This weekend, Andris Nelsons and the BSO bring their Shostakovich survey to a triumphant conclusion with a concert performance of the composer’s second and final opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The series of live performances recorded by Deutsche Grammophon has already brought us all 15 symphonies, both piano concertos (with Yuja Wang), both violin concertos (with Baiba Skride), and both cello concertos (with Yo-Yo Ma). The symphony recordings are available now; the first three releases won Grammy Awards for Best Orchestral Performance. I imagine Deutsche Grammophon will eventually assemble the entire package into a boxed set. In any case, when this Lady Macbeth is released, with Kristine Opolais in the title role, you should buy it, regardless of what other versions you might already have. It’s Shostakovich at his very best.
Thursday at Symphony Hall I felt a twinge of regret. Prior to Nelsons’s arrival as music director in 2014, the BSO’s Shostakovich performance record was just okay, with most performances post-Koussevitzky led by guest conductors. Getting to hear all the symphonies and concertos — plus extras like the Chamber Symphony, the Festive Overture, and the incidental music to Hamlet and King Lear — over the space of just nine years has been a treat. The next few seasons will likely be sparser.
This presentation of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is, no surprise, the BSO’s first ever complete performance. The orchestra didn’t actually play any part of the score until January 1996, when guest conductor James Conlon programmed a substantial suite that he himself had assembled. In April 2015, Nelsons led the BSO in the Passacaglia interlude from Act Two, on a program with the Beethoven Violin Concerto and Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. That’s the sum total of the BSO’s history with the opera.
Not that any Western orchestra has much history with Lady Macbeth. The opera debuted almost simultaneously in Leningrad and Moscow in 1934 and was hugely popular for the next two years. Then Stalin attended a 1936 performance, Pravda’s review bore the celebrated headline “Chaos instead of Music,” and Lady Macbeth disappeared from sight. After Stalin’s death, Shostakovich resurrected and revised the opera, retitling it Katerina Izmailova and toning down the orchestral flamboyance. This new version premiered in 1963 and was recorded the following year. The original version, however, wasn’t recorded in the West until after Shostakovich’s death. In 1979, his good friend Mstislav Rostropovich found a copy of the 1932 score in the Library of Congress and recorded it, with his wife, Galina Vishnevskaya, in the title role.
That original version is almost universally preferred now, and yet the opera, in any edition, hasn’t taken stages by storm. The only CD releases to follow Rostropovich’s have been Myung-Whun Chung’s Deutsche Grammophon recording with the Opéra Bastille and Maria Ewing as Katerina and Ingo Metzmacher’s Orfeo recording with the Vienna Staatsopera and Angela Denoke. Lady Macbeth has been more popular on video, notably in productions from De Nederlandse Opera (Opus Arte), Maggio Musicale Fiorentina (Arthaus Musik), and Gran Teatre del Liceu (EMI). All three stage directors lean hard on the satire; two of them radically and insensitively alter Shostakovich’s ending. In 1966, a film adaptation of Katerina Izmailova was made starring Vishnevskaya; though the 170 minutes of the 1964 recording is cut down to 116, it gives a good visual idea of what Shostakovich intended.
All of which is to say there’s a place for performances that let you use your imagination. Shostakovich did object when his first opera, The Nose, debuted in a concert performance in 1929, saying that the music springs only from the action. That debut was not a success, but the opera did no better when it was staged in 1930. I don’t know what Shostakovich would have thought of Lady Macbeth in concert; the question can hardly have come up in his lifetime. He did assert that the singers “should sing, not talk or declaim or intone.” He also insisted that the orchestra was a major player, not just an accompanist, and that the music is “developed on a grand symphonic pattern.” The five interludes he wrote into the score allow, he said “for the change of scenery.” Although stage directors routinely create some sort of action to accompany these interludes, it seems Shostakovich expected audiences to listen to them and focus on what the music was saying.
Thursday at Symphony Hall the music was front and center; I’ll get to that in a moment. What can you expect if you go to the remaining Boston performance on Saturday, or to Carnegie Hall on Tuesday? The translation shown on the supertitle screen is excellent, idiomatic rather than unhelpfully literal. Each of the nine scenes is announced, but there’s no identification of characters or description of the action. If you didn’t know that Sergei hits Zinovy on the head with a candlestick, your only clue would be the loud thump from the orchestra. At the end, Sonetka’s offstage scream and the Officer’s announcement that “they’ve drowned” alerts you that Katerina and Sonetka have plunged into the Volga, but you’d be guessing how they got there. (Katerina pushes Sonetka off the convict ferry and then jumps in herself.) The synopsis in the program book does cover most of what you need to know.
