Novaya Opera

Verdi, Rigoletto

Tonight was Verdi’Rigoletto at the Novaya Opera.

Musically, it met the standards I have come to expect from the Novaya. Conductor Yevgeny Samoilov drove the performance, and had an excellent sense of theater.

On stage, there was less of a sense of theater. The staging was simplified traditional, but the director had no sense of drama. Characters essentially stood around, or moved around the stage independent of events. This is possibly because the production was originally a co-production with an Italian festival, and since Italian opera singers tend towards the obese, perhaps it was designed to have minimal motion. However, Russian opera singers tend towards the starving artist look, and are much more agile, so they should have adapted the stage directions accordingly.

Singing was musically good, but it is hard to act with such lousy blocking. As a result, some of the cast did not even try (the Gilda, for example, seemed comically incapable of knocking on Sparafucile’s door in time with the knocking sound in the score).

Rigoletto was an exception.  Vasily Svyatkin, a big bear of a Russian baritone, acted with his voice, even when the stage director gave him odd blockings. He was the highlight.

Nurlan Bekmukhamvedov, as the Duke, also had a very pleasant voice, but it was a tad too high: he had absolutely no trouble hitting all the high notes beautifully, but without the lower register his voice did not fully resonate. Volume was fine, just not so much depth.

That may be my last performance in Moscow until the Fall. June is a thin month, and then I won’t be back here until October.

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Bolshoi Opera, Bolshoi New Stage

Rimsky-Korsakov, Tsar’s Bride

Went to a Sunday matinée at the Bolshoi today, to see Tsar’s Bride by Rimsky-Korsakov for the second time this year.

Since this is such a rarely-performed opera, but I found the music delightful when I heard it at the Novaya Opera in March, I figured it was worth another listen. Also, since the Novaya’s staging made absolutely no sense, and the Bolshoi is using a sensible 1966 production (which itself was merely an updating of a 1927 staging – indeed, the stage director credited in the program with the production died 11 years before the premiere!), I also thought it might be good to see the opera performed in such a way as I could tell what was happening on stage. It is the least a director can do. Now I finally understand the opera and its plot twists (which are not actually that convoluted, but the Novaya production made them impossible to follow).

That said, the Novaya Opera production I saw in March may actually have been the better performance from a musical standpoint. It certainly had better pacing. The Bolshoi performance this afternoon dragged considerably. Conductor Andrey Anikhanov might get some of the blame, but the singers themselves seemed only to be going through the paces.

The notable exception, and indisputable star of today’s performance, came from Elchin Azizov, in the role of Grigory Gryaznoy. Now that I could finally discern the plot, I know that Gryaznoy is a truly despicable character (in his first aria, at the opening of act one, he laments missing the days when he could rape women on a regular basis). Azizov did not portray him as a one-sided monster, however, but managed to expand the emotional bounds of the role – as desired by Rimsky-Korsakov and developed in the music – to make Gryaznoy’s tangled emotions almost sympathetic (well, actually, he is still a monster).

Of the other characters, Oleg Dolgov as Ivan Lykov took until the third act before he warmed into his role fully. He actually came across quite well in the third act. Unfortunately, Gryaznoy kills Lykov in between the third and fourth acts, so we did not get to hear Dolgov again.  Anna Aglatova as Marfa, the title role, also took a while to warm into her role, and showed her best vocal form after she went insane in the fourth act.

Novaya Opera

Glinka, Ruslan & Lyudmila

A terrifically charming production of Glinka’Ruslan i Lyudmila at the Novaya this evening.

This opera is rarely performed and is mostly known because of its overture (which in this production, for some reason, was not performed before the opera but rather came at the very end of the opera as the conclusion to the celebration at the end of the final act). However, if the opera were more often produced like the version I saw tonight, it would become a staple in the repertory.

This was the sort of production you bring kids to (as a lot of people did this evening) to make them interested in opera. It was a ton of fun, staged as though it were out of a children’s picture-book, and musically excellent too. It is a fairy tale, so the staging captured that mood, with bright colors, fanciful creatures, and over-acting. It was also the first opera I have seen at the Novaya Opera where I understood the staging (although not realistic, but it is a fairy tale, so what is realism? – importantly, the director used the staging to support the story).  Sergey Lisenko on the podium, Vladimir Kudashev and Yelena Terentyeva in the title roles. Truly delightful.

Russian National Orchestra, Moscow Conservatory

Lyadov, Cherepnin, Scriabin

Zany 20th Century Russian music tonight at the Conservatory. This is not a concert you would be likely to hear in the West:

Four tone poems by Anatoly Lyadov (Baba YagaThe Enchanted Lake, Kikimora, and From the Apocalypse), one by Nikolai Cherepnin (Enchanted Kingdom), and the 1st Symphony of Aleksandr Skryabin.

Brilliant playing by the Russian National Orchestra under Mikhail Pletnëv.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra (St. Petersburg), Dom Musiki (Moscow)

Schostakowitsch

I found the antidote for Thursday’s dull performance of Schostakowitsch’s 7th: tonight’s performance of Schostakowitsch’s 7th. The Mariinsky Theater Orchestra may not have played the notes as perfectly as the Russian State Symphony Orchestra (or maybe they did – more on the acoustics in a moment), but Valery Gergiev got far more emotion out of it than Gorenstein did on Thursday.

