The myth behind Shostakovich’s 1934 opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” has long eclipsed anything about the music. The initial triumph that ended in a denunciation from the Joseph Stalin regime; the vehement editorial in “Pravda” with the screaming headline “Muddle Instead of Music”; the subsequent ban on the opera and the panic and fear that any night would bring the dreaded knock on the door.
What turned this adaptation of a Nikolai Leskov short story into the opera Stalin didn’t want anyone to see? Opportunities for modern audiences to decide are relatively rare. However, one such opportunity arrived this week at Symphony Hall, as the Boston Symphony Orchestra and music director Andris Nelsons presented the opera in concert, bringing a grand conclusion to the long-running Shostakovich project that has characterized Nelsons’s time at the BSO so far.
In some ways, it felt like Nelsons and the BSO had been preparing for this for years, and not just because “Lady Macbeth” was originally scheduled for the 2020-21 season. Consider the first release in the BSO’s Shostakovich recording project with Deutsche Grammophon. Symphony No. 10 takes up most of the airtime, but the first track on that Grammy-winning album is the Passacaglia from Act 2 of “Lady Macbeth,” which musically depicts title character Katerina Izmailova’s descent into guilt after the opera’s first of three murders. This week’s performances of “Lady Macbeth” signal the closing of that circle.
The orchestra came prepared, and so they delivered. “Lady Macbeth” demanded a colossal ensemble and even more vast dynamic range, and Nelsons drew out the best. Simmering tension manifested with barely audible tremolos from the low strings, and Kristine Opolais’s Katerina’s crumbling grief in the final act was traced with solo oboe and English horn. The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Nathan Cole, this week’s guest in the concertmaster’s chair, contributed several silken, calculating solos.
On the opposite side of the volume spectrum, there was the terrifying wall of sound that bore down on Katerina during the wedding party scene, as the strings shrieked and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus roared out explosive toasts to the bride and groom. There was the moment gleefully depicting the violent, adulterous lovemaking between Katerina and her illicit lover Sergei, complete with a whole cadre of extra horns. (The puns just make themselves.)
Opolais has had a lock on the title role ever since the postponed 2020-21 production, and itseemed a somewhat odd casting choice on paper. Opolais’s career has risen mostly on Puccini and Verdi, and her past appearances with the BSO have reflected that. Her last Symphony Hall visit in 2019 was as a steely and somewhat self-conscious Suor Angelica in a concert performance of Puccini’s opera of the same name. However, those same qualities that broke immersion during “Suor Angelica” made for a perfectly complex Katerina, a character who is set up to fail by a series of despicable men. Vocally, she was excellent, fire wreathed in ice.
Speaking of those men: Tenor Brenden Gunnell made for a magnetic Sergei; tenor Peter Hoare was perfectly milquetoast as her cold-fish husband, Zinovy; and bass Günther Groissböck all bluster but little bite as her lecherous father-in-law, Boris. I found myself wondering what BSO debutant Goran Jurić, who gave the Priest a primal undercurrent, might do with that role. The cast also had a handful of one-scene and two-scene wonders, most of all tenor Alexander Kravetz’s reeling Shabby Peasant and bass Anatoli Sivko’s scheming Police Chief.
There is only so much staging one can incorporate on a packed-to-the-gills Symphony Hall stage, and the only concessions made to dramaturgy were an intermission dress change for Katerina (from a white dress to black) and the Shabby Peasant’s sloppy tie and unbuttoned shirt. Still, “Lady Macbeth” tells such a visceral story of oppression and control that even with the music pulling all the dramatic weight it could, something important felt missing.
Often, there’s too much going on in the music and libretto to capture it all in the supertitles, which is usually where onstage action comes in, but this performance incorporated disappointingly little of that action. When the ghost of Boris haunted Katerina in Scene 5, I hoped Groissböck would appear in a balcony; instead, his voice seemed to be amplified from offstage. Most jarringly of all, during the final scene when Katerina pushes Sergei’s new conquest Sonyetka (a sultry Maria Barakova) off a bridge to drown and then jumps in herself, Opolais remained stationary at center stage with only an offstage scream to hint that anything happened. Surely no one was expecting the leading lady to tackle her rival a la Lydia Tár, but couldn’t Opolais have walked off stage before the scream?
It’s probably not too important. On the eventual Deutsche Grammophon recording, no one will know.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Jan. 25. Repeats Jan. 27. 617-266-1200, www.bso.org