Dallas — The great British director Max Stafford-Clark, riffing off Hamlet, said that "theatre holds the mirror up to society." But a more appropriate quote, of disputed authorship, might be from Bertolt Brecht, which describes Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13, "Babi Yar," which was performed by the Dallas Opera Orchestra on April 24: “Art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.”
The combination of the stark poetry of Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Shostakovich’s powerful music is indeed a hammer, landing right on the Soviets. It is a devastating indictment of life in the Soviet Union in the 1960’s. As you can imagine, the authorities were less than thrilled with both the radical poetry’s cry against anti-Semitism in the poem, not to mention Shostakovich’s vivid realization of the text. In spite of efforts by the authorities to suppress the symphony, premiere was finally allowed to take place.
It starts out with a poem about the slaughter of 33,771 Ukrainian Jews by the Nazis in 1941. But, since the premiere was in Kiev, the memory of Stalin’s 1932 purge of some pesky Ukrainians by starving them to death hung over the symphony. In Ukraine, they call it the Holodomor, meaning extermination by starvation or hunger.
The second movement mocks the authorities much like the court jesters did in years past. They could get away with saying things as jokes that would cost anyone else their head. The third movement is a tribute to the hard life of women during World War II and following, as well as the scarcity of provisions. It takes place in a store with bare shelves and an endless line to enter. The forth movement takes on the Soviet suppression of artists. The finale, called “Career,” makes fun of the eternal blockage caused by identical bureaucrats and a tribute to the triumph of creativity in the face of overwhelming odds.
The Dallas Opera Orchestra, performing on the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Classical Criterion series at the Winspear Opera House, was a revelation. It is easy to assume great playing when sitting in the theater. Few in the audience can recognize the different between a good opera orchestra and a great one. Unless there is a disaster in the pit, we are listening to the singers and watching the spectacle unfold before us. Here, they were on the main stage and on their own, without any distractions, and they certainly proved their worth.
There was a different sound than we are used to in the Dallas Symphony, especially in the winds. But this observation only served to point up that the overall sound of an orchestra greatly depends on who is sitting in the principal wind chairs. (We heard this with the DSO when Demarre McGill took over the principal flute chair.)
The opera orchestra delivered a magnificent performance, all the more remarkable because rehearsals were sandwiched in between those for something completely different, a production of Show Boat.
The soloist, bass Mikhail Kazakov, reflected every twist and turn of the text. You could see every emotion in his face and body language. He was riveting throughout. Some final vowels sounded exaggerated, as he dropped his jaw as much as possible to produce the sound. But, he is a real Russian bass with a marvelous deep and rich sound.
The men’s chorus was equally notable, offering a deep Russian sound. Fortunately, the translation of the text was projected above the stage in the fashion of opera projections so we could follow every turn of emotion. Not being a Russian speaker, it is difficult to judge their pronunciation. However, it is not much of a stretch to say it was most probably excellent, since they are under the direction of Alexander Rom, a Ukrainian native. Also, they sang some recent performances performance in Russian in the recent past (Tchaikovsky’s opera Iolanta and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, with the same bass soloist in the title role).
The concert also gave us the opportunity to see the Dallas Opera’s Music Director Emmanuel Villaume in a completely different genre. There was a time when conductors were not allowed to conduct a symphony orchestra unless they came up in the opera: from coach to backstage conductor to an occasional matinee to appearing on the main season. Such is not the case these days, for a number of reasons, but watching a conductor trained in the opera house, such as Villaume, obviously displays the value of such training.
He was always on top of the text and reflected the words and the drama in every measure. He led a performance that Shostakovich would have loved. He vaulted from exhilaration to hushed solemnity.
(From the back, he appeared to be overly dependent on the score, but that might be an incorrect assumption when viewed from the front.)
Villaume’s beat pattern is much more precise these days and his frame (maximum reach right and left and up and down) is almost never wider than his body. He still exudes the same high level of excitement as his larger motions did in the past but, his smaller frame makes every motion more concentrated and thus, effective in communicating his musical concepts.
Villaume opened with Beethoven’s “Leonore” No. 3 overture, written for his rescued opera, Fidelio. Its story of triumph over the heavy hand of a suppressive state was a perfect setup for Shostakovich’s indictment of Soviet supression.
» Read Keith Cerny's Off the Cuff column about Babi Yar