Unfortunately, the acoustics in the Dom Muziki are dull. The hall itself is basically a big slotted wooden cylinder. Looks tasteful enough for a modern hall, but I think designed more for pizzazz than for sound quality. Still, dull acoustics obviously beat a dull interpretation.

The building itself (around the hall) is also reasonably pleasant looking, until you realize it is a fire disaster waiting to happen. They have essentially made clusters of seats directly accessible only from specific doors. There is almost no room on the narrow landings outside each of the doors, so everything turns into a huge crowd. Then the stairs and escalators – of which there are too few – all converge on themselves, piling more and more people into less and less space (and the silly design means this is somehow true both going up to take the seats and going down to leave after the concert). Even the lobby is not really the lobby, but is itself only accessible by a single set of narrow escalators wrapped around on themselves from a foyer two levels further down, which itself doubles as the main entrance of another chamber concert hall. I don’t really know how they managed to build this place, unless someone as a practical joke substituted an Escher print instead of the correct architectural sketches.

Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Schostakowitsch

An all-Schostakowitsch concert this evening with the Russian State Symphony Orchestra under Mark Gorenstein.

The main work, in the second half of the program, was the Symphony #7. Some people do not like this piece because they consider it over-long and repetitive. However, it is a powerful work, I like it, and I’ve never heard a bad performance until tonight.

The orchestra sounded great. Hit all the notes as written. High-quality musical performance, at least technically.

Gorenstein made the work interminable, though. This was a perfectly proficient and ploddingly passionless performance.

Perhaps the only other person who could coax such a dismal performance from an orchestra would be Lorin Maazel – indeed, it reminded me of the last time I heard Maazel conduct, which was purely by accident at the Tonhalle in Zurich when he was a last-minute substitution for Wolfgang Sawallisch, who had gotten ill. I will never go to a Maazel performance on purpose again, and now I know never to go to a Gorenstein one either.

All the notes were there. All the markings were observed. Everything was done as written. Gorenstein used a methodical and clear technique. He got exactly what he wanted. And since Gorenstein is the Russian State Symphony Orchestra’s music director, their technical quality can indeed be attributed to him. However, let’s just say the performance was so bad that members of the orchestra were falling asleep on stage. And the audience thinned out as the concert went on, with people – lots of people – just getting up and walking out. I wasn’t that rude, but I had an aisle seat and I have to admit that I was tempted to leave.

The first part of the concert was Schostakowitsch’s Chamber Symphony in c minor, which is an orchestration of a string quartet he wrote when he was considering suicide. The depressive work is rarely performed, and perhaps the novelty value of it kept the orchestra awake for this piece, and performing with pathos that was not there after the intermission.

Bolshoi Opera, Bolshoi New Stage

Puccini, Turandot

Puccini’Turandot tonight on the Bolshoi New Stage (the one they are performing on during the botched renovation of their opera house across the street).

Conductor Gintaras Rinkevičius got an excellent tone out of the orchestra, particularly the winds and percussion, setting a great mood with the music. He took the first act more slowly than usual and painted a canvas. Unfortunately, he generally overpowered the singers, who had to work very hard to project over the orchestra (the chorus was not even always audible if it sang from the back of the stage).

The staging was a peculiar blend of costumes and sets which mixed influences from about 3,000 or 4,000 years of the Silk Route – I would swear there were ancient Babylonian statues and characters dressed in Maoist pyjamas. In general, though, the sets and costumes could be ignored. There were a couple of head-scratchers, though: for example, in the second act, Ping, Pang, and Pong, who are supposed to be court ministers, have been given rags to scrub down the palace walls, all the while trying to avoid getting run over by enormous statues (which might have been Babylonian gods, for all I could tell) that migrated around the stage (and occasionally opened to allow Ping, Pang, or Pong to hop inside and change their clothes, presumably because their fancy outfits were getting covered in paint scrubbed from the walls). Throughout, the three ministers actually sang with very pleasant voices (or at least what could be heard above the orchestra).

Another head-scratcher was the “appearance” of Turandot in the first act. She was carried on stage inside a large golden litter. At least I assume she was inside, since the litter was not transparent and had no windows, so she was not visible. It would seem that Calaf fell in love at first sight not with Turandot but rather with a large gold box. That is probably just as well, since when Turandot did appear in the second and third acts, no matter what mock-Chinese outfit they dressed her up in, they could not disguise the fact that she had the shape and the skin complexion of a very large potato, and only a famished Irishman could fall in love at first sight with such a spud. As Turandot, Yelena Zelenskaya was the only singer who could consistently project over the orchestra. This was unfortunate, since she also sang like a very large potato being boiled in hot water.

Roman Muravitsky, as Calaf, acted very well, but some of his notes cracked and he forgot his lines a couple of times (at least he is proficient enough in Italian to ad-lib sensibly).  Lolitta Semenina, as Liù, was not quite as good at acting, but was better at singing. However, by far the best performance of the night was by Otar Kunchulia (a Georgian), who was making his Bolshoi debut as Timur. He provided a noble portrayal of the deposed Tatar king – often this role is (with logic) portrayed as a tired old man. Here, he may have lost his eyes but he never lost his dignity.