There’s no real costuming. Opolais wears a handsome white gown for Acts One and Two and an equally handsome black one for Acts Three and Four. Perhaps the change is meant to reflect what Katerina sings, in her final aria, about her “black conscience.” Maria Barakova’s Sonetka sports an off-the-shoulder green gown with a big slit up one side to show off the woolen stockings that Sergei wheedles out of Katerina. The male principals appear in various forms of concert dress; Alexander Kravets’s Shabby Peasant shows up with collar unbuttoned, tie loosened, shirt hanging out, vodka flask at the ready. The vocal scores sit low on music stands; on the whole, everyone sings to the audience or to each other, barely glancing down, though Peter Hoare’s Zinovy, score in hand when he enters to confront Katerina and Sergei, has to look more than would be ideal. On the other hand, when Dmitry Belosselskiy’s Old Convict, radiating hard-won wisdom and authority, sang his final stanza Thursday, I noticed his music stand was bare. That was all the more remarkable since Belosselskiy was a late replacement for Paata Burchuladze, who had to withdraw due to illness.
Staged action is limited but thoughtful. For the most part, Opolais’s Katerina and Brenden Gunnell’s Sergei stand on opposite sides of Nelsons’s podium, a statement on the depth of his attachment. He does take her hand when they first meet in the Izmailov yard, but there’s no attempt to depict their wrestling match. During the notoriously erotic outburst that accompanies Katerina’s seduction, Opolais and Gunnell, back on opposite sides, stand motionless and emotionless, letting the music speak for itself. Characters come and go appropriately; Boris grabs Sergei as he’s leaving Katerina’s bedroom, the Porter pushes Sergei offstage after he’s been flogged, Sergei loiters near the stage door as a way of “hiding” from Zinovy. Whenever Sergei falls asleep on Katerina, Gunnell puts his chin on his chest and closes his eyes; he looks so peaceful, you can practically hear snoring.
Thursday’s performance began at 7 and ended at 10:30, as compact a performance time as Lady Macbeth affords. I expected intermission to come after the Passacaglia that separates Scenes Four and Five; that would have been about 8:40. Instead, the proceedings went on for another 20 minutes, to the end of Act Two. Perhaps the idea is to end on the “high” note of Katerina’s “Now you are my husband,” but two hours is a long slog for the audience. The actual running time is about 175 minutes, including the point where Nelsons stops to allow the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus to file out at the end of Act One. The recordings by Rostropovich, Metzmacher, and Chung all run in the 155-minute range, so Nelsons is, as usual in Shostakovich, at the long end of the scale.
Yet as in the symphonies, he’s the master of Shostakovich that’s organic, kaleidoscopic, and multi-dimensional, ferocious when it needs to be ferocious, tender when it needs to be tender. The music doesn’t rush and it doesn’t drag; if it can dance, it does. There’s no hysteria, but nothing is tamped down, either, not the prison door that seems to slam when Boris tells Katerina he’s always watching her, nor the sarcastic xylophone that accompanies the Izmailov millworkers’ “praise” of Zinovy. Sergei’s introduction is undercut by cheeky squealing; Katerina’s oath that she’ll be faithful to Zinovy gets a good horse laugh; the Shabby Peasant’s lie as to why Katerina and Sergei are rolling around in the yard prompts an incredulous hoot. The march Shostakovich wrote for Zinovy’s burial drips with irony; the trudge that brings the police knocking at Katerina and Sergei’s wedding has “purge” written all over it. Only the whip of Sergei’s flogging doesn’t fully register.
Nelsons’s interludes are especially thought-provoking. The first one, after the opening scene, is solemn but not sententious; we’re invited to think about Sergei’s arrival and what Izmailov cook Aksinya tells Katerina about his being a skirt chaser. The second, one of Shostakovich’s trademark slapstick silent-movie chases, follows Katerina and Sergei’s wrestling match and looks forward to the bedroom scene; Nelsons here is funny rather than furious, letting xylophone and whooping brass do the work. The Passacaglia is the opera in miniature, building to its majestic/horrific climax with a logic that seems irrefutable, in the same way that Katerina’s affair with Sergei leads inevitably to one murder and then another. The fourth interlude, representing the Shabby Peasant’s dash to the police, segues from circus march to car chase in what seems more like a dash from the police. The fifth, with its military percussion and E-flat clarinet and trombone slides, explains why one might be running from the police, but there’s also the suggestion of a sad, doomed wedding dance for Katerina and Sergei. As for the 60 seconds of sex that the New York Sun famously dubbed “pornophony,” it’s been described as “graphic,” but if you’re not aware of the context and just close your eyes and listen, I think you’d be as likely to hear Stalin’s NKVD beating the stuffing out of alleged subversives.
