The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

ORF: DSCH triumph at Vienna State Opera - Metzmacher conducts Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk - Angela Denoke, Misha Didyk, Kurt Rydl

Production by Matthias Hartmann. 23.10.2009. Rebroadcast by Radio Suisse Romande - 28.11.09.

After hearing the results of how two symphonies of Shostakovich went with Ingo Metzmacher - with DSO Berlin a truly harrowing Eleventh (reviewed on this blog) and with San Francisco a very dramatic Sixth though a little off-center from its competition - news that he had picked up three weeks ahead of time a production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at Vienna State Opera arrived in such a way to cause much anticipation.

This work was something of a curate’s egg in the 1970’s and for a while to follow as well. It was several years after the composer had passed away that the world premiere recording of Lady Macbeth got published, with Rostropovich conducting, his wife Galina Vishnevskaya a little past her prime in the title role – ten years after she had participated in classic film of Katerina Ismailova (revised version) in Kiev. As far as a secure musicological grasp of this work goes and other qualities about the EMI recording as well, Rostropovich supposedly set a standard as to how we should hear an opera, in its original, unvarnished state that as such had suffered considerable neglect for forty-three years. I have yet to watch the Jansons dvd of this opera from Amsterdam, but would likely have been more impressed had Jansons tried conducting this ten years earlier, with greater simplicity at approaching Shostakovich’s music more natural to him then.

Ingo Metzmacher’s vision for this work is perhaps not altogether revelatory, but in several crucial ways something likely to approach just that. Presumably the same opening night performance (October 23rd) of this piece has aired on three stations so far this fall – including Austrian Radio the day after and Radio Norway two weeks ago. Radio Norway arbitrarily cut the third scene of Act One from their broadcast, and likely without full authorization to have done so. Radio Suisse Romande today made room for commentary between all four acts, especially between the first three, and of course also played the broadcast complete.

Angela Denoke may have less the verbal nuance for Russian than does Vishnevskaya but very nicely eschewed overacting Katerina, bringing out several different sides to so complex a character as this. Denoke can be heard portraying from Salzburg a Janacek heroine in similar plight, Katya Kabanova. The boredom, frustration, and even utter loneliness of Katerina’s plight immediately became apparent, in being daughter-in-law of a mean kulak married to an inept man.. The pent-up sexual drive of Katerina was also made clear in for instance Katya’s lack of resolve in upbraiding Sergei for being ring-leader in assaulting Aksinya during Act One (very smartly, insinuatingly played by Donna Ellen at first, and then incisively enough for the rest). Metzmacher made the Aksinya episode more brutal than usual in eschewing making something hyper or (radical chic) kink out of it. Her ‘Pusti’s to Sergei needed not to make Katya out as coquette Denoke, unlike Vishnevskaya, made point sufficiently clear without having to resort to that.

Journey was made complete by the dreamy quality Denoke found for most lyrical pages of the score (Act 2, Scene 2) through the utter dejection and despair with which she invested Katya’s laments in Act 4. All this was so for part that may comes less of a natural for Denoke than the German repertoire, but a role, apart from being stretched by one or two high notes in which she revealed the goods to encompass both its musical and psychological demands. Feeling for living the character was a primary consideration for Denoke at all times. During the murder of Boris, she found the right tone of irony and was prudent in not overdoing the staging of her grief over his agonizing death. It was better, for best sake of irony, to leave most of the fake grief, the obviating that she is really 'putting on' up instead to the piccolo clarinet, doubling her one octave above.

Both leading tenors made much incisive of their assigned parts.. Misha Didyk was the Sergei. While not maybe having the vocal goods of even an aging Nicolai Gedda or wisdom thereof, Didyk made as lively and incisive a Sergei, as I have heard yet. One sensed a character tragically less infatuated with Katya than she has been with him. During middle acts, Didyk let us in on what may be just the suggestion of a more sensitive side to Sergei, even if hypocritically so. He was most certainly heard to be brushing off Katya as she first upbraids him during Act One and as callous enough to laugh the way he does for ending perhaps the first real sexual congress Katya has had with any man – while married to one just, figuratively speaking, simply not up to it.

