BOSTON — Strangulation, poisoning, murder, suicide. Lust, betrayal, rough sex.
These Boston Symphony Orchestra performances of Shostakovich’s verismo masterpiece — three in Boston and one at Carnegie Hall on Jan. 30 — continue the ensemble’s tradition of concert operas. They also continue its years-long recording project with Deutsche Grammophon of Shostakovich’s large-scale works; three previous recordings have garnered Grammys.
Music director Andris Nelsons, marking the end of his first decade with the BSO, led an outsized ensemble. Opolais, a frequent collaborator and much-loved in Boston (and Nelsons’ ex-wife), sang the demanding lead role of Katerina Lvovna Izmailova. Bass Günther Groissböck, as her lecherous father-in-law Boris, led an impactful group of men, his dark voice epitomizing macho force.
Under Nelsons, the performance became more than an artistic achievement — it became devotional. It’s a boisterous, busy score. The volume produced shook chandeliers. Having nearly 100 orchestra members visible, as well as an equal number of choristers and two dozen soloists, emphasized the amount of detail Nelsons needed to command.
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk gets forever linked to its virulent, Stalin-approved Pravda rebuke, which forced the young Shostakovich into decades of anxiety. The 1936 review pushed Lady Macbeth into performance exile — a stunning reversal, after several years of successful stagings, not only in Russia but internationally. Shostakovich’s formidable score — simultaneously precise and ungainly — should relegate that history to the unremembered past.
Lady Macbeth is a wonder of characterization — cinematic, comical, with shocking directness and often intentional tastelessness. Drinking songs, sex noises, mock-devotions, and supercilious braggadocio — each scene brings a different scenario, molded by music. Every characterization is articulate, and almost all different from what preceded.
Shostakovich conceived Katerina as a sympathetic protester against a bourgeois, thoroughly patriarchal society. Theatrically, he succeeds: Katerina can cheat, kill, and dissemble, but we relate to each move. Such is Shostakovich’s acumen.
Katerina always evokes sympathy, but that doesn’t mean she ain’t got her moods. It’s a role for dramatic soprano, with some tuneful respites but predominantly filled with shrieks, laughs, sarcasm, and confrontation. Besides its breadth, Katerina’s variety of noises stands out in its sheer ferocity. Opolais displayed brute artistry. The part sits smack in her range, and her dramatic fluency and language skills were mesmerizing.
The sturdy group of male soloists flashed their artistry and vocal prowess. Groissböck’s music epitomizes Shostakovich’s approach: not only to paint characters boldly but to make the music underscore those portraits. Boris Izmailov taunts the childless Katerina and fantasizes about impregnating her; he sings mostly in chopped, inarticulate phrases, prompting the performer to master clashing rhythms and confused textures. As an emblem of bourgeois oppression, his bluster exudes misguided authority. His death from rat poison felt lovely.
Tenor Brenden Gunnell embodied the rakish Sergei, Katerina’s lover, oozing macho slime. Tenors Alexander Kravets (the spying Shabby Peasant) and Peter Hoare (Katerina’s hapless husband Zinovy), with basses Anatoli Sivko (corrupt police chief), Goran Jurić (clueless Priest), and the towering Patrick Guetti (a sentry along the pitiful march to Siberia), added to the artistic depth. As did the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, singing loudly and in character.
Five orchestral interludes, including a thunderous Passacaglia, were written to accompany set changes but here instead added a different flavor. Some created “cinema without pictures” moments: clumsily rhythmic music to accompany flogging or drunken wandering. A lurid love-making scene ludicrously employs trombones to top out Act 1 — a rare “too-much” moment of musical literalness.
Concert performances of opera leave room for imagination — the root of their joy with a score this rich. But they force some unsuccessful scenes as well: The denouement murder/suicide, when Katerina pushes her rival (she stole the nylons) into the Volga and jumps in after her, can be devastatingly theatrical. Without sets, costumes, or a production concept, the soloists pose stiffly, listening to offstage screams, the action relegated to the subtitles.