Opera Critic

Saint Petersburg celebrated its 302nd birthday and the opening of its 13th Stars of the White Nights Festival this year with what could have been an historic occasion: Russia’s first performance of Tristan und Isolde since 1913. Perhaps it was the 92-year gap in the opera’s performance history on the Russian stage, but this new production by Dmitrii Cherniakov sadly failed to take advantage of the opportunity.

Cherniakov, who has recently staged well-regarded productions of Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar (2004) and Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and Maiden Fevroniia (2001) for the Mariinsky, has given Petersburg audiences a stultifying post-modern interpretation of Wagner’s most ethereal opera. Tristan appears to be an officer in the Royal Navy and brings his captive back to Cornwall in a small cabin on what the photographs on the wall indicate to be an aircraft carrier. Cherniakov and Zinovii Margolin’s set in the first act is cluttered with sundry items of modernity: a working personal computer, exercise machine, luggage, and office water cooler, the last of which Brangäne uses to mix her potions. The height of the magically enhanced love affair in Act II takes place in a room in what must be Cornwall’s most functional minimalist high-rise hotel, complete with a do-not-disturb sign that Tristan awkwardly places on the door when he rushes in. What Cherniakov and Margolin hoped to add by presenting us with a cheap digital alarm clock that informs the audience of every passing minute of the act and its rapturous love scene is anyone’s guess. And why must the poor cuckolded King Marke mar his affecting scene by taking refuge in the room’s lavatory or flipping through television channels? In Act III Tristan’s ancestral castle in Kareol is reduced to a plain 1950s-style drawing room with boring furniture. The home of a great warrior looks more like somebody’s grandmother’s house – an allusion not all that far-fetched since Cherniakov engaged an actor and actress from Petersburg dramatic theaters to make unscripted silent appearances as Tristan’s dead parents. To make it all worse, the design seeks to remind us of the obvious constraints in which the lovers find themselves by utilizing only about two-thirds of the Mariinsky’s already rather ordinary stage space. One Russian critic aptly described the whole production as “claustrophobic.”

The costumes, designed by Cherniakov himself in collaboration with Irina Tsvetkova, add even less. Sergei Liadov, our bespectacled Tristan, does not remove his glasses throughout the entire opera, though the tenor has performed other Wagner roles without showing any sign of needing them. This oddity, together with his second act gray sweater and trench coat, both of which stay on the whole time, including the lusty scenes, do more than anything other than a walker or a wheelchair to eliminate the dynamism with which Wagner endowed his hero. It is hard to imagine this professorial Tristan killing Morold or doing much of anything else with passion or verve. The scuffle with Melot (over a pistol rather than a sword) is a stellar example of theatrical silliness – our Tristan resembles a hapless middle-aged man vainly resisting a mugger. Isolde spends the entire opera in non-descript gowns that seem deliberately designed for fat ladies. Marke, clad in a cashmere topcoat, and his suited retinue look vaguely like Russian gangsters, perhaps intentionally, but perhaps not.

The Mariinsky is not known for the high quality of its stage direction, but it would seem that Cherniakov and his collaborators have seen or heard of too many other po-mo Tristans. Perhaps there is a new sexual harassment law in the theatrical world that forbids singers to touch during love scenes, but Petersburg’s audience has now joined Vienna’s in witnessing two static figures standing beside each other and staring into space while they indulge in the closest musical approximation of orgasm. But in case we miss the dramatic point or cannot hear the singing, at least we have digitally created explosions going off on a film screen that depicts a sprawling metropolis at night – explosions bright enough to divert all our attention from the singers and their raptures.

Overall, Cherniakov has reduced a work that is the quintessence of spiritual and emotional transcendence to a mere reminder of the banal contemporary reality that we are condemned to inhabit. Wagner’s philosophical goal of escaping mundane, phenomenal existence through art, music, and theater has been avoided yet again to no purpose by a producer who can add neither an affirmation of humanity nor any more than a superficial comprehension of the composer’s intentions. Of course the human experience has limitations, but is it not Wagner’s point that they can be overcome, even if it must be in death? What value can possibly come from trivializing the power of love, ecstasy, and redemption in the way that this Tristan does? All it really tells us is that Eurotrash designers are dull, passionless individuals who are too bogged down in their own pretensions to cynicism and irony to find beauty in the world. And if that is what they have to say, then who cares? Why must expansive, feeling people be forced to waste so much time paying attention to so many bores – the people who, to paraphrase the late William S. Burroughs speaking of the late and not so great Kurt Cobain, frown for no reason? Let us feel sorry for the prolonged adolescence of the avant-garde and move on. The gushing streams of people fleeing the Mariinsky after Act II both nights and one Russian audience member’s overheard comment, “Just shut your eyes and listen to Wagner’s music” illustrate perfectly that these theatrical crybabies are not responding to the needs and aspirations of their audience, whose humanity is already under relentless assault and ever more in need of affirmation.

