Lincoln Center’s recent Shostakovich celebration – three concerts in Avery Fisher Hall with Mstislav Rostropovich conducting the London Symphony – was brief, but it clearly indicated that this elusive Russian composer is being reassessed yet again. Back in the days when Shostakovich was still alive and the Cold War going strong, many Western critics regarded him as a Soviet toady who regularly churned out bombastic symphonies, cheap flag-waving poster art solely intended to glorify the Evil Empire. After Shostakovich died, and his miserable life under Stalin was fully revealed, commentators suddenly began to hear all that bootjack music as a savage indictment of the regime rather than a celebration of it. Now we are told that both views are too narrow. Even a specifically programmatic score like the Eleventh Symphony, inspired by the 1905 massacre before the Winter Palace, should be heard as neither propaganda nor protest but simply as an expression of horror at man’s brutality toward his fellow creatures, wherever that occurs.
Perhaps so. After all, who now listens to the “Eroica” Symphony and ponders Beethoven’s views on Napoleon? That above-it-all stance certainly removes much extra-musical baggage from Shostakovich’s art, adds to his stature, and possibly even makes the Eleventh Symphony sound like a better piece. Rostropovich, who led the work in his first concert with the London Symphony, is certainly well positioned to explain Shostakovich’s true intent here – he first met the composer as a teenager and remained a close associate ever after. Right now, though, the conductor is content to let the music speak for itself, and his loving treatment of the score, one that even ardent Shostakovich admirers still find hard to take, did just that.
It also added a good fifteen minutes to the symphony’s suggested timing of just under an hour. That did few favors for this sprawling work, whose thematic materials, mostly derived from folk songs, are neither especially distinguished nor interestingly developed. Rostropovich seemed sincerely convinced by the music, but for Shostakovich at his scariest – a composer who can depict war, death, destruction, evil, or what you will with terrifying eloquence – give me the harrowing Eighth Symphony every time.
Sometimes it seems as if the Metropolitan Opera has had a box-office death wish this spring. One by one, hard-sell works have entered the repertory – Berg’s Lulu, Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Harbison’s The Great Gatsby – and more often than not the house has looked half-empty. How ironic that the Met does these comparatively recent operas far more persuasively than the popular Verdi-Puccini-Wagner works that do sell out, even with inferior casts. It must dishearten the management, but quality has not suffered. In fact, all the revivals I saw both looked and sounded much improved since these productions last graced the Met stage.
Britten’s Dream is especially magical, a challenging staging (directed by Tim Albery and designed by Antony McDonald) now inhabited by a far superior cast than it originally had in 1996. With its stark forest imagery strongly suggestive of alienation and separation, clever color-coded costumes, and characters who painfully grope toward self-knowledge, this production presents a harsh view – but no harsher than the music itself, always gorgeous but more than a little nightmarish at times. David Daniels and Alexandra Deshorties are vocally brilliant and visually arresting as the squabbling Oberon and Tytania; the four lovers (Susan Chilcott, Maria Zifchak, Paul Groves, and Nathan Gunn) are impeccable; and the team of rustics led by Peter Rose as Bottom could not be more amusing. Even David Atherton draws far more color and lyricism from this endlessly inventive score than when he last conducted it here.
Eleventh Symphony, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, Mstislav Rostropovich conducting, at Avery Fisher Hall.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
By Benjamin Britten, directed by Tim Albery, at the Metropolitan Opera.