Pokrovsky Chamber Opera

Mozart, Zauberflöte

I can always count on Moscow’s Pokrovsky Chamber Opera for intelligent and charming productions, at least as long as they keep trotting out ones directed by the late great Boris Pokrovsky.  So when I saw a 2004 production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte on their schedule, I figured I should snag a ticket for tonight just to see what the genius Pokrovsky could make of it (when he was 92 years old!).  The Chamber Opera did not let me down.

Considering the size of the theater, Pokrovsky scaled the production down to the minimum needed to produce a concept.  He used very little in the way of sets – mostly geometric figures representing the heavens – and lighting, and having the cast spill off the stage and down the center aisle.  The disembodied chorus sang from the rafters above and behind the audience.

During the overture, the male and female leads – soon to be transformed into Tamino and Pamina – came on stage as children reading a picture book.  As they flipped through the pages for a preview of the story to come, they conjured up the other performers on stage.  Once the cast had assembled, the fairy tale could begin.  There really is no “right” way to stage this opera (although there are plenty of wrong ways).  Within the limitations of a chamber opera theater, Pokrovsky kept this production light-hearted and emphasized the comic aspects.  He simplified the action, having members of the cast double up on roles (for example: the Armored Men were also Priests), without changing the plot.  The cast – essentially just the house’s ensemble – acted their roles and drew the audience into the story.  The audience itself had dozens of little kids attending, all of whom looked absolutely enraptured by what they experienced.  They needed nothing fancy – just pure unadulterated fun.

Oleg Byeluntsov kept the orchestra playing along in the same character, and I could almost hear the smiles on the musicians’ faces as they performed a light and spirited accompaniment.  Of the cast, Maksim Palin had an absolutely booming voice Sarastro, but radiated warmth.  Yuliya MoiseyevaBorislav MolchanovYekaterina Fyerzba, and Sergei Ostroumov mastered their singing and acting as Pamina, Tamino, the Queen of the Night, and Monostatos.  And someone named Chvetkov (no first name provided) deserves special kudos as Papageno – an understudy and last-minute substitution for the two ensemble members who have it in their repertory but who must have come down sick in our rapidly-winterizing weather.  A little shaky with his lines at first, his nerves settled in and he came into his role to soon charm the audience.

The one complaint I initially had came from the outrageous Russian accents everyone in the cast had, since it seemed odd not to have a speech coach.  These accents made the dialogues sound especially silly.  However, as the night went on, not only did I become accustomed to these accents, but I ultimately decided that they actually added extra charm to the whole evening.  This was a fantasy production, after all.  It was fantastic in other ways as well.

Moscow Soloists, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Vangelis, CPE Bach, Haydn, Gerard, Schnittke, Schubert

Of performing artists in Russia today, there is perhaps no greater cult figure (other than possibly Valery Gergiev) than the violist Yury Bashmet.  His concerts sell out instantly.  So I considered myself extremely lucky to get a ticket tonight for a concert dedicated to the memory of Mstislav Rostropovich, with Bashmet leading his own chamber ensemble, the Moscow Soloists.

Fittingly for a concert memorializing Rostropovich (and considering this was also the opening concert of a week-long cello festival), the first half of the concert was dedicated to works with solo cello.  The concert opened with the festival’s director Boris Andrianov performing the solo part in a work by Euangelos Odysseas Papathanasiou, better known by his pen-name “Vangelis.”  He is also better known as a composer of electronic music for synthesizer, often used in movie scores (including Chariots of Fire), but apparently he also does serious orchestral music.  His Elegy for Violoncello and Orchestra received its world premiere tonight.  Classical in scope, romantic in harmony, this moody piece set a nice warm tone, focussing the frame of reference in the Moscow Philharmonia’s large Stalinist amphitheater, the Tschaikowsky Hall, which might otherwise swallow such a small chamber ensemble.

Next up, Aleksandr Rudin performed the solo cello for Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Cello Concerto in A.  His style contrasted with Andrianov – not quite warm, but more robust.  This provided a useful contrast with the orchestra, highlighting his nimble solo work against the backdrop.  Otherwise, with such a talented orchestra, the solo parts might get lost.  This aggressive approach worked especially well during the outer movements, but less so during the slow middle movement, which tended to drag.

Steven Isserlis provided yet another style of playing in performing Haydn’s Second Cello Concerto.  He embraced his cello in his arms and gave it a gentle massage.  In return, his instrument purred, producing a full and exceptionally complex tone.  Once again, Bashmet’s  Moscow Soloists supported the main soloist.  Soloists must indeed find it especially rewarding to play in front of such an ensemble.

The first half of the concert concluded with Andrianov and Rudin returning to the stage with a handful of members of the Moscow Soloists for the world premiere of the “Last Lullaby” by Arthur Gerard.  I have never heard of this composer, the program notes provided no clue, nor did an internet search turn up anything for me.  His “Lullaby” came across as more of a nightmare – like trying to fall asleep in a room full of loudly-ticking clocks.  Tick-tock.  Tick-tock.  Tick-tock.  TICK-TOCK.  TICK-TOCK.  This piece got annoying in a hurry.

