Novaya Opera

Rimsky-Korsakov, Tsar’s Bride

Tsar’s Bride by Rimsky-Korsakov this evening at the Novaya Opera.

This opera should be performed more often, although not necessary in this staging.

It’s an opera I was only familiar with previously though excerpts, so it was good to hear the whole thing. Plot was a little convoluted. The program was only in Russian, so I had to try to remember what I had read in advance. Unfortunately, the staging did not allow me to keep track of what was going on. Although some of that can be my fault for not knowing the plot perfectly, the director really should help out a little bit.

I’m not sure what the stage was supposed to be. Sort of a huge wooden scaffolding that reminded me of the Trojan Horse for no particular reason. Characters climbed in and out. Costumes were more or less traditional. Staging was not shocking – not Regietheater – but just made no sense in general. Added nothing but distraction. And since this is not an often-performed opera, the director cannot assume people are familiar enough with it that he doesn’t need to make the action somehow clear, even if only suggestive.

Male voices were noticeably superior to the female voices on the whole. Actually, male voices were all quite good. Female voices were a tad weak, although the title character was good.

Stanislavsky Opera

Tschaikowsky, Queen of Spades

Sunday night was back to the Stanislavsky Theater, this time for Tschaikowsky‘s Queen of Spades. This performance came up an ace.

Excellent ensemble cast, excellent orchestra under the baton of Feliks Korobov, and overall good balance. The staging was suggestive – not quite minimalist, but not fully traditional either (except traditional costumes). This particular stage production debuted in 1976 and obviously has held up to the test of time. I would not say it added any insights, but that is fine – it allowed the plot to remain clear and the singers to perform. That is what it a staging is supposed to do. And as a result, the cast could shine, especially the main character, German, sung by Dmitry Polkopin.

As I have mentioned previously, the Stanislavsky is more highly-regarded than the Bolshoi at the moment, and for good reason. The Bolshoi is in the midst of a reconstruction worthy of a major Italian opera house, with all the passion and politics without the primacy of the music. The Bolshoi house has been under reconstruction for years and no one knows when it will be done, so they are using the small rehearsal stage. It is still the Bolshoi, but lacks luster and the most serious people have left. On the other hand, the Stanislavsky performs in a beautifully-renovated theater up the street, and has solid artistic leadership and resources without all the bickering. This results in enjoyable nights at the opera.

I found the Stanislavsky’s unclear politicization of May Night (which I attended on 28 February) distracting from an otherwise good performance. But this Queen of Spades was on a par with the Onegin I saw there in the Fall. Just get on with the music.

Gelikon Opera, Arbat Theater

Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov

Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov in the rarely-heard arrangement by Schostakowitsch.

Basically, Schostakowitsch augmented the woodwinds and brass, and “corrected” Mussorgsky’s raw harmonies. Unlike the more-performed Rimsky-Korsakov version, however, Schostakowitsch actually assumed Mussorgsky knew what he wanted and simply lacked the skills to accomplish it (whereas Rimsky and others assumed Mussorgsky did not even know what he wanted, and so made more radical changes). I am a fan of Mussorgsky’s raw harmonies and simple orchestrations, though, so prefer the original orchestration. But it was worth getting to hear this version.

The performance was by the Gelikon Opera, one of Moscow’s four full-time opera houses. The Gelikon Theater, however, is being renovated, and so the opera is forced to borrow stages this year. Boris was staged in a small theater, probably normally used for intimate plays. The auditorium had about ten rows total, meaning the orchestra pit took up nearly half the room. The advantage was that I really did get to hear all the nuances of Schostakowitsch’s instrumentation.

The stage was tiny, so the director can be forgiven for not trying to stage the opera so much as suggest it. To maximize the space, he set up a set of metal bleachers, and the action took place on and underneath these bleachers. However, the director cannot be forgiven for changing the plot. I am not talking about which scenes were included or omitted (always an issue with this opera), as there is no “correct” version. I’m talking about what he actually did stage. Most appalling was his decision to cast Grigory and the Simpleton as the same character (not just the same tenor, but actually the same character) – this was silly beyond belief, especially in the scenes where Grigory is the Pretender Dmitry but dressed in rags and acting clueless. Made absolutely no sense, and was so risible as to distract from the quality of the performance. It also made no sense that in this version the Rangoni and Marina are lovers. Boris’ children were made to be about ten or more years older than they really were for no good reason, perhaps so that Fyodor can be portrayed as power-hungry (something not believable if he were a small child). And Boris was completely unsympathetic. Cuts were made (not introduced by Schostakowitsch) where necessary to support these plot changes.

However, from a musical perspective, the performance was great. A very talented cast. I think their voices would have held their own in a normal theater (particularly Anatoly Ponomarev as Shuisky), and as it was they still had to project over a full-sized orchestra (with augmented winds) in a small room.

I’ll go back to Mussorgsky’s original orchestration now, but it’s sort of like hearing Mahler’s re-orchestrations of Beethoven. Good curiosity and thoughtfully done