St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Philharmonia Large Hall

Mahler

Tonight’s concert of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, under its music director Yuri Temirkanov, was billed as marking the 150th birthday of Gustav Mahler. They were off by a month, but no matter, I’ll take it.

I’ve said before that I enjoy hearing Russian orchestras play Mahler, because they have a distinctive sound – particularly in the winds – that captures the angst very well. And the way this particular orchestra plays, it is also easy to understand why Schostakowitsch was Mahler’s true symphonic heir.

For the first offering, Thomas Hampson joined the orchestra for an expressive Kindertotenlieder. He made quite a dashing figure in a charcoal-grey Austrian-tailored (or at least Austrian-style) suit, and proved quite a charismatic performer, up close. With the applause, I almost thought the audience (and Temirkanov) would make him sing it again. But no such luck.

As good as that was, it paled compared to what we got after the intermission. This was quite simply the best performance of Mahler’s 4th I have ever heard. Temirkanov had the mood down perfectly and the orchestra was in form. The soloist was a very young (20-something) soprano, Lyudmila Dudinova, who is one of the repertory singers at the Mariinsky. Nice sounding voice, expressive and pleasant; not yet fully matured, but worked for this piece.

The concert was in the famous Philharmonia Large Hall. Good acoustics in my seat (seventh row, near the center), but I cannot swear that is the case everywhere. Some seats were hidden behind pillars and in back of the orchestra. The room sort of looked like a synagogue with a women’s gallery upstairs. The hall was absolutely packed. That is something as well considering how tightly squeezed together the rows are, with barely any room to move in our seats. And if there were a fire in this theater, everyone would die. Even if they managed to get out of their rows, there is only one exit and extremely narrow corridors which all converge on it. What I also found strange was that, from the outside of the building, it would be impossible to know that there is a theater inside (other than a couple of small signs on the side of the building – which are next to doors that actually do not go into the theater itself but rather to the ticket office and to back stage). The building looks instead like a normal office/residential block from the mid-1800s.

Mariinsky Theater

Mussorgsky, Khovanshchina

For Mussorgsky’Khovanshchina at the Mariinsky, conductor Valery Gergiev used the Schostakowitsch arrangement, which is probably the best available option (Mussorgsky never completed the opera, leaving it unorchestrated, so there is no “original” Mussorgsky version – the version traditionally used was Rimsky-Korsakov’s, but he butchered the music; then there was a Stravinsky/Ravel collaboration which flopped badly and is never performed; then came the Schostakowitsch version in 1960 which respected Mussorgsky’s music, albeit orchestrated like Schostakowitsch; and finally there is a hybrid version which mostly uses the Schostakowitsch version with some portions following Stravinsky, particularly in Act 5).

The Schostakowitsch version had its premiere on this stage in 1960, and the Mariinsky is still using the same production. The sets and costumes are very traditional. The stage direction, however, is a bit static. The director also appears to have taken some liberties with the plot, simplifying elements and leaving some odds and ends out completely (notably Peter the Great’s soldiers never do show up at the end to massacre the Old Believers – which does not affect the plot, since the Old Believers have already set their church on fire with themselves on the inside burning to death – but just seemed odd).

However, the cast was tremendous. Not only could they sing, but they could also act. So it did not matter that the blocking was static, given a sensible set the singers took over and interpreted their roles. It makes me wonder why more emphasis is not put on acting for opera singers in conservatories, because being able to act makes a huge difference.

As Prince Ivan Khovansky, Sergey Aleksashkin made a striking characterization. He carried out the role traditionally in the first two acts, portraying Khovansky as arrogant and tough. But when the scheming Fyodor Shaklovity (cunningly portrayed by Nikolay Putilin) storms on stage at the end of Act 2 and announces that the Tsar has uncovered the plot (without saying that he – Shaklovity – is the one who both invented the plot and informed the Tsar), I could almost see the heart drop out of Aleksashkin’s Khovansky. When Khovansky returned in Act 3, he was a broken man. And, in Act 4, when the plot usually calls for him to continue his arrogance, Aleksashkin portrayed him as someone who was still resigned to his fate – arrogant, yes, and hopeful that he might prevail, but also clearly aware that he was likely a doomed man.

But Aleksashkin did not dominate the opera, since he shared the stage with other first-rank performers. This was most clear in the second act, when Prince Vasily Golitsin (performed by Aleksey Steblyanko) sits alone in his study being sarcastic. Then Khovansky storms in without knocking, and the two of them try to outdo one another in their sarcasm. Then Dosifei (Vladimir Vaneyev), leader of the Old Believers (traditional Orthodox Christians persecuted by Peter the Great) joins them, also without knocking. The three of them are, of course, alleged to be co-conspirators, but they don’t like each other and the scene actually is quite amusing, particularly with these three performing the roles.

The main female role, Marfa, was performed by Olga Borodina. All I have to say is, why aren’t there any female singers in Moscow like her? Moscow is awash in good male singers, but I have not heard any women approach her level. In an opera full of dominant men in dominant roles, she asserted herself and could not be ignored when she was on stage.

The supporting cast was excellent. So was the orchestra (a lot better than when I heard them at the Dom Muziki in Moscow – but as I suspected, that hall has famously dreadful acoustics and Maestro Gergiev told me over dinner that there was no way to get his orchestra to be heard properly in that building, since they could not play with subtlety and be come across in the dry room). I heard the orchestra as Gergiev did, since my seat (costing only about 35 US Dollars) was first row center aisle and I sat behind his left shoulder.

The sensible audience clearly appreciated the performance. Indeed, the applause continued even after the fire curtain descended, and they had to re-open the fire curtain for an additional round of bows.

This was my first live performance of Khovanshchina. I’ve heard it on the radio live from the Met many times, and various recordings on the radio, and I myself own two recordings, but finally I got to hear it live in person. This was the way to do it.