That second thankless leading tenor part - that of Zinovy - went to Marian Talaba, who blithely made Katya’s husband out to be little more than unwitting boor he is - and so blithely unaware of it. With light lyric voice he has, he gave Zinovy all he’s got in his ardent bidding farewell to Katya during the first scene of the opera, later to make incisive banter with Katya over news of trouble back at home a moment or two before being strangled and clubbed to death by Sergei. Michael Roider managed to somewhat humanize the Seedy Lout (Shabby Peasant), snitch that he is, even in situation or two he finds unwelcome to come across.

A little free with pitch was Kurt Rydl as Boris, who at least showed the experience and prudence not to caricature the part. In how Boris is written, it is unavoidable that Boris comes across as hateful, but Rydl made us aware of how unpleasant the situation is even for him, though to a great extent pf his own making. He found a pleasing, appropriate dignity with dark tone and somber feeling to Boris’s closing lines before giving out on the rat poison – Boris here presumably to represent the dying race of kulaks – and that even if bumbling idiot - not without though at least a twisted sense of humor - he does not necessarily deserve the fate to which he succumbs midway through the opera. As Ghost of Boris, reckoning his slight variability with pitch at his age, Rydl was suitably, crustily enough, terrifying; the shudder - with very strained attempt to regain composure - Denoke provided immediately became real.

Still more reticent, Janusz Monarcha made good buffoon out of the Priest and also some sense of awareness of what may be afoot all along throughout. The dour, but comically incisive Eijiro Kai from Japan made count in full the boredom of the Police Chief; his strained attempt at social niceties at the wedding at which he must arrest two people in Act Three had all the right irony to it. Nadia Krasteva was the vocally ample hard, worldly-wise Sonyetka, Marcus Pelz the ambivalent toned Sentry to Kat’a’s demands, and Wolfram Igor Derntl unwittingly open simpleton of a professor under police interrogation. In a great variety of guises on stage, the Vienna State Opera Chorus gave of their exemplary best. Dan Paul Dumitrescu led colleagues with ample melancholy as the Old Convict; if perhaps riding the surface of things for his voice being lighter.. He did not quite efface memory of hearing one or two from the Mariinsky making a stab at it.

A sure hand through a score of considerable complexity, even waywardness intermittently was Ingo Metzmacher, who decided we can hear this piece as capably anticipatory of Shostakovich’s later style of composition as revised version written two decades later. Chung (DGG) is mostly cool and detached, Anissimov decisively second or third tier, Rostropovich though expertly finding individual character of numerous episodes very well, but missing it for others, renders so much of this opera episodic. We now have from Metzmacher what Valery Gergiev has approximated quite well already – the orchestral strength of this piece and its inherently very individual grasp of form.

Could Act Four be the first long arch slow movement of the Shostakovich symphonies – while hidden away in an opera? I have only just now heard this music so convincingly this way. Though disguised well, there are definitely elements of sonata style in devising this great scene’s overall shape. The from-behind well controlled rush through quasi-fugato writing for the strings as approaching retransition accompanying something building to skirmish between Sergei and Katya was very effective. It was very telling all within mind - getting past light episode or two - of the implacably stern recapitulatory calling back into line of aroused female convicts – followed by heart-rending very still final lament for Katya (at very end of her tether). The screams, struggle Krasteva put up for Sonyetka’s final moments were very disquieting – as leading into the rest of the convicts marching off toward huge expanse - nothing left in sight. All this was bolstered by the tremendous musical and dramatic argument Metzmacher made for the orchestral and formal strength of how Shostakovich constructed this great extended finale.

One might occasionally ask for a little more feverish intensity, but Metzmacher, while often close to achieving it, steadily kept the larger picture in mind. I have yet to have heard any of the orchestral interludes of this opera played better than encountered here. Most revelatory was first the interlude between the first two scenes of the opera, with dark halo in string tremolo and deep overtones in somber intimations from lower winds and brass and deep, yet firm lament (with no hint of phrasing from behind) in the strings and broken off-beat isolated accents from muted lower brass. Such force with which the closing scene of the opera opened became entirely plausible; such it was to make one think two hours back to this interlude.