The concert’s second half opened with Schnittke’Monologue for Viola and Strings, with Bashmet playing the solo parts while conducting the rest with his bow.  Bashmet once famously answered a question about why he had taken up conducting by explaining that composers simply had not written enough solo music for viola to keep him employed as a violist.  So I suppose that when a composer did write a solo piece for viola, he gets stuck with it in his repertory.  Through his skill and dexterity, he produced some amazing noises with his instrument, not all of them unpleasant.  However, by the end of the third movement, I, too, wished that some composer might attempt to write some actual music for him to play.

The concert came to an absolutely thrilling conclusion with a performance of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, in the orchestration for string orchestra by Mahler.  Bashmet conducted a driven, dynamic performance, which became delicate at all the right moments.  Wow.  This I had to hear.

Classical music remains one thing that Russians do well.  Unfortunately, the Russian audiences do not deserve these performances.  Applause between every movement was not motivated by uncontrollable reactions to outstanding performances but rather from poor education from people who looked bored (when the correct time came for applause, it was no louder – indeed, I don’t think this audience came close to appreciating the performances tonight).  While people who leave their mobile phones on during concerts are disgusting enough, if their phones do ring then they need to turn them off, not let them ring and ring and ring (and ring again when the callers try again).  Talking to each other they could do at home without stepping outside in the fall weather, and thus they could also avoid the colds that had several people hacking up their lungs throughout the evening.  And the two gay men in the row in front of me should have used their money to buy a hotel room instead of concert tickets – foreplay in public in full view is just not acceptable (the poor Japanese women sitting directly behind them, unable to watch the stage without also watching this couple’s performance, seemed especially traumatized).  Boo, audience.

Novaya Opera

Borodin, Prince Igor

I got a late ticket for opening night of the 2011-12 season at the Novaya Opera: a new production of Borodin’Prince Igor.  Judging by the look of the men sitting around me, I think my seat was in the section normally set aside for bodyguards.  I looked very out of place among this group of overly-stiff thugs, who all looked miserable having to attend an opera, but who at least remained attentive (with shifty eyes) and did not speak at all (actually, they did not even move at all, except to look at their watches).  I guess someone brought one fewer bodyguard than usual, so I got the seat.  I also suppose that some VIP(s) left at intermission, because most of my row did not return for the second half.

The performance met the standard I have come to expect from the Novaya.  Music Director Yevgeny Samoilov led a well-paced musical production.  The cast – made up of the Novaya’s ensemble – sounded uniformly good.  Sergey Artomonov stood out with his noble portrayal of the title role.  Yelena Popovskaya, as Igor’s wife Yaroslavna, warbled at first (to such an extent that she visibly reacted with disgust at her own voice when she first opened her mouth) but managed to calm her vocal chords down as the night went on, so that her long lament in the final scene (of this setting) came across as moving and haunting.  Vitaly Efanov, who sang Khan Konchak, was obviously an audience favorite and had a tremendous stage presence, but his voice sounded a tad tired tonight.

As I noted when I saw this opera at the Mariinsky in July, no definitive version of Prince Igor exists – not even the exact plot – as Borodin left everything in chaos when he died.  The Novaya used a more-standard performing version than the Mariinsky.  Although edited, this version captured the drama far more convincingly than the Mariinsky’s confused plot line.  That said, the Mariinsky’s staging was far more effective, mostly because of over-active stage direction at the Novaya rather than a poor concept.  The scenery tonight was, in fact, generally acceptable.  For the first half of tonight’s staging at the Novaya provided a traditional-looking backdrop, with run-down city walls and a gate representing the decayed and impoverished state of mediaeval Russia.  This backdrop remained throughout most of the opera, with only the props and lighting changing to convey the different scenes.  On the whole, though, this worked.  The final scene was set on a cloudy wasteland, representing Russia destroyed after the Polovtsian raids. Only the scene set in the Polovtsian camp came across as odd, consisting of a bunch of jewel-encrusted war tents with shifting multi-colored lighting inside which made the whole camp look like a crashed UFO.

The main problem with this staging, however, came from the hyper-active method acting the director required.  This bordered on the melodramatic most of the time, but often even crossed that line.  The young women of Putivl were forced to contort themselves in especially bizarre ways (which must have also made it difficult to sing properly, although they somehow sounded good).  During the first scene, the emphasis the director placed on the impoverished miserable citizens of Putivl being brutalized by soldiers distracted from the characters actually singing.  The furthest the director crossed the line came in the dialogue between Yaroslavna and her brother Vladimir Galitsky, when he started fondling her – Galitsky is an unsavory character, but this went too far even for him.

Still, over all, the production made a good impression, mostly for its overall musical integrity.

Rostov Opera (Rostov-on-Don), Stanislavsky Opera Theater (Moscow)

Rimsky-Korsakov, Tsar’s Bride

After never seeing it at all before, I have now managed to see the Tsar’s Bride by Rimsky-Korsakov four times in the last year and a half.  This is a seldom-performed opera, which should really be more-often performed.  So it when another performance popped up unexpectedly on the schedule as a late addition tonight, I snagged a ticket.

