Lady Macbeth escapes from the program notes ♦
The main event in the first half of James Conlon’s conducting stint with the Philadelphia Orchestra was a satisfactory performance of Mozart’s 21st Piano Concerto, with Jonathan Bliss as soloist and the slow movement played with appropriate deference. That movement has become so tightly associated with the film Elvira Madigan that you’re certain to see romantic, vaguely 19th-Century images in your head even if you’ve never seen the film (which I haven’t). That may not be what Mozart intended, but he’ll just have to live with it.
But what made the evening memorable was the grand climax: the suite Conlon himself assembled from Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Shostakovich wrote the opera in the ’30s, when he was a hot young composer, and it exerted a fundamental impact on the course of his career. The opera was a hit in Russia, and it received rave responses when it premiered in three American cities (including Philadelphia in 1935). Then Stalin attended a performance. It offended his conservative musical tastes; a denunciation appeared in Pravda; and suddenly the internationally acclaimed composer faced the prospect of joining his acquaintances who had disappeared into the Soviet penal system.
An advertisement for the opera
Fortunately for most of us, Shostakovich survived to become the author of some of the most powerful instrumental music composed in the last century. Lady Macbeth is usually mentioned in the program notes that accompany his orchestral music and chamber music, but I’ve always thought of this work as a youthful byway. To me it’s always sounded like an experiment he engaged in before he found his true vocation as an instrumental composer. I’ve never seen the opera-- or heard any of its music— and I suspect most Shostakovich enthusiasts haven’t either.
Conlon takes a different attitude. To him, Shostakovich is a great opera composer who was forced to abandon opera, and Conlon’s suite is essentially an advertisement for the opera. In his introductory remarks from the stage, Conlon called Lady Macbeth “the greatest opera of the 20th Century” and urged us to see it if we got the chance.
Stalin found it pornographic
The suite’s opening sections didn’t wow me as much as I’d expected, partly because I couldn’t connect the large-scale blast from the orchestra with the petty activities (like adultery) described in the program notes. But the suite really took off when Conlon reached the third movement. The third and fifth sections are the parts Shostakovich’s straitlaced Communist critics considered pornographic — and, indeed, they constitute the best evocations of all-out thrust-and-bang sex I’ve encountered in any art form.
In between, the suite interrupts the sex scenes with a modern version of the Baroque passacaglia form that includes one of Shostakovich’s moving, upper register violin solos (played by first associate concertmaster Juliette Kang, who sat in the first chair for these performances). The music depicting the arrival of the police is a satirical march but it also displays Shostakovich’s youthful delight in creating the loudest, most complicated noise his imagination could produce.
The precision of a great prose writer
One of Shostakovich’s greatest virtues lies in his emotional precision. He can add a tint of harp or celeste to his orchestration and shade an emotion with the precision of a great prose writer. One of my favorite orchestral memories is the delicacy of the mood at the end of his Babi Yar symphony, which Shostakovich composed when he was 56. The suite contains moments that prove Shostakovich possessed the same sure touch when he was 24.
Did Conlon make his case? Is Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District the greatest opera of the 20th Century? Should we all march on the Opera Company and demand that they schedule it ASAP?
A great opera should contain great writing for the voice, a great story, and great instrumental music. If you’ve heard the art songs of Shostakovich, or his Babi Yar symphony, you know he can write for the voice. The story looks promising, too: it’s based on a Russian classic and involves goodies like adultery, murder and banishment to Siberian prison camps. And now that I’ve heard a good selection of the instrumental music, I can feel some confidence that the opera meets the third requirement as well. Conlon’s suite was, in itself, one of the events of the season— but it was also convincing sonic proof that Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District isn’t just an interesting oddity we should be content to encounter in the program notes for more familiar works.
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