While I will always and forever cherish my summers seeing the Boston Symphony Orchestra up in their summer home at Tanglewood, it's always a treat (not to mention a convenience) to catch them here in NYC, where they've played Carnegie Hall just about every year since it opened in 1891. Some of those concerts have been among my most memorable experiences at Carnegie, such as Seiji Ozawa leading a 2001 performance of Berlioz' Requiem in tribute to the victims of 9/11, or the gargantuan forces assembled for Mahler's 8th symphony in James Levine's first appearance as Music Director in 2004.
The BSO returned to Carnegie this week with a pair of concerts under current Music Director Andris Nelsons that displayed an impressive breadth of repertoire. On Monday, they performed a colorful program that included Tania León's Pulitzer Prize-winning Stride, Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (with Seong Jin-Cho) and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. I wasn't in the hall that night, but was able to hear the concert from the comfort of my couch thanks to WQXR's Carnegie Hall Live program; the Rite, in particular, was both deliberate and ferocious. (Soon, you'll be able to hear an archive broadcast of the concert here.)
I did, however, make it to last night's performance: an ambitious concert performance of Shostakovich's 1934 opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. (The performance was rescheduled from April 2021 due to COVID.) Under Nelsons, who grew up in Latvia (formerly part of the Soviet Union), the BSO has recently completed a decade-long survey of Shostakovich's symphonies (all recorded for Deutsche Grammophon), so it's only natural that they now turn to Shostakovich's one traditional opera. (His earlier absurdist experiment The Nose appeared at the Met for the first time in 2010.) Begun when Shostakovich was only 24, Lady Macbeth shows a remarkable command of orchestration, a bounty of colorful, expressive singing - and one helluva juicy story about a woman trapped in a sexless marriage who seeks out - and finds - sex with someone else. Which leads to all kinds of trouble.
I haven't seen the Met's Graham Vick production, so this was my first encounter with Lady Macbeth which, like it's Shakespearean namesake, centers around a femme fatale who drives her lover to murder - and commits other murders herself. Katerina, sung here by Nelsons' ex-wife, soprano Kristine Opolais, is married to a merchant's son (Zinovy) who is disinterested in sex and has failed to impregnate Katerina. When Zinovy leaves for a few days to go check on a failed dam, it doesn't take Katerina long to take on a lover (Sergei), despite her father-in-law's (Boris) demand that she remain faithful to Zinovy. While Boris contemplates whether to make his own advance on Katerina, she puts rat poison in his food and kills him. (In one of those uncanny symmetries of history, Stalin - who effectively banned Lady Macbeth in the Soviet Union for thirty years - purportedly died of rat poisoning himself in 1953.) Then, when Zinovy returns home to discover his wife has been unfaithful to him, he's killed by Sergei after a struggle. They nearly get away with it, but on their wedding day the town drunk breaks into Zinovy's basement looking for booze and instead finds his stench-emitting corpse, after which both Katerina and Sergei are arrested and sent to Siberia.
Shostakovich uses a huge orchestra in Lady Macbeth, and in the acoustic boom of Carnegie Hall, there were several occasions where I felt blown back in my seat by the deafening, terrifying crescendos, especially in the interludes between scenes. The lurid, evocative score effectively mirrors the action onstage, such as the raucous music accompanying Katerina and Sergei's first sexual encounter at the end of Act 1, ending with a comical slide trombone. This production also employed various offstage techniques, including a "banda" of brass instruments on the floor of the hall, and positioning Boris' ghost at the end of Act 2 in the Dress Circle, delivering his menacing curse downwards at Katerina.
No less formidable was the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which under director James Burton has cemented its reputation as perhaps the finest symphonic chorus in this country. The sheer force and synchronicity of these singers - all of whom are volunteers - left me wondering why a city of the size and resources of New York can't manage to field a comparable ensemble for concert use (unless you count professional opera choruses.)
While this was billed as a concert performance, the singers mostly seemed to be performing in character. (Stage director Benjamin Richter, who worked extensively in German opera houses before relocating to Boston in 2020, is credited as a "coordinator.") Especially impactful was Opolais, who delivered an emotionally wrought performance even if her voice occasionally failed to penetrate above the surging BSO. Which begs the question: why hasn't she appeared at the Met - or any other NY stage - since 2018? One never knows what goes on behind stage and General Director doors, but seems to me that Opolais, who at 44 is in her prime as a singer, is deserving of a starring role - especially after bailing out the Met with a heroic last-minute substitution as Mimi on a 2014 Live in HD broadcast.
The other principals were generally effective, if not particularly memorable. Bass Günther Groissböck was convincingly swarthy as Boris, though it was distracting to see an older singer, tenor Peter Hoare, portray his son Zinovy. Tenor Brenden Gunnell was appropriately affable as the rakish Sergei. There were a few standouts among the fifteen or so secondary roles, including mezzo-soprano Maria Barakova as the sultry prisoner Sonyetka, who uses her feminine wiles (and a lot of exposed leg) to steal Sergei's affections from Katerina on the march to Siberia. Also impressive were a trio of basses: Patrick Guetti as the domineering Sentry; the Belarussian Anatoli Sivko (Chief of Police) who with his hoop earrings and rhinestone shirt studs looked like he was on his way to Marquee; and Goran Jurić as the less-than-pious town priest. And, I won't soon forget the sight of tenor Alexander Kravets as the Tattered Peasant, stumbling on and offstage in a stupor with his shirt untucked and impressive potbelly exposed. Now, that's getting into character.
As for Nelsons, he seemed energized by the dramatic sweep of this nearly four-hour performance, appearing to find another gear of stamina and engagement that's been lacking in some of his other recent performances. Which is a welcome development, given that Nelsons, 45, just agreed to a rolling "Evergreen" contract with the BSO, meaning he's no longer subject to the traditional five year renewal cycle and should be around for the foreseeable future. (Though, as Zachary Woolfe speculates, that could also make it easier for the BSO to replace him at some point.) Still, as he continues to split his time between Boston and Leipzig - where he'll host a Shostakovich festival in May 2025 - it begs the question just how long Nelsons can keep all of these balls in the air. Time will tell.