Pokrovsky Chamber Opera

Mozart, Don Giovanni

For my final production at the Pokrovsky Chamber Opera (there’s nothing in the schedule when I am here in November), Mozart’Don Giovanni.  The late Boris Pokrovsky can always be counted on for intelligent stagings, this one dating from 1987.

In the program notes, Pokrovsky explained that he decided to focus on Mozart’s own description of this opera as a “drama giocosa” (amusing drama).  This resulted in a production which would maximize the need for the characters to act, on one hand, and would emphasize the comic elements.  The small theater was rearranged from its usual set-up (nothing is bolted down), with the seats parked on a diagonal.  Where the orchestra pit usually is was covered over, thus allowing the action to spill off the stage, both within the triangle-shaped area where there were no seats and alongