The myth of Dmitri Shostakovich has entered the popular imagination: a dissident composer constrained by the evil regime of the Soviet Union, bravely writing protest into his music. The story isn’t that simple, but that hasn’t stopped the myth from spreading, and popping up in various forms — take Julian Barnes’s 2016 novel on the subject, “ The Noise of Time .”
The Emerson Quartet, one of America’s leading groups, has been very caught up in this particular story. In 2000, after performing Shostakovich’s complete quartets, it teamed up with the Theatre de Complicité for a strong and thoughtful piece, also called “The Noise of Time,” based on the composer’s life and the 15th, and final, quartet. On Sunday night, the Emersons came to the Wolf Trap Barns with a brand-new Shostakovich-based theater piece, “Shostakovich and the Black Monk,” which centered on the 14th quartet and on a short story by Anton Chekhov that Shostakovich, who died in 1975, long wanted to turn into an opera. The whole thing is interlaced with scenes from Shostakovich’s life.
James Glossman, the director who co-created the project with Emerson violinist Philip Setzer, is both ambitious and didactic. His piece hits all the familiar stations of the Shostakovich hagiography, from the moment when the seven featured actors enter while saying, “Muddle instead of music” — the headline of the infamous Pravda review that condemned Shostakovich’s successful opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” and put the composer into public disfavor — before taking up their places around the quartet onstage.
But though the cast was more than competent — led by David Strathairn as Shostakovich and Sean Astin as a burly, affable Stalin, with Alex Glossman as a Harry Potter-like version of Shostakovich as a young man — the whole thing smacked a bit of a school play, with dramatic monologues self-consciously delivered while music played in the background.
It is challenging to find a balance onstage between music and the spoken word, and the Theatre de Complicité’s long-ago production did it much better than this one did. And while the requisite themes were all woven together, so that the death of Chekhov’s protagonist became the death of Shostakovich, the evening had little to offer in the way of insight.
What it offered, instead, came off like the project of an earnest, smart student, filled with self-conscious asides. Witness the monologue of Shostakovich’s third wife, played by Linda Setzer, which I believe was intended to be profound and a pivotal moment in the drama. “Cliche is death,” she concluded, “and death is the most hackneyed of cliches. So to hell with death, and to hell with cliches. Except for this one: On with the show.” Cliche is dead. Long live cliche. But not, perhaps, this show.