Talented vocalism can often save abstruse productions such as this one (witness the Met’s recent Tristan, Lohengrin, and Fidelio productions), but here, too, the Mariinsky’s effort has little to offer. Liadov’s Tristan had occasional flashes of power, but was on the whole weak and unbalanced. Most of his third act singing evoked the rhythmic barking of an aged Siegfried Jerusalem, who held on to his Heldentenor roles a few years too long. In the May 29 performance even Liadov’s second act singing was weak, verging at times toward inaudible. The role of Isolde went in the opening night performance to the ill-suited Larissa Gogolevskaia, handily the worst of the three Brunnhildes cast in the Mariinsky’s Ring Cycles of 2003 and 2004 and a soprano who justifiably appears to receive very few other parts in Petersburg or elsewhere. Although she seems to have lost some weight and handled her role’s middle register with more agility than she has mustered in the past, her upper register remains as shrill and unpleasant as her dramatic abilities are limited and disappointing. Her Liebestod sounded like a last desperate gasp for air rather than a surrendering to eternity. Milana Butaeva, who took over for the second performance, was more appealing visually, but also struggled to deliver Isolde’s best music. A glimmer of hope is offered by the fine young soprano Olga Sergeeva’s reported inclusion in this production, but she has yet to be heard (a third performance is scheduled for June 30). More enjoyable was the supporting cast, particularly the Markes of Mikhail Kit — fresh from his well-received performances of Wotan in New York last month — and Gennady Bezzubenkov. Masters of the Russian repertoire’ great bass roles, their Wagner performances are solid and should be esteemed. Olga Sa
vova and Svetlana Volkova both brought fine musicianship to their Branganes, as did the stentorian Andrei Spekhov to his Kurwenal. Artistic director Valery Gergiev led the Mariinsky’s orchestra with his usual intensity and volume, especially in the brass and percussion, but, uncharacteristically, he seemed inattentive to many subtleties in the score and failed to convey much of its pathos. The prelude did not move, and the orchestra’s general sound remained inchoate throughout both evenings. Despite his achievements elsewhere in the Wagner repertoire, his Tristan cannot yet stand with those of Levine, Barenboim, or, especially, Christian Thielemann in its power and purpose.

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The opera season of the nation’s capital is coming to end with its final production, Camille Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila. Originally intended to be an unstaged dramatic oratorio, it is difficult to bring much energy to this work, the pivotal moments of which (the crushing defeat of the Philistines, Dalila’s physical seduction of Samson, Samson’s capture and blinding, and the consequent defeat of the Hebrews) almost all happen off stage. But in this production, an original if rather traditional Washington National Opera effort by Giancarlo del Monaco, much is done to reverse this troublesome fact. The mournful Hebrews open the opera on an inclined plane, which flattens to deliver Samson’s confrontation with Abimelech and his Philistine minions. Dalila’s home in the Valley of Soreck is a veritable seduction pit à la arabe, handily accommodating Samson’s inner conflict, fateful surrender to desire, and capture by the enemy. And there have been noticeable improvements over the production’s last appearance, in the 1998-1999 season. The direction merciful toned down much of the sexuality of the famous third act bacchanale, which had been unnecessarily graphic and overt the first time around. Fidel Garcia’s solo dance was well executed, but perhaps the solo format is not the best focus for the scene’s capacious and driving music. Unfortunately, the scene did retain the staged human sacrifice (nothing Saint-Saëns called for), though this, too, was more subdued, favoring a less sanguinary stabbing over the earlier slashed throat and gushing blood.

At some moments in the evening, however, one wished that the production had retained the vocal talents of seven years ago. Carl Tanner’s rough tenor did little justice to the title role, banalizing its most exciting lines and disappointing the audience with its scratchy upper range. Washington was fortunate to hear José Cura’s Samson in 1998, and he has more or less retained his leading place in the part. Likewise, Denyce Graves’s seductive and faultless Dalila has given way here and on many other stages (including the Met, Covent Garden, and Chicago) to the more sultry and literal Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina. Borodina certainly remains a valuable and accomplished singer – among other achievements, her Dalila has improved substantially over her rather passionless first performance of the role at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater in December 2003, — but the part still responds more faithfully to Graves. Alan Held’s High Priest was a welcome addition and a fine replacement for that of the aged Justino Diaz last time, and the supporting cast was competent, if not outstanding. The young conductor Giovanni Reggioli, who leads all but one performance (May 23, which he will yield to the Washington National Opera’s artistic director, the production’s conductor seven years ago, and a great Samson in his own right, Plácido Domingo), acquitted himself well on the podium.

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Saison Russe at the Metropolitan Opera

The Metropolitan Opera approached the end of the 2004-2005 season on a resonant Russian note. Its revival of Otto Schenk’s legendary nineteen year-old production of Die Walküre saw James Levine yield another work in the Wagner repertoire to his principal guest conductor, the Mariinsky Theater’s artistic director Valery Gergiev, making this the first time since 1983 that someone other than Levine has taken the podium for the work at the Met.

Casting decisions wisely populated the revival with some of the Mariinsky’s better Wagner performers. Mikhail Kit’s sturdy Wotan delivered fine music, even if his voice could not always match the orchestra under Gergiev’s powerful conducting. Olga Sergeeva, by far the best in the Mariinsky’s stable of Brünnhildes, again displayed the radiance that she brought to the role in her home country, despite some understandable fatigue in the third act. The veteran mezzo-soprano Larissa Diadkova demanded much favorable attention in her short appearance as Fricka.

