Historical Performances: Shostakovich’s “Katerina Ismailova” with Marie Collier, Jon Vickers – San Francisco Opera, October 31, 1964

Note from William: This post continues my series of observances of historic performances that I attended at San Francisco Opera during the general directorship of Kurt Herbert Adler. This is the twelfth of 13 such observances of performances from the company’s 1964 Fall season.

The final offering of the Fall 1964 San Francisco Opera season was the American premiere of a revised version of Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, renamed “Katerina Ismailova”. The second of two performances took place as the last performance of my Saturday night series.

Marie Collier leads cast

In the title role was Australian soprano Marie Collier, a gifted actor. She was joined by an important cast, consisting of Canadian tenor Jon Vickers as Katerina’s lover Sergei, American tenor Richard Martell as Katerina’s husband Zinovy, American bass-baritone Chester Ludgin as Zinovy’s father Boris, American bass Giorgio Tozzi as the Old Convict and Hungarian-American character bass-baritone Andrew Foldi as the Priest.

[Below: Australian dramatic soprano Marie Collier; edited image of a publicity photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Katerina was the San Francisco Opera debut role for Collier who had sung the first performance of “Katerina” eight nights before, as well as two student matinees of Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride”.

The American Premiere Production

The principal differences between the new version and th original “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” is the addition of orchestral interludes and some changes in th evocal passages. Essentially, however, “Katerina Ismailova” and “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” should be thought of as slightly different versions of the same opera.

[Below: Katerina Ismailova (Marie Collier) at the beginning of the opera; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The Story

Katerina, ill-treated by her father-in-law, and feeling isolated from her husband, whose mercantile business travel keeps him away from home much of the time, falls under the spell of the hired hand, Sergei.

[Below: the hired hand, Sergei (Jon Vickers, above) seduces Katerina (Marie Collier, below); editd image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


In an effort to keep his love-interest, she murders first her father-in-law and then her husband. Ultimately, her ill deeds are discovered and she and Sergei are imprisoned.

[Below: Katerina (Marie Collier, left) pretends to offer sympathy to the dying Boris (Chester Ludgin, center, prostate) whom she as poisoned as the Priest (Andrew Foldi, center, standing) offers his prayers; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Now that both are convicts, Sergei’s attention shifts to another female inmate, fro whom he tricks Katerina into giving him her woolen socks, so that he can bestow the gift on the other woman.

Katerina, deceived and humiliated, drowns the other woman and herself in a nearby lake.

[Below: Sergei (Jon Vickers, front left) comforts Katerina (Marie Collier, right) whom he will soon betray and abandon; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Dmitri Shostakovich’s essay on the opera (originally published by the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, appeared in the accompanying program. He explains that he made changes from the story by Leskov, on which the opera was based:

“I tried to treat Katerina as a character who would earn the sympathy of the listeners”, Shostakovich writes.” To call forth this sympathy was not so simple. Katerina commits several acts that are not compatible with ethics and morality. . . Leskov paints Katerina as a cruel woman . . . “

[Below: Giorgio Tozzi as the Old Convict; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Shostakovich continues:  “I present Katerina as a clever woman, talented and interesting; owing to the hard and gloomy conditions of her life and to the cruel and greedy milieu of merchants that surrounds her, her existence become pitiful and uninteresting.”

[Below: A desperate and furious Katerina (Marie Collier) is about to drown a rival and herself in a nearby lake; edite dimage, based on a production photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The production, by Wolfram Skalicki, was revived as “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” in 1981 (for General Director Kurt Herbert Adler’s final season) and, again, in 1988 (in the final season of Adler’s successor, Terrence McEwen.)

I expect it to return in its “Lady Macbeth” form to the San Francisco Opera performance repertory soon. In earlier posts on this website, I had identified Brandon Jovanovich as the Sergei.