Opera Critic » Mariinsky Theater

The opera company of St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater (the name “Kirov” is still used in the West, but now less anachronistically as “the Kirov Opera and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater”) has made its annual visit to Washington.  A rumor about poor sales may explain its marketing activities – deeply discounted prices through various promotions and even a “two for one” deal for performances of each of this year’s two opera productions.  It probably also determines the experimental approach to the timing of its visits; this is the first in December.
Whatever problems its sales department may have experienced, the problem this year is clearly not with the company, but with Washington’s philistine audience and slight arts press.  At last bringing Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades (in the better of its two current repertoire productions, by Alexander Galibin) to the Kennedy Center stage, the Mariinsky has shared one of its greatest productions and a work that communicates the very soul of its hometown.  Following on the 1920s modernist tradition, Galibin’s abstract production sets the action in Pushkin’s own time rather than the original 1790s setting.  The city, its buildings, and its inhabitants are rendered in billowy contrasts of dark and light and black and white.  The atmosphere, much like the plot, is spectral and haunting.  Changes of time and place are denoted by sliding curtains and sharp light projections.  In the process the setting becomes the St. Petersburg of Tchaikovsky’s time – murky, dark, and uncertain yet pervaded by frivolity, masks, and extremity.
No one can be more acutely aware of these qualities than the performers.  Vladimir Galouzine is quite simply the greatest Gherman of our age.  His inimitable voice is more gifted in the lower tenor register and more suited to his native language than any other, but the desperate energy he radiates leaves him unmatched as a compulsive, lovelorn antihero.  Kennedy Center lighting cost him some of the more overwrought sweatiness that he displays in St. Petersburg.  Nevertheless, his performance was riveting.  No less exciting was the object of his hopeless love, Mlada Khudoley’s Liza.  A dynamic young soprano, Khudoley has already given international audiences excellent Sieglindes, Salomes, and Verdi heroines in addition to the great dramatic soprano parts of the Russian repertoire.  Her Liza is absolutely on the spot and charmingly drawn out with expert acting and exquisite high notes that can only be produced with natural talent.  Evgeny Nikitin’s Tomsky revealed a splendid baritone, another voice that will be heard internationally for years to come as, we can hope, will Lyubov Sokolova’s affecting Countess and Alexander Gergalov’s Yeletsky. The younger solo artists, chorus, and dancers all showed a changing Russia at its best.  The Mariinsky’s general director Valery Gergiev conducted with his customary passion, but all the more impressively since he has spent the whole visit commuting between Washington and New York, where he has simultaneously been conducting the Mariinsky’s gargantuan co-production of War and Peace at the Met.

When it premiered in Russia in February 1913, Richard Strauss’s second “shock opera” drew harsh criticism for depicting a regicide during the tercentenary celebrations of the Romanov dynasty.  The outbreak of World War I, which knocked German composers out of the repertoire, ensured that it would be the only Strauss opera to make it to the Mariinsky before the revolution, but, in this production by South African-born British director Jonathan Kent, the new Russia now has a healthy partner for its decade-old Salome.  Kent is a relative neophyte in the operatic world, having migrated from a noteworthy career in dramatic theater which included a long artistic partnership with Ian McDiarmid, most famous for portraying the evil emperor in the Star Wars saga.  As has been the case recently with drama directors working in opera around the world, his experience added much of the necessary “punch” to Elektra.  The inevitable updating communicated by Paul Brown’s split-level set leaves us somewhere between a seedy turn of the century Vienna and the 1950s.  Agamemnon’s anguished daughter looks and acts like an emo kid stuck in the basement among piles of garbage bags, broken furniture, and a slide projector she uses to look at family photos from happier times (but, this being St. Petersburg, who knew that Agamemnon looked so Russian?)  The cut of her maid outfit and shabby fifties dress evoke that decade’s fashions but could also help her fit in with the contempo hipster set.  On a plane above Clytemnestra and her ladies in waiting parade up and down a grand staircase in more old fashioned dresses (costumes also by Brown) that make them look like guests from Prince Orlofsky’s ball in Die Fledermaus thirty years on.
            The shrill Larissa Gogolevskaya was oddly in place in the title role, whose natural dissonance never denied an opportunity for edgy soprano voices to make at least a strong dramatic impression.  Gogolevskaya’s girth did not stop her effective movement from crazed daddy’s girl to accessory to murder.  The more carefully artistic singing demanded by the opera’s other roles was in abundance.  Olga Savova sang beautifully as Clytemnestra.  Irina Vasilieva matched her efforts as Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis.  Oleg Balashov, who has pretensions to Heldentenor status, devoiced just enough to render a fine and thoroughly unsympathetic Aegisthes.  The young bass Vadim Kravets’s stern Orestes commanded respect in his quest for revenge.  Mariinsky artistic director Valery Gergiev dominated Strauss’s score from beginning to end. – Paul du Quenoy