Fine individual efforts from the orchestra Thursday included Richard Svoboda’s bassoon leading up to Katerina’s “The foal runs after the filly” aria, Elizabeth Rowe’s flute following that aria, guest concertmaster Nathan Cole’s violin when Boris sends the Porter to warn Zinovy, Robert Sheena’s English horn for Boris’s death-bed confession, Blaise Déjardin’s cello when Zinovy is about to burst in on Katerina and Sergei, Toby Ofts’s trombone to put the seal on Act Two, and Sheena’s English horn joining John Ferrillo’s oboe for Katerina’s “It’s hard” aria. William R. Hudgins’s clarinet created the proper ambivalent tone at the outset of the opera and many comic effects thereafter.
This is not to say the orchestra upstages Opolais. She’s the kind of sympathetic, perceptive Katerina that justifies Shostakovich’s description of his heroine as a tragic figure. Katerina’s opening “I can’t sleep” aria can sound annoyed and entitled; Opolais is both humble and sad. Her soprano is full even in the upper register (where Shostakovich frequently sends Katerina), she’s not overwrought, and her enunciation is good enough to let you hear most of the Russian text. At the end of “I can’t sleep,” she makes a mournful three syllables out of “kupchikhe” (“merchant’s wife”); when it’s time for bed at the end of the day, she’s piteous in singing of the “doors with locks on them.” Her “Foal” aria is serene; she caresses the word “laskaet” (“caress”) and rises to “nikto” (“no one”) without shrieking. She sheds a tear for Zinovy before declaring that Sergei is her real husband; her lament for Boris sounds almost genuine, as opposed to the usual parody; against a luminous orchestral background, she’s radiant in telling Sergei “Your business is to kiss me.” (That doesn’t stop him from falling asleep.) Opolais’s acting, mostly with her face, is nuanced and intelligent and evinces a sense of humor. Her final aria, in which Katerina likens her conscience to the huge black waves of a lake in the wood, is quietly chilling.
The rest of the cast seem to have been encouraged to take a positive approach and let the orchestra handle the parody. Günther Groissböck’s Boris is affecting in his sorrow over not having an heir and wistful in recalling the days of his youthful indiscretions; when he talks himself into reliving past glories by visiting Katerina, to the accompaniment of a comic Viennese waltz, he’s more deluded than lecherous. His bass, rich but not gruff, could seem heroic if the orchestra’s bassoons and trombones didn’t keep undercutting him. Gunnell’s Sergei likewise sounds sincere when he tells Katerina “Do you think I don’t understand? I’ve seen what women’s lot is like” and later swears to Sonetka that she’s the woman he loves; you’d believe him if it weren’t for the cuckoo calls and clarinet squeals and trombone slides. Zinovy is the not the biggest part nor the most rewarding, but Hoare retains some dignity even when the character is asking his father to see to it that is wife remains faithful.
Aksinya has her moment early when she warns Katerina about Sergei; Michelle Trainor is so winsome, you wonder whether she doesn’t want Sergei for herself. Goran Jurić’s Priest rises above tipsy caricature; Anatoli Sivko’s Chief of Police makes taking bribes seem eminently reasonable; Barakova’s Sonetka is sweet and seductive before turning on Katerina. The Shabby Peasant is written as a tipsy caricature, but in a drinking song that’s inspired by Varlaam’s in act one of Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov but perhaps also by “Der Trunkene im Frühling” from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, Kravets brings affection to a way of life where not much else is on offer.
Finally there’s the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, equally believable as the oppressed Izmailov millworkers, the misogynistic Izmailov servants who molest Aksinya, the corrupt police, the drunken wedding guests, and the convicts whose march to Siberia “creeps by in an endless procession.” (Did Shostakovich have Macbeth’s “Tomorrow” speech in mind?) They’re Shostakovich’s Soviet Union, his Russia, for better and worse. They have the last word in Lady Macbeth, bewailing their clanging fetters and their heartless guards. What was their crime? Was it committed in 19th-century Russia or in Stalin’s 20th-century Soviet Union? We can be thankful that Stalin didn’t stay to watch the last act of Shostakovich’s opera. Otherwise, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk might have been the composer’s swan song.
See related history article HERE.
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 45 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.