Novaya Opera

Prokofiev

Went to the movies at the Novaya Opera tonight, where concert excerpts from Prokofiev’s music to Eisenstein’s films Ivan the Terrible and Aleksandr Nyevsky were on the program (for the Nyevsky excerpts they used the Cantata that Prokofiev himself prepared based on the film ).  The orchestra played from the pit, a film screen was dropped halfway up the stage, and the chorus sang from the sides of the stage.  Since I have never seen the Ivan films (Eisenstein completed Part I, most of Part II, and only a small amount of Part III before the Soviets killed the project), it was hard for me to follow along with the video excerpts, which jumped around a bit.  However, I do know the Nyevsky film, so although the portions shown also jumped around I could follow – I wonder how well the rest of the audience knows these two films?

The Novaya orchestra and chorus sounded in full form (although the brass began to wear out as the night went on), conducted by Dmitry Volosnikov.  These works are not part of the house’s normal repertory, so it was a one-night-only performance.  That said, I hope they do it again.  Fantastic way to hear this music and see parts of these classic films.  Absolute genius.

Gelikon Opera, Arbat Theater

Rimsky-Korsakov, Mozart & Salieri

Back in Moscow, the Gelikon Opera tonight performed Rimsky-Korsakov’s rarely-performed one-acter Mozart and Salieri, based on the short story by Pushkin.

Dmitry Skorikov was a serious but troubled Salieri and Vasily Efimov a playful prankster Mozart.  Konstantin Chudovsky conducted a dramatic reading.

Everyone probably knows the basic plot.  The staging was minimal (basically a piano, a small dinner table, candles, wine glasses, and sheet music), but the stage was mostly made from angular reflective black panels, which gave it an other-worldly feel with lighting coming from different directions.  The two characters (Mozart and Salieri, naturally) were dressed in costumes that looked more late-19th century, but the clothing was harmless.

The director took one deviation from the plot.  In the original Rimsky-Korsakov version, the dying Mozart, after drinking the wine Salieri had poisoned, showed Salieri the sketches of his Requiem, which the horrified Salieri began to read as Rimsky-Korsakov quoted Mozart’s actual music.  In this production, they inserted the entire Mozart Requiem into the performance, sung by a chorus of spirits behind a skrim in the back of the stage.  As Salieri read the music, he began to sob uncontrollably about having murdered Mozart, and then went slowly mad.  Mozart’s ghost rose from the piano and taunted Salieri.

On one hand, this deviation worked, since it gave us something to watch during the performance.  It must be remembered, of course, that Mozart died before writing or even sketching much of his Requiem.  The work was mostly composed by Franz Xaver Süßmayr in a Mozartian style based on Mozart’s limited sketches.  The parts composed by Süßmayr are clearly far inferior in quality to the parts composed by Mozart, so this piece can drag on.  So in this respect it was good to have something happening on stage.  On the other hand, unless the performance is spectacular (and the Gelikon orchestra and chorus, though perfectly good, were not at that level) Süßmayr’s Requiem really does drag, and no amount of diversion will save it.

When the Requiem ended, Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera resumed where it had left off.  Salieri emerged from his trance obviously changed by the visions he had just experienced.  Mozart (not dead yet) laughed at him from atop the piano and trotted home.  The horrified Salieri finished the wine left behind in Mozart’s poisoned chalice.

Unfortunately, as Rimsky-Korsakov’s music ended and the distressed Salieri sunk to the floor, the director decided to ruin the mood by using a piped-in recording of Mozart’s Requiem.  Totally unnecessary and bizarre (especially with the orchestra and chorus right there, but with the production already including a complete performance along with extra character-development for Salieri, this last bit was inexplicable).

Armenian National Opera

Verdi, Aida

An unexpectedly good performance of Verdi’Aida at the Armenian National Opera this evening.  Unexpected, I suppose, only because I did not expect anything going in, but came out quite pleased.

The program was only provided in Armenian tonight, and since I cannot even read the alphabet, I do not know who sang except for Amonasro, who received star billing on the English-language website: Zurab Bukhradze from Georgia.  He certainly had the largest voice (and was taller than everyone else in the cast, so literally stood out).  The rest of the cast were not exactly at his level, but all turned in solid performances.  Their voices were generally pleasant, although each of the cast members had dry moments.  The Aida also had a pleasant voice, not dry but with a warble in her upper register when she sang at volume.  Radames was the smallest of the cast members, and had the smallest voice, which did not always project quite as well.

