Novaya Opera

Rimsky-Korsakov, Snow Maiden

An afternoon performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’Snow Maiden at the Novaya Opera.  Rimsky-Korsakov apparently wrote in his auto-biography that this was his own favorite of all his works.  However, although pleasant enough, I do not understand why.  It has some typically Russian chorus parts, and a few lyric arias, but is generally of no special interest that I could discern and appeared to need further editing (something that can rarely be said about the normally detail-oriented Rimsky-Korsakov).  This performance by the Novaya, under Evgeny Samoilov, was fine, so although perhaps a more inspired performance might bring out something special, I just do not see where.

Unusual for a Russian production, the strongest voices today came from women: Galina Korolëva (as the Snow Maiden) and Tatyana Tabachuk (as Lel) led a serviceable ensemble cast.  Benjamin Egorov, in the character role Bobil, also provided good-spirited amusement.

Fairy-tale staging was suggestive, and therefore better than most at the Novaya, although I do not think the director was entirely clear on the concept he was suggesting – or at least was not clear enough to convey his concept to me with this staging.  Distractions included forcing the Emperor and his Boyar to contort their bodies bizarrely as they sung rather than allowing them to act naturally like everyone else; some chorus roles were acted out on stage but sung by a chorus sitting in the box seats; and Spring and Frost, the parents of the Snow Maiden, sang their roles from the orchestra pit rather than from the stage, which somewhat limited their ability to interact with their daughter.

Distractions for which the director was not responsible also came from both backstage and from the theater.  Backstage, visible stagehands broke the fundamental rule: if they can see the audience, the audience can see them – very amateurish, and not what I have come to expect from this opera house.  In the theater itself, due to the 2:00 start time, many children attended; they behaved wonderfully, but the same can not be said of the adults they brought with them, who talked incessantly, got up and walked around (and in and out of the hall) during the performance, and took flash photos, which spoiled the fairy-tale mood and must have blinded some of the cast.  Someone should tell these children to leave their adults at home next time.

Pokrovsky Chamber Opera

Mussorgsky, The Fair at Sorochintsy

Tried out a different opera house tonight: The Pokrovsky Chamber Opera.  It is named for its founder, a former artistic director of the Bolshoi (between 1943 and 1982, back when the Bolshoi was actually good), who after leaving the Bolshoi started his own small company, then known as the Moscow Chamber Opera.  He died a year ago at the age of 97, and the house has been renamed for him.

Small theater, seats about 100 – tonight they set the room up with the stage (actually, there was no stage, just an area where the sets were) in the middle and about 50 seats on either side, with aisles down the middle of each side to allow the performers to move on and off the stage and in and around the audience.  The chamber orchestra took about 1/3rd of the central area, and faced the wall, allowing the conductor a view to the singers and ensuring the orchestra did not drown anyone out.  The lobby/café was relaxed and had a certain charm, and before the start of each act a theater hand wandered through the lobby ringing a small dinner bell in order to alert people to take their seats.

The opera on the program was The Fair at Sorochintsy, by Mussorgsky.  This opera is almost never performed, mostly because it was never actually written in the first place.  Mussorgsky worked periodically, but never primarily, on this setting of a Gogol short story, but at the time of his death he had only completed fragments and sketches.  Several of his friends (including Lyadov, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Cui) decided to elaborate on different sections, mostly independently of each other.  Other composers have also subsequently worked on portions.  At different times in the 20th century, still other composers have decided to cobble these bits and pieces together, and it was one such version being performed this evening.  The resulting work is identifiably Mussorgsky, but naturally a bit disjointed and unpolished.  Still worth a listen.

This performance was fun.  Clearly, the cast had a good time out there.  Staging was kept as realistic as it might be for such a small performance space, but generally was designed to allow the performers to ham it up a bit, which they gladly did.  Pokrovsky himself was responsible for this production, originally put on in 2000.  The orchestra sounded a bit thin and student-ish, which it probably was, but the cast was solid across the board.

Novaya Opera

Mozart, Zauberflöte

Following on my own advice from last night, I went to the Novaya Opera tonight to hear (but to try not to see) Mozart’Zauberflöte.  The performance was excellent, from a musical perspective, with a very good ensemble cast, orchestra, and chorus all under the direction of Anatoly Gus.  I spotted last night’s conductor from the Stanislavsky in the audience – maybe learning a thing or two – oddly still dressed in the same outfit he wore in the pit last night.

But, indeed, I should have kept my eyes closed.  Zauberflöte is a magical fantasy opera, and so there is no correct staging, and many possibilities exist.  Since there is no such thing as a realistic staging, I entered the theater figuring it could not be so bad.

