What a thrilling week it has been. For a long time I have held close to my heart the momentous second opera of Shostakovich, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. To have the opportunity at last to conduct it, and on the legendary stage of the Mariinsky Opera to boot, is very much a dream come true. Rehearsals had gone fruitfully, chorus and orchestra executing splendidly (although it is a work they do not perform often), the lead soloists re-imagining and deepening their involvement in the score and the drama from day to day. I felt a special responsibility to guide the several outstanding artists making their role débuts, including Varvara Solovyova as Sonetka, Aleksandr Nikitin as the Police Sergeant, and Yuri Vorobyov (who had already sung an outstanding Shostakovich Symphony No. 14 with me a year ago) as the Old Convict. The performance itself unfolded with strong focus, and far more went right than wrong (which, according to Daniel Barenboim, is a lot more impressive than it sounds!). Incidentally, something small did go wrong at the very, very end: the director had asked me to hold that final F-minor chord as long as possible, to allow for the wrought-iron gates on stage to be shut with a clang. However, the gate-shutter on stage right was quite late getting started, and—after watching the wind players gradually turn an exotic shade of blue in the face—I had to cut off the fermata and allow the gate to close in silence.
How refreshing to conduct a production that is appropriately grand, matching the drama and sweep of the music. No attempt here to de-construct or pygmify a great composer. Incidentally, I have been surprised in recent weeks to learn how many people, even amongst otherwise learned fellow musicians, have no idea about the plot of this terrifying opera, vaguely assuming that it is somehow based on Shakespeare. In reality, the origin of the libretto is a gripping short story by Nikolai Leskov, one of the “secondary giants” of the Golden Age of Russian literature. The setting is a Russian village in the early 19th century, made all the more compelling by serving as the real-life backdrop of true events known to Leskov in his youth.
For those who wish to know this work more closely, the definitive recording is surely still the first one, conducted by my great friend and mentor Mstislav Rostropovich, with his wife, the incomparable Galina Vishnevskaya, in the title role. On video, I think many of you will admire James Conlon’s version as much as I do. But, as always, there is nothing like seeing and hearing great music in person.