The best performance, though, emerged from the pit.  Eduard Diadura, a guest conductor from Russia, led a very sensible musical production.  On one hand, he knew when to modulate the orchestra in order not to overwhelm the singers, making the orchestra almost unnoticeable to allow the audience to focus on the singing, but on the other he had the orchestra playing very well and providing passion.

The staging generally allowed all of this to happen.  The enormous sandstone sets (or made to look like Egyptian sandstone, but still solid enough to make the motors which move the sets around the stage groan loudly) essentially provided a backdrop, in front of which the cast could act, and it indeed responded with dramatic acting (albeit the director did not think some items through – such as at the very beginning Radames and Aida are still supposed to be hiding their love and not meant – as here – to be openly holding hands in front of Amneris and everyone else).  The costumes looked like Renaissance paintings of the way people in the Middle East were thought to have dressed in the time of Jesus; ancient Egyptians probably did not dress like that.  But the odd costumes were not offensive.  The stage direction could have used more people in the chorus (or at least extras – the chorus actually sounded large enough), since we were left to believe that the Egyptians defeated the Ethiopians with four battalions of six men each, plus a couple of dozen openly homosexual ballet dancers each carrying a phallus (I may not know my ballet very well, but the choreography throughout was so bizarre that the audience kept laughing, which cannot be an endorsement).

I explained last month how the theater itself actually has three stages – the main one in front of the audience, and then smaller ones to the left and right of the audience.  This innovative opera house architecture has potential, and tonight’s stage director made the most of it.  Oddly, he seems to have run out of ideas at the final scene – this last scene would be a perfect opportunity to use one of the side stages as the tomb – it is actually a difficult scene to stage in a normal theater (since not only is a dark tomb supposed to be visible, but Amneris is supposed to be in view outside the tomb).  But the director put this scene entirely on the main stage.  When the curtain opened, Amneris (who had thrown herself to the ground at the end of the previous scene) was in the same place but going up on a riser, while Radames walked down the steps into the tomb underneath.  However, when he sang his lines that the tomb had closed over him, he was standing outside the tomb looking at Amneris.  He then wandered out of the tomb part of the set to the front of the main stage, which itself was too large to be left dark, so the tomb was essentially the whole stage, with Amneris lying on an elevated slab in the back.  When Radames lamented that his strong arms could not move the rock blocking the entrance of the tomb, there was no rock (just a big empty front of the stage).  So I don’t really know what happened to the director’s brain in this scene.

Still, a very enjoyable evening.

Incidentally, regarding my complaints about the opera house building last month, it is still the same on a second look.  However, the deafening heating units in the lobbies are no longer turned on.  And I could also not feel the throbbing disco beat coming mysteriously out of the basement, so I assume I was right that that throbbing was caused by the motors powering the absurd industrial heaters.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Tschaikowsky

The Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra performed a concert version of Tschaikowsky’Nutcracker in the Khachaturian Hall this evening under its music director Eduard Topchjan.  I am told they like playing for Topchjan, and it certainly sounded like it.  His technique is abrupt, but I suppose the orchestra understood what he wanted to accomplish, since this is the best I have heard them this year.  The brass were once again excellent, and the strings improved – though not exactly lush, they did produce a more full sound than under other conductors.

The performance was actually not billed as a concert performance, but rather as a “literary-musical composition with complete performance of the ballet music.”  This meant that they provided narration and sets, even if no one danced.  The sets were odd, but harmless.  An enormous ball was suspended over the orchestra, and they used some form of projection to make it appear to rotate, with scenes from the ballet seemingly painted on it like an enormous Christmas tree ornament.  Behind it, a giant curtain obscured the entire back of the stage, and an artist in a booth somewhere finger-painted abstractly on a screen which was then back-projected onto the curtain.  The floating abstract shapes his fingers produced added nothing, but also subtracted nothing.  The bigger problem arose from the narration: actually, not the narration, per se, which was fine; but rather the language choice.  The narrator told the story in Russian.  However, many people brought their children, and this meant that parents (who would have had mandatory Russian classes in school back in the Soviet period) had to translate for their children while the orchestra played.  That avoidable stupidity (the narrator could easily have spoken Armenian) disrupted the enjoyment of the performance, since, as noted, the orchestra sounded quite good tonight.