The Rostov Opera, from Rostov-on-Don, came on tour to Moscow and performed in the Stanislavsky Theater.  Overall, for a provincial opera company, the Rostov made a good showing.  I did not understand the overall concept of the staging, except that it did allow more focus on the music, so if that was the intention then it succeeded.  Instead of sitting in the pit, the orchestra sat on the back half of the stage.  Until late in Act Three, the orchestra pit remained covered, allowing the cast to give most of the performance from in front of the orchestra (a smaller amount of the action took place on a raised platform behind the orchestra).  Costumes were traditional, props were simple, and the scenery consisted in only two onion-domes (without the church underneath them) hanging in the back of the stage.  The stage direction was either poorly thought-through, or badly carried out – for example, when the company made a toast, but the waiters did not manage to serve everyone in time for them to actually toast with goblets in their hands (hint: send the waiters on stage a little earlier).

At the end of Act Three, during Marfa’s wedding to Ivan Likov, when the announcement comes that Ivan the Terrible has chosen that Marfa become his bride instead, the Tsar’s henchmen restrained the guests while the orchestra pit opened, and Marfa descended literally into the pit.  The pit remained open for Act Four, allowing Marfa to once again literally descend into the pit during her mad scene.  That seemed to be the only concept here.

Natalya Dmitriyevskaya portrayed Marfa well, particularly getting her descent into madness right.  Pyotr Makarov as Grigory Gryaznoy had an extremely warm and peasant voice, but too much so to fully convey the evil within his character.  The finest performance in the cast came from Nadezhda Krivusha as Lyubasha, a highly-conflicted woman who starts and ends as a victim of Gryaznoy but in the middle causes mayhem.  Krivusha managed to convincingly represent the contradictory tendencies and nuances within this woman.

Aleksey Shakuro conducted a well-paced performed.  Unfortunately, since the director forced him to put the orchestra on the stage instead of in the pit, he obviously felt he had to subdue the orchestra in order to keep it from overwhelming the singers.  This meant that we did not get to hear the full lushness of Rimsky-Korsakov’s score.  Even during the overture and orchestral interludes, when the orchestra had no singers to overwhelm, Shakuro still kept them bottled.  This was especially noticeable with the brass, which was, rather unusually, hardly audible.

Staatskapelle Dresden, Musikverein (Vienna)


Back to the Musikverein tonight for the Staatskapelle Dresden under its new music director Christian Thielemann.

I have never jumped onto the Thielemann bandwagon.  For me, the man is too much of a Piefke, very precise with no emotion.  Adjusting the orchestral volume does not equate to emotion.  Making an orchestra play in a clipped manner does not equal faithful interpretation of the notes.

These problems were on show tonight for Bruckner’s 8th Symphony.  This is an extremely difficult work.  If played badly, it is over an hour and a half of boredom.  If played correctly, it can provide a glimpse of heaven.  The Staatskapelle tried hard for the latter.  Their playing merited it.  Unfortunately, the glorified oompah-oompah of a Prussian on the podium does not seem capable of understanding – let alone feeling – Bruckner.  This is a religious work, and requires suspension of disbelief in order to unlock the aether.  Thielemann took the work slowly enough, but it came across disjointed, as though Bruckner’s cathedral of sound had been bombed and then rebuilt by uncaring anti-clerical hacks.  The stones were all there, and they were piled high enough, but they did not make the needed impression to touch the sky.

This symphony’s third movement is always the test, since it is hard to get right.  There is a nuance to it that Thielemann seemed not to get.  If played right, it is one of the most beautiful adagios in the entire symphonic repertory.  Playing it softly and swelling to climax does not provide a suitable substitute.

All things considered, though, the music was beautiful and well-played.  I suppose Thielemann gets that much (and the Staatskapelle is capable of performing Bruckner under other conductors).  Thielemann also understood the value of holding the silence at the end of the performance (in this case, a good half-minute of silence, and an educated Viennese audience knew better than to applaud before the conductor releases).

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Hindemith, Prokofiev

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra under new-ish Music Director Riccardo Muti came to the Musikverein tonight.  The orchestra sounded fantastic, performing a concert that could have been scripted by the Philadelphia Orchestra in a happier day: Hindemith’s Symphony in E-flat and a suite from Prokofiev’Romeo and Juliet.

I have always considered Hindemith more of a painter than a composer, but one who used sound as a canvas.  The Chicagoans reinforced this very concept with the rarely-performed Hindemith work (which really deserves more performances).  The woodwinds deserved special applause (and got it) for both demonstrating enormous virtuosity in their exposed phrases while also managing to play as a single unit, ensuring that all of the colors from Hindemith’s palette blended correctly.

Although the orchestra continued to sound great throughout the Prokofiev after the intermission, it did not manage to equal its achievement from the first half of the concert.  Muti combined movements of two different suites Prokofiev himself had prepared of this ballet.  But Muti may have forgotten that, at its base, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet was not a collection of orchestral pieces, but was indeed a ballet.  The music tonight, while technically more-than-proficient, simply did not dance like it should have.

So, give the CSO one point for painting and no points for dancing.  For sheer technical prowess, give them full points.  The brass get extra credit, and the woodwinds earned double extra credit.