However, in this case, the stage director was probably on drugs.  He did actually attempt to stage this opera, so I suppose if I ignored what things looked like then the plot was preserved and presented.  And there seemed to be some concept to this staging (for example, the white set changed to black and other colors were inverted for the second act), but I cannot say that in my sober and non-drug induced state that I could figure out what the director meant.  Most of the costumes seem to have been based on the cartoon figures in Yellow Submarine, the Beatles’ LSD-inspired movie, but I could find no obvious correlation between characters in that movie and characters dressed the same way in this opera, so I assume the director had not thought that bit through.  Additionally, Sarastro appeared (to me at least) to be a caricature of Stalin, although again it was not obvious why or what connection this had to the plot.  There were certainly Soviet references mixed in, though: the Queen of the night carried a sickle (and her daughter Pamina had a sickle embedded in her head for no apparent reason), whereas Sarastro carried a hammer (as did his men, eventually).  The two Armored Men were statues, one of which bore a resemblance to Lenin (and I probably just missed who the other one was supposed to be).

As I said, I am not sure what any of this had to do with the opera.  Unlike German Regietheater, which makes no attempt to portray the action, this production actually followed along with the plot.  But the staging, and more particularly the costumes, seem to have resulted from a drug-induced vision inspired by the Beatles.

Stanislavsky Opera

Rubinstein, Demon

Disappointing night at the Stanislavsky Opera, which I can usually count on for good performances, but obviously not today.

On the program was Anton Rubinstein’Demon, an opera almost never performed in the West (except for a couple of arias sometimes) which I first saw a little over a year ago at the Novaya Opera.  Since the Novaya’s staging was odd, as most stagings at the Novaya are, I thought I’d see it again somewhere else.  The music was fantastic, so I was also glad to have the opportunity to hear it again.  The story is based on a mystical poem by Lermontov set in Georgia.

To capture Lermontov’s moods, and for Rubinstein’s music to work, the performance needs to have real tension and passion, and to highlight the struggle between good and evil.  Conductor Wolf Gorelik brought absolutely none of this out, and the whole evening dragged as a result.

The staging, like so many at the Stanislavsky, was suggestive rather than realistic.  This tends to work in this house, and there were some very nice touches, turning the Angel’s cape into a river and adding a leaping fish to the special effects.  In this case, the production also turned the opera inside out by providing a suggestive staging which at the same time staged visions and dreams, thus blending reality and fantasy (actually, it’s fiction, so it is all fantasy, of course).  For this opera, such an approach also works, at least in theory.  The main problem was that the production did not seem to be fully thought through.  So, for example, the costumes were a complete mish-mash and did not represent any consistent concept or even style of dress.  When Prince Sinodal ascended to heaven, his dead body literally rose and went off-stage, but similar effects were not used for the death and apotheosis of Princess Tamara.  Throughout, I found no logic in the setting.  However, since the staging was generally minimal, it could safely be ignored, if only the musical performance were better.

In addition to the uninspired musical direction under Gorelik (who is one of the house conductors at the Stanislavsky, and although I have seen OK work from him before he was also the man on the podium for the dreadful Carmen I saw in the Sping), the singers were far from up to it.  In fact, the front of the stage was visibly miked (a row of microphones at intervals about a foot high along the stage rim), and the singers moved forward to sing for the microphones.  This could not be because they were recording (and why would anyone want to make a recording with this cast?), but because they really were amplifying the singers.  The Stanislavsky Theater is not large (actually, it is on the small size for an opera house), so if the singers are not able to project in this hall, then they need to find another profession.  Seriously – Moscow is full of talented vocalists who can fill a hall, so there is no reason to suffer through weak-voiced and wobbly-toned warblers.  To make matters worse, the amplification system was especially tinny.  If I want to hear a tinny performance, I won’t pay for tickets to see amplified singers live, but will instead listen to a recording of much better singers (that said, I am still searching for a good recording of this opera – there must be a historic one available somewhere with Mark Reizen, the greatest Russian baritone of all time, in the title role).

As the Demon, Dmitry Styepanovich acted very well, portraying the nuances of his character in a way that, if other aspects of this performance were better, would have carried the opera.  Sadly, he did not sing so well.  The voice was not unpleasant, but was simply neither dark nor round enough for this role.  Most of the rest of the cast was not even to this level.  However, as Princess Tamara, Amaliya Gogeshvili may have been the one member of the cast capable of singing her role (and the staging generally kept her further back and away from the microphones, which had the added benefit of not turning her voice to tin over the amplification system).

If the Demon appears again later this season back at the Novaya Opera – not at the Stanislavsky – I may go back to hear it properly one more time.  So, once again, the Novaya Opera, with its anonymous casting, managed to trump a larger opera house for quality of musical performance.  What a shame the people who stage the operas at the Novaya don’t seem to have a clue.  And what a pity the usually-reliable Stanislavsky managed to neglect this opera so seriously.

