In 2003, the Mariinsky’s set warehouse, a few blocks from the Theater, burned down, leaving only parts of three walls from the historic building. Valery Gergiev decided this was an opportunity to build a completely new concert hall inside those walls, and the Mariinsky Concert Hall duly opened in 2006. Gergiev has boasted to me that the acoustics are as good as those in the Moscow Conservatory, which has some of the finest in the world and certainly sets the standard for Russia. Until today, I had not yet had the opportunity to have a listen. I am pleased to report that the acoustics did not disappoint, although today’s performance may not have been the best way to judge.
The Mariinsky’s new production of Verdi’s Aida has been designed for the Mariinsky Concert Hall. The front part of the stage submerges an entire level (a full floor down, rather than the usual lesser amount for an orchestra pit) to allow for an otherwise non-existent orchestra pit, leaving the rest of the stage clear. I must say that the disembodied sounds coming from the submerged orchestra floated clearly into the theater in full sonority. So, although this is not perhaps how the hall was designed to showcase orchestral acoustics, obviously the architects and acoustical engineers thought of even this detail. Well done.
The singing from the stage was clear. Some of the soloists sounded a tad tinny, but this may not have come as a result of the acoustics and may just be their actual voices. As is usually the case in Russia, the male singers were stronger than the females. Dmitry Polkopin, whom I have enjoyed in Moscow as part of the ensemble from the Stanisklavsky Opera (he provided a wonderful German in the Queen of Spades there last year), sang a strong-throated Radames. His two unattractive female suitors, Zlata Bulycheva as Amneris and Yekaterina Shimanovich as Aida, had pleasant enough voices, when they could be fully heard (Bulycheva was more expressive, but less audible than Shimanovich – I was sitting in the second row, and only really heard her clearly when she was singing stage front and center, which could not have been an acoustical problem since I could hear everyone else). Perhaps the two best-voiced cast members represented the clergy: Mikhail Kit as the High Priest Ramfis and Irina Vasilyeva as the Priestess.
In the pit, Andrei Petrenko, the Mariinsky’s Principal Chorus Master, conducted. His reading ironically worked best with purely orchestral passages, particularly the lighter moments. The singing was not always altogether in time with the orchestra. He also provided no interpretation: good, bad, or otherwise. Where the singers provided some, then the plot moved. Where the singers did not, then the performance dragged. The chorus, which in this production remained on stage the entire time, often looked bored.
Staging a performance on a concert hall stage obviously placed limits on how elaborate the sets could be. In this case, Daniele Finzi Pasca, the stage director, is a circus clown (quite literally – the man’s profession is indeed a circus clown). Finzi Pasca is also a Swiss peace activist, which may actually also be synonymous with “circus clown.” In the program, he explained that he intended to stage Aida as an anti-war drama (“if only the Pharaoh and Amonasro could have sat down and talked.”) Even knowing what his concept was, I could not discern it from the staging. If the idea was in his head, he never managed to convey it. The sets were minimal (because of the stage), and the costumes looked like they had been design leftovers rejected from a production of Zauberflöte (at least that made them mock-Egyptian, at any rate). He presented nothing offensive, so in that respect he did better than every stage director working in Germany today. However, he may wish to keep his day job.