The continuing 2007 White Nights festival has provided a stage for Australian director Paul Curran to stage his first Puccini opera.  Having observed Mariinsky productions close at hand during his student days in Finland, it is a delight to say that Curran has absorbed their innovative aesthetics without succumbing to their all too frequent sterility.  Updating opera is a relentless vogue, but the phenomenon seems to happen less often to such unavoidably period pieces as Tosca.  Set in Napoleonic times with references to Voltaire, the historic battle of Marengo, and the ill fated Roman Republic of 1790s, it may be awkward to move it forward in time.  But as Curran correctly points out, Puccini’s music is quintessentially late nineteenth century and part of a larger culture that prefigured the horrors of the twentieth century.  So it was not without a certain amount of credulity that I watched the action unfold in a dark corner of Mussolini’s Italy.  Rather than a caped and wigged Scarpia, we have a gray clad secret police figure backed up by scary looking thugs in black leather jackets.  Our heroine is a glamorous lady of the late 1930s.  Even characters who do not appear in opera capture the era.  The Marchesa d’Attavanti – the blond who inspires Cavaradossi’s portrait of the Madonna and sets the action in motion by providing succor for her fugitive brother Angelotti – bore more than a slight resemblance to Jean Harlow in her stage-dominating mural.  Scarpia is attended by a prim squadron of fascist gals in neat short skirts.  Paul Edwards’s sets captured the pomposity of fascist architecture, especially in the massive marble rendition of the Palazzo Farnese in Act II.
            Maria Guleghina cancelled her performance to leave St. Petersburg missing one of her dwindling number of appearances.  Irina Gordei was an unfortunate substitute despite some reasonably good acting in the murder scene.  Popular though she appears to be in Russia, her top voice was heavily taxed in delivering the title role’s best music.  As her suitor Akhmed Agadi had flashes of lyrical charm but failed to do much with Cavaradossi’s romantic flare.  It was the stentorian baritone Nikolai Putilin whose star rose even higher with an intelligently phrased and powerfully delivered Scarpia.  Sergei Skorokhodov delivered dramatic punch with his mean Spoletta.  Andrei Spekhov got some laughs as the Sacristan.  Valery Gergiev’s conducting might have been a bit too harsh on Puccini’s music, but it worked to great effect in the opera’s opening chords and at the dramatic end of each act.

The decision to keep St. Petersburg’s major operatic stage open this summer has brought a kaleidoscope of new productions, including this one of Leos Janacek’s magnum opus.  Unfortunately Dmitrii Bertman’s efforts bored the largely foreign audience – fastidiously assembled for White Nights – into a mixture of slumber and early departure to their undoubtedly overpriced hotels and cruise ships.
       Jenufa is a complex work relating an acrimonious inheritance battle, competition among brothers for a young girl’s affection, her cruel disfigurement, the icy murder of her out-of-wedlock infant, and, finally, a touching scene featuring the simultaneous arrest and moral forgiving of the murderess.  It may be difficult to escape the gritty realism of late nineteenth century Bohemia in its industrializing central European blandness, but Bertman goes too far in that direction with his overuse of shabby browns and grays to depict characters as well as surroundings.  Only the bright blond Finnish tenor Jorma Silvasti, playing Laca, the closest thing this opera has to a hero, gestured toward escaping the visual torpor.  His excellent tenor of course helped and was well partnered with the precise yet sonorously beautiful voice of Irina Mataeva.  A less well known and far too underpublicized gift to Russian art, Mataeva brought true innocence and rather rare dramatic gravitas to the opera’s title role.  The part of her evil tormentor Buryja fell to the consistently unimpressive Larissa Gogolevskaya, whose high pitch wailing made one want to avert his eyes rather than take in her character’s evil music with the relish it usually demands.  A fine Mariinsky ensemble cast sang through the lesser parts to Valery Gergiev’s fine conducting.  In a different production the evening might yet have been enjoyable.

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