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    Review: The Boston Symphony Plays a Sober ‘Lady Macbeth’

    The Metropolitan Opera’s production of Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” is a garish explosion, its imagery drawn from cartoons and the Keystone Kops, its madcap energy never-ending. It’s fabulous, but the score can feel whooshed into a blender’s whirlwind.

    That was very much not the case on Tuesday at Carnegie Hall, when the Boston Symphony Orchestra played “Lady Macbeth” in concert. Even with some bits of staging, Boston’s performance under its music director, Andris Nelsons, was undistracted: firmly, soberly clear and controlled.

    Shostakovich has been a yearslong focus of this ensemble and conductor. They approach the composer with a poise that reveals just how much of this opera’s score is sheerly lovely, tender and melancholy; the frenetic, exaggerated jokiness for which it became best known is less omnipresent than you might have recalled.

    “Lady Macbeth,” about a 19th-century housewife in the Russian provinces who is surrounded by boorish men and turns to murder, was written in the early 1930s, when Shostakovich was still a budding brilliance. The work’s initial good fortunes — and its composer’s bright future — were infamously derailed in 1936, when Joseph Stalin walked out of a production in Moscow and an unsigned editorial appeared in Pravda, condemning the “stream of deliberately discordant sounds” and the “fidgeting, screaming neurasthenic music.”

    Often you can listen to the work and nod along to those words, even if today we may mean the judgment as praise. But on Tuesday, remarkably little sounded discordant, fidgeting, screaming or neurasthenic. Even a notorious effect at the end of Shostakovich’s raucous sonic depiction of sex, a slow trombone slide to evoke — well, you can decide what it evokes — was so understated that it didn’t arouse the usual audience laughter.

    Instead, the most memorable moments were quiet ones. Mellow strings and an almost pastoral flute combining under the protagonist’s father-in-law’s warning against workers trying to seduce her. A timpani’s rumble rising softly off growling cellos.

    Details like these were well captured by this excellent ensemble. And the interludes between the scenes, even the ones of crushing elegiac grandeur, seemed to flow in and out of the action rather than standing as monoliths. But with Nelsons’s cool, neutral clarity came a lack of character, of personality — a sense of acceding to the drama rather than driving it.

    Part of that was tempos that tended slow, which posed a far greater problem the night before, when he and the orchestra opened their two-performance stand at Carnegie with a hauntingly spare performance of Tania León’s “Stride” and a punchily muscular account of Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, with Seong-Jin Cho, followed by Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”

    In the “Rite,” as in the Shostakovich, the point from the podium seemed to be control and a kind of granitic immensity, rather than the usual driving folk-modernist savagery. Fine, but in practice this meant plodding and lingering over the music until tension and momentum were lost.

    The Boston Symphony is a very fine orchestra, but from the opening measures on Monday this wasn’t the kind of strong, unflappably cohesive playing that would have been required to sustain Nelsons’s conception. The result was disastrously dull.

    That certainly wasn’t the case with “Lady Macbeth,” though as a performance it was more impressive than thrilling. And if it was moving, that was mostly for offering a degree of New York redemption for its leading lady, the soprano Kristine Opolais.

    Ten years ago, Opolais was a fast-rising artist who was touted as one of the Met’s new generation of stars. Like many singers, she may have taken on roles too heavy for her instrument; at a relatively early age — she is just 44 — her voice grew brittle and strained, and she has been absent since well before the pandemic.

    But she has returned to the city in good, poignant form. Opolais isn’t an imposingly aging, dramatic-soprano Katerina, but a faded, hardened yet still youthful ingénue, with a voice of little tonal luxury but secure intonation and straightforward, never overdone expression. Playing the character as almost sleepwalking through a miserable life, she sounded and felt honest and true.

    The tenor Brenden Gunnell was plausibly pleasant and ineffectual as Sergei, the lover who leads her astray, and the bass Günther Groissböck was sometimes malignantly hushed and sometimes forced as Katerina’s father-in-law. Amid a big cast, there were some piquant turns in tiny roles from the tenor Peter Hoare, the soprano Michelle Trainor, the mezzo-soprano Maria Barakova and the bass Goran Juric.

    This trip to Carnegie was the orchestra’s first with Chad Smith — long a forward-thinking programming leader at the adventurous Los Angeles Philharmonic, and now Boston’s chief executive. Midway through his first season, he’s beginning to lay the groundwork for the future.

    Last week, the orchestra announced that Nelsons, after 10 years, would move to an unusual “evergreen, rolling contract.” Is this a sign of trust in a beloved partner? Or does it make it simpler for Smith to jettison Nelsons if a better option — a talented conductor in a more progressive mold — comes around?

    The answer may well be both, and this Carnegie series gave ample evidence that Nelsons, for all his strengths, remains one of the most uneven top-rank maestros in music.

    Boston Symphony Orchestra

    Performed on Monday and Tuesday at Carnegie Hall, Manhattan.

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