The great passacaglia midway through Act Two, thoroughly excelled in maintaining firm bass line, made Britten-esque eloquence out of lines in the strings at midrange, and accumulated in a very sensitively graded, terraced way buildup to a shattering climax. Good tone of regret infused the descent from such within unbroken line – shattering in its intensity – all separations within the line keenly observed. Not self-consciously had Metzmacher found something along lines of baroque precision in the more vivacious interludes instead of banging through them. After bringing out the folksiness of the Seedy Lout’s plundering of the estate wine cellar, he allowed just hardly noticeable slack to the line to make excellent differentiation between varying strands of activity - thus also near end of postlude to the Seedy Lout scene an excellently achieved fugato for the strings. Word has it that final Largo for the Eighth String Quartet (as chamber symphony arranged by Rudolf Barshai) supplied scene change between Third and Fourth Acts – nothing as heard online thus far. A trio of trumpets in close interval very rapid arabesque of triplets was almost precariously brought out in the both realistically and rapidly played sex interlude very nearly closing Act One (excised by Radio Norway).

When given anything incisive for high woodwinds (flute, piccolo clarinet, etc.) – for example prickly flute section descant in unison over rapid stepping scherzo for chorus very early on, followed quickly by piccolo clarinet led galop, as near incisively as possible, Metzmacher could not be denied. He, however, for purely ephemeral purpose of working or entertaining the audience, was not about to work or caricature anything either. Favorite moment of mine has been the workers’ chorus, forces out from whom come two laborers to insolently comment upon Boris’s unfortunate plight, that in just keeping its tune, its folk origins simple, Metzmacher made in place of cliche something definitively Mussorgskian out of it. In full relief was just its simplicity of feeling - plus very compelling scoring to back it up. What occurs here, without smoothing anything out seeming so naturally disjunct, Metzmacher frequently would make seem to uncannily connect by pointing out whatever link by way of motif can often get missed. There would always be fine pulsation to keep a cumulatively well connected, if at times somewhat distracted line alive and moving through everything.

Operetta and opera buffa inspired episodes in the police station and during final scene march to Siberia were piquant. As for color, Metzmacher made Byzantine out of brass and choral contributions to the wedding feast scene closing Act Three, making realization from at once quietly but strongly played fugato, opening the scene, a sense at varying levels to varying degrees of something very tense and ominous afoot. Sharp underpinning of the police chief’s social graces upon entering the scene made for as fine dark humor as one will ever find. The introspection for Kat’a’s opening laments, with clarinet obbligato of utmost simplicity and of the sleep mini-interludes during Act Two, and even for the big concertmaster solo in the previous scene, brought out a melos, especially from the strings - from within what might as well have been Philharmonic in full force – that is indeed also idiomatic for Shostakovich.

In comparing with Rostropovich, two crucial moments come to mind. Rostropovich crudely jumps the rest right before his wife begins the final lament in the last scene of the opera; he also rushes some through the revolutionary or convict’s song for duet of clarinets (and then for tenor trombone) that makes brief postlude to Act Two. He thus ignores markings of molto tenuto and tenuto espressivo, whereas Metzmacher, with sensitively measured pulsation under each so hauntingly got both. If there will be a recording, not for such reasons alone, Metzmacher then stands now as closest to definitive for this score, a success perhaps no longer so elusive to fully achieve.

There was more here than upon which one mere mortal can provide commentary. This, from all reports, was an unqualified triumph for Metzmacher in his Vienna State Opera debut. He has already been received very favorably for at least the Messiaen ad Nono he had conducted with the Vienna Philharmonic. It now seems so very ironic that he has committed no Shostakovich to disc as of yet. For so much expressive finesse Metzmacher brought to this, it comes to mind that one of only two forays that the most important predecessor Metzmacher has had in Berlin made into Shostakovich was with suite of this opera’s orchestral interludes.

Let me be audacious here momentarily. Shostakovich may have adamantly, under some pressure perhaps, made the case that the revised version of this opera was from then on (exclusively) its acceptable performing version. I hardly doubt though that such a performance as this might have been able to persuade the composer otherwise.

Metzmacher brought out so much, including specific nobility to the original version and to several of its characters, leading kulak included. Shostakovich’s roots in Mahler, in adapting the banal closely alongside profundity, in Berg’s Wozzeck, and his partaking of recent trends in French artistic life did not get denied – as Shostakovich picked up from theatrical life during the thaw of the 1920’s. Such contrast, as so well pointed out and terraced into such an elaborately prepared conception could only work to better illuminate those qualities the aging, still well-intentioned composer wanted us to hear from time of revision. Here such internal contrast was made most distinctive about this piece - as heard now in its original version.

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