Russische Staatskapelle, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall


With the wonderful Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory closed, I suppose I will have to start getting comfortable in the Tschaikowsky Hall, a bulky Stalinist building with an oversized amphitheater inside, which celebrated its 70th anniversary last week.  As I remarked about this Hall last year, the cloakrooms remain peculiarly ill-designed and inefficient, especially considering everyone in Russia wears a coat, and announcers continue to read the program aloud during the concert, in case the audience is either illiterate and/or has forgotten what it bought tickets to hear.

Tonight, I decided to try seats a little higher up in the amphitheater to see if I could find better acoustics (the hall is neither bad nor good – in the Moscow scale of venues, somewhere in the middle between the fantastic Conservatory and the dead House of Music).  I think I’ve now decided that mid-way up the amphitheater and center is best, and will continue to purchase tickets there.

On the program tonight were Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy and Ninth Symphony, performed by Valery Polyansky and the Russian Staatskapelle (I still cannot think of a good English translation of this, so will continue to stick with the more familiar German name until someone comes up with something better).  Polyansky produces spirited performances with this middle-tier orchestra, able to bring out the emotions despite somewhat sloppy and not-quite-in-tune playing by the orchestra, which sounded at times a bit like an “original” instruments orchestra except that it was using properly-tunable instruments.  His Staatskapelle chorus was even bolder and had better accuracy.  Still, orchestra and chorus reacted well to Polyansky.  Their verve partially made up for the periodic sour and sometimes screechy notes, except in the more-exposed third movement adagio where the orchestra could not hide its imperfect pitch.  The excellent dynamic free-swinging blonde tympanist, given pride of place in the elevated center back of the stage between the women’s and men’s chorus, reminded me of my niece Nina.

The piano soloist for the Fantasy was the conductor’s daughter, Tatyana Polyanskaya.  She had a wonderfully light touch, and as the music grew louder and more forceful she allowed her fingers to wash over the keys like a wave, rather than pounding on them, giving a full sound able to balance and blend perfectly with the chorus.

In the Ninth Symphony, the vocal portion opened with the cavernous bass of Sergey Toptigin, who although not especially large must have enormous lungs hidden under his oversized black smock, effortlessly filling the entire amphitheater with his exhortations.  Unfortunately, these exhortations were unintelligible, since his German was atrocious (among other things, he appears to have erased all of the umlauts from his text).  The other three soloists, a nondescript bunch (soprano Tatyana Fedotova, alto Lyudmila Kuznyetsova, and tenor Vsevolod Grivnov), sounded fine when they were not trying to compete with Toptigin for air.  However, as soon as they tried to match his volume, they all began to shriek, especially Grivnov, who had the unfortunate fate to stand next to Toptigin, whose air-sucking vacuum-cleaner lungs left no air in that part of the stage for Grivnov.

Given how unpleasant the weather (solid sleet), combined with learning the sad news of the closure of the Conservatory hall, I needed this to cheer me up.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Tschaikowsky, Rautavaara, Sibelius

I spontaneously decided to see if there were available seats for the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Fabio Luisi, and snatched one.  Hard to believe, but this was my first concert in Vienna in the year 2010.  Worth hearing, but in the end nothing special.

Concert opened with the Tschaikowsky first piano concerto.  The polymath Tzimon Barto performed as the soloist.  I have seen him perform before in Vienna, and had enjoyed his enthusiasm.  However, this time was a bit heavy-handed, and he certainly reminded me why the piano is, after all, a percussion instrument.  Luisi was better at giving the orchestra a lighter touch, but he too backed up the soloist’s interpretation.

After the intermission, we were treated to Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Apotheosis.  This piece is actually a reworking by the composer of a reworking of a reworking of an earlier work, so it has been fully thought through.  It serves as a reminder that modern music can be quite original in experimenting with new tonalities while still qualifying as music.  Rautaavara was born in Helsinki in 1928 and wrote the Apotheosis in 1996 (the original work on which it is based was from 1987).

The concert concluded with the Sibelius 5th Symphony.  The juxtaposition after Rautavaara’s Apotheosis was quite useful.  For while Rautavaara writes original modern music, it is sometimes hard to remember that Sibelius did too in his day.  Since Sibelius’ music was heavily influenced by Schubert and Bruckner, and had a general Finnish brooding, Luisi’s interpretation accented its modern tonalities, which he enhanced by performing it after Rautavaara’s work.  On the other hand, Luisi did not capture the long lines of Sibelius’ work, and I found the tempo a tad too fast for my taste.

The Vienna Symphony Orchestra sounded excellent, especially the woodwinds and the solo cello.