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The Lady Is a Tramp

Nine years separate Dmitri Shostakovich’s start on his Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and the completion of his Sixth Symphony; hearing them both within a week at the Music Center constituted, among other pleasures, an interesting historical overview. In those nine years (1930--39) the composer‘s official esteem rose and plummeted like an out-of-control roller coaster. The opera, a huge worldwide success for years after its premiere, was then shot down -- for Soviet audiences and, curiously, for the outside world as well -- after the famous 1936 denunciation (“muddle instead of music”) by the USSR’s most powerful music critic, Joseph Stalin, the Martin Bernheimer of his day. Eventually Shostakovich would grovel his way back into official favor with his Fifth Symphony and with the promise that the Sixth would be cast as a vast choral homage to Lenin. When that promise did not materialize, Shostakovich again found himself on shaky ground, which continued its quivering at least until Stalin‘s death in 1953 and even beyond.

Given that well-documented lifetime of political and artistic insecurity, the strengths in these two dissimilar -- but, in some sense at least, musically related -- works are all the more surprising. Both share the epithet “tragedy-satire” that Shostakovich himself coined for the opera. Both reach expressive depths: the opera in the stark tragedy of its final act, the symphony in its mysterious opening movement, with its intense, wordless grief voiced by solo winds sounding above the dark buzzing of slow strings, then a single stroke on the gong (as in the Tchaikovsky “Pathetique”) to chill the blood. Both tickle -- but do not elate -- the senses with episodes of raucous, sardonic satire that totter at the brink of hell and offer a harrowing view of what lies beyond.

The Sixth is, indeed, a curious work. As with the Fifth, the slow movement is its emotional crown, music most amazing for the way it suggests so much with such modest means. The wind solos -- now a wrenching long melody for English horn, now a passage for piccolo that must be the most powerful line ever conceived for that instrument -- go on and on, single flickering candles barely piercing the darkness. The end of that movement is purely beautiful, the harsh, defiant opening theme now in a lustrous, soft major-key transfiguration. Mahler is the ancestral figure: the solo winds in the final movement of Das Lied von der Erde, the grinning death-dancers in the “Burleske” parts of the Ninth Symphony. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonic, very much at home in Mahler, brought out these similarities in their tense, spacious reading of the Shostakovich. I particularly admired his resistance to the easy laff in the final pages. Earlier on the program he had dealt most winningly with the fragrant elegances in Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin, and not at all rewardingly in a deadpan collaboration with Peter Serkin in a Mozart piano concerto (K. 453), whose depths remained unplumbed.

Lady Macbeth still makes its way, slowly. In Shostakovich‘s later revised (i.e., watered-down) version as Katerina Ismailova, it ran at the San Francisco and New York City operas in the 1960s. In its “pure” form it came to the Met in 1994, in a staging by Graham Vick that moved the 1850 action forward to include automobile, refrigerator and plastic trash bags. Nothing of the sort transpired here; Irina Molostova’s staging remained true to the period -- its lyrical spirit and its boisterousness, both.

The opera arrived, however, burdened with jinxes -- from the aforementioned Stalin putdown, to the grudging substitution for the originally scheduled War and Peace, to the recent longshore shutdown that cost the Los Angeles Opera access to George Tsypin‘s sets, which may still be somewhere on the high seas as I write. The triumph of the performance is, to some extent, the beating-back of those hoodoos. The local carpenters, armed with Tsypin’s blueprints, turned out a fair copy of the original Kirov Opera sets -- rustic fences, barriers and balconies for the most part, with a garish red curtain behind which the errant Katerina and her nogoodnik Sergei went about their hanky-panky silhouetted by Alan Burrett‘s realistic lighting and Shostakovich’s superrealistic music.

It was a triumph shared, of course, by the music, and by the fabulous holler set up by Valery Gergiev and his visitors from the Kirov‘s own orchestra pit. It was not a night for subtlety or elegance; Shostakovich’s score had seen to that. It was, however, a night for some glorious showing off, with an extraordinarily gifted composer in his mid-20s, as Shostakovich was at the time, taking the full measure of a prodigious mass of pure orchestral virtuosity, as Gergiev and his 96 supremely gung-ho ensemble proved themselves to be.

It is easy to fall out of love with Katerina -- the lady and her opera. The sheer vulgarity of the enterprise is the all-too-common operatic mix of exhilaration and kitsch (cf. Tosca et al.), here raised to stratospheric heights. Yet there are other kinds of operatic magic here as well; with one opera already behind him (and, thanks to Stalin, no more operas still to come), Shostakovich proved himself here the master of the dramatic, all-revealing melodic line. It‘s there already in Katerina’s opening “oh-how-I‘m-bored” cavatina, and it returns. The opera is crammed with entertainment; my favorite, I think, is the Policemen’s waltz tune, a haircut off Der Rosenkavalier and worthy to stand in its company.

Understandably for a run of seven consecutive days, the company arrived with as many as four principals for the major roles. On opening night there was Larissa Shevchenko as a robust Katerina, Vladimir Grishko as a loud-aplenty Sergei, and Vladimir Vaneev as the grump-voiced old father-in-law who gets his comeuppance in a plate of poisoned mushrooms. Nothing in the voice department was spectacular, nothing abject; I imagine that a midseason night at the Kirov‘s Mariinsky Theater would produce this level of well-routined vocal performance immensely buttressed -- especially if you’re there on a Gergiev night -- by the kind of musical leadership that streams from Gergiev‘s podium. In later performances, Maxim Shostakovich -- the composer’s son, who has had a substantial American career since requesting asylum in 1981 -- took over that well-stomped-upon podium and honorably defended the family name.

Anyhow, don‘t wring your hands over the loss of War and Peace. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk has better sex -- and, for that matter, better music.