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’s 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.