to do. Madame Bovary isn’t a study of boredom and frustration, nor is Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. They are about belief and about being true to one’s beliefs no matter what.

There is significant difference between us, the readers, and these two characters. We do not, in general, any longer hold with the practice of having beliefs. Consequently we would not be foolish enough either to kill for our happiness or to die for lack of it. We need to step outside ourselves to understand Emma. To be irritated with Emma is to be mean-spirited. We take it for granted that we will marry for love and that we will be in love with the person we choose to spend our life with. We fall in love whenever, and with whomever, we please. Don’t judge Emma in terms of what you are. Judge Emma for what you would be in her shoes.

That state of romantic love is entirely necessary to our being. We may not believe in it, but we nonetheless cannot escape it. Does anything make that more clear than the demise of Emma’s husband? It is not, after all, with Emma’s death that the novel ends. Far from it. We watch Charles suffer and die a perfect romantic death from grief. Ironically, it would have been enough to make Emma love her husband…if only she could have seen it.

So, what would have happened if Emma saw Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk? Would she have advised Katerina against several murders and suicide? No. She would have seen the utter inevitability of Katerina’s fate. What would have happened if Katerina had been magically transported into Emma’s place? She would have died for want of what she desperately desired and could not find. Their fates were both inescapable.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is on in Melbourne until May 9. If you only go to one opera in your life, make this the one. I’d use the ‘c’ word, if only it had not been abused so. Two people leave a film: ‘That was SO confronting’ ‘You mean, the way he asked for –‘ ‘Yes, milk in his long black’. But truly Lady Macbeth is a deeply moving, gut-wrenching production with fabulous music, a great libretto and a wonderful cast.

Who Killed Emma Bovary?
Adapted by Colin Duckworth in his usual impeccable manner it is on at Stork Theatre’s new home in St Kilda until May 10. Booking details below. Emmaline Carroll holds the audience throughout with her portrayal of Emma, while Adrian Mulraney plays all the other roles to perfection as usual.



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