The non-Russian performers by no means neglected their work, yet alas, not flawlessly. Plácido Domingo, now 64, continues his reign as today’s greatest Siegmund, but signs of aging are there to be heard in the role’s prolonged high notes, especially the A at the end of the first act. Katarina Dalayman, a talented and attractive singer, brought much to Sieglinde, but tended toward unevenness in delivering some of the role’s best music. The Danish bass Stephen Milling was a solid and unusually dramatic Hunding. The volume of Gergiev’s conducting, despite the challenges it brings even to his own singers, follows the slow tempi identified with Levine and colors almost every note with meaning and power.

Russian talent could not, however, save the Met’s much anticipated new production of Faust, which replaces Schenk’s production of 1990. Andrei Serban (pronounced SHER-ban) has given us (by order, according to rumor) a thoroughgoing traditional production, but one at turns to busy and too boring. In the busy scenes, including the second act carnival and the final trio, the stage is so garish and distracting that the meaning of the work and the emotions of the characters are lost. Why must the carnival be taken up with can-cans, tangos, dancing bears, a puppet show, and perhaps 50 people waving French (why, indeed?) flags? The trio fell against a backdrop of prancing demons and other unnecessary effects, including at the end two life size angels that looked like refugees from a Tony Kushner play. Other scenes, however, bored to distraction. Marguerite’s house must be next to the biggest tree in Germany, one that dominates the entire third act, but apparently only so that people can hide behind it. The costumes, too, verge toward cliché. Méphistofélès has no fewer than four changes, including (yawn) a red devil outfit and a winged and tailed white body suit.

Musically, the evening had highs and lows. The splendid Russian baritone Dmitrii Hvorostovsky justifiably drew the most applause of the evening in the small role of Valentin. Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski posseses a beautiful voice much suited to Richard Strauss (her recent Marschallins have received much acclaim), but her Marguerite was saccharine and genial rather than enthralling. Roberto Alagna has done very well in the dramatic tenor repertoire, but the title role forced him to strain his metallic voice to a degree that left it on the verge of unappealing. René Pape’s fine bass, spectacular though it is, seemed miscast as Méphistofélès, a role that does not rely on the exquisite legato and dark tones for which Pape is known and celebrated. James Levine, conducting the work for the first time in his long and distinguished career, executed the score with his customary excellence but did not show the ponderous insights that he brings to his Wagner and Strauss performances.

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Tchaikovsky’s rarely performed sixth opera The Maid of Orleans, a nineteenth-century adaptation of the story of Joan of Arc loosely taken from the Schiller play of the same title, continued the Russian emphasis in the Washington arts community this season. Like the Mariinsky Theater’s January visit, much of the best talent to be heard in this production – including no fewer than five soloists — came from St. Petersburg. With the unfortunate exception of the nasally Ukrainian tenor Viktor Lutsiuk, they brought life to a work that even for opera is dramatically unbalanced and romantically improbable. This is not the first time that Washington audiences have heard Evgenii Nikitin (Joan’s father, Thibaut d’Arc), Vladimir Moroz (the knight Dunois), Feodor Kuznetsov (the callow pretender to the French throne, somewhat prematurely set down in the opera as King Charles VII of France), and Sergei Leiferkus (the enemy knight and Joan’s astonishingly sudden love interest Lionel), but all were memorable and aided by Stefano Ranzani’s fine conducting.

By far the most significant voice in the production, however, was that of the last great performing prima donna of opera’s golden age, Mirella Freni. It is neither polite nor, at least among serious opera goers, necessary to mention her age, which is something beyond “certain,” but there can be no doubt that she is still capable of astonishing audiences with her meticulous musicianship, radiant upper register, and fine Russian enunciation. Although the years have been less kind to her dramatic abilities, Freni’s abilities in Tchaikovsky remain to this reviewer’s mind singular among Italian singers. Featured more than a decade ago on well-received recordings of Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, the composer’s two greatest works, Freni has lost none of her powers for Joan’s aria “Prostite kholmy” (usually known by its French name, “Adieu, o fôrets”) or in her Act III duet with Lionel, probably the most powerful musical moment of the evening.

Lamberto Puggelli’s production, borrowed from the Teatro Reggio of Turin, was less impressive than the voices it enveloped. With only one intermission, overlap among all four acts was probably inevitable for Luisa Spinatelli’s set and costume designs. Yet her heavy reliance on colorful silken curtains to mask scene changes and suggest other moods only became tiresome over the course of the evening. The first act alone had six such drapings. More impressive and meaningful was the last scene, in which the condemned Joan meets her end at the stake. Featuring a simply clad chorus with coordinated movements and stage blocking that suggested bas-relief, it hearkened evocatively to the innovative modernism of Russian theater productions from the early twentieth century. Regardless of the other flaws, the Washington National Opera should be congratulated in its ambition to present a rare work well enough to attract what appeared to be a sell out audience.

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