Letter From Salzburg 2: Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk

Intendant Markus Hinterhäuser in his second season at the artistic helm of the Salzburg Festival is refining the focus of the Festival that had become somewhat diffuse in recent seasons. In addition to the operas of Mozart (indispensable in a music festival in the city of his birth) and star vehicles such as Aïda, both of which always sell tickets, Hinterhäuser exhibits no reluctance to showcase more current works that can be more difficult, sometimes much more difficult, to cast and stage.

This season the music of Shostakovich was programmed in abundance, both orchestral and chamber works. The works were performed by the usual cadre of celebrity artists. Of special interest to me was a revival of a production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, a work still not produced as frequently in the West as I would like. It is musically challenging, and the violent action reflects the place and time of its creation.

The work was a huge success at its premiere in Stalin’s USSR, until Stalin himself attended a performance in Moscow. The dictator, or a flunky writing at his direction, notoriously characterized the opera in a subsequent review as “muddle instead of music.” Shostakovich narrowly escaped a trip to the gulag, and, alas for the world, he gave up the composition of opera for more abstract forms of music.

Scheduled to perform in Salzburg was a mostly Russian cast with the exception of two principal roles to be sung by Nina Stemme and Ferruccio Furlanetto.  St. Petersburg native Mariss Jansons conducted the Vienna Philharmonic, and the staging was by Andreas Kriegenburg.

Soprano Evgenia Muraveva

Alas, Stemme was forced to cancel due to illness.  She was replaced by Evgenia Muraveva, a young singer who understudied the role while being cast in the relatively minor role of Aksinja.  Muraveva is a protege of Valery Gergiev, director of the Mariinsky Opera of St. Petersburg.  She was the find of the evening in the performance of August 15.

A relatively slight woman, she possesses a stirring voice and managed to project a powerful stage presence in the demanding role of Katerina Ismailova.  Cancellations by star singers are usually a major irritant to all opera fans, but occasionally a cancellation provides a new star an opportunity to shine.  Muraveva was one such singer to rise to the occasion, and she fully deserved the warm applause that she received.

Furlanetto is one of the finest and most versatile dramatic bassos in the world.  I saw him triumph in the role of Don Quichotte in Chicago earlier this season, and he was just as compelling at Salzburg in the role of Boris Ismailov.

Tenor Maxim Aksenov was appropriately despicable in the role of Sergei, Katerina’s lover.  Aksenov has the steely quality to the upper register of his voice that appears to characterize Russian tenors and that is idiomatic for Russian opera especially.

Kriegenburg’s staging called for the use of moving palettes for the scenery. This device, easily accommodated by the huge stage of the Grosses Festspielhaus, helped to clarify the action, especially when Katerina and Sergei are being transported to confinement in Siberia for the murder of Boris, Katerina’s husband.

Shostakovich is one of the 20th Century’s great symphonists, and his conception of the score of Lady Macbeth is characteristically symphonic in style and scope. In particular, Shostakovich’s orchestration is always vivid and colorful.

That said, perhaps it is not surprising that the laurels for the evening were won by Janssons and the great Vienna Philharmonic. Rarely have I heard such precise, idiomatic, and astoundingly virtuosic playing by an orchestra, whether in the pit or on the concert stage. In the skilled hands of Janssons, the tension of the drama never let up until the last bar of the score. Janssons and the orchestra earned the shouting, stamping ovation they received at the conclusion of the performance.

Tim Snider is one of the hosts for Sunday Opera Matinee, 2-6pm on WTJU 91.1fm, or wtju.net

Letter from Salzburg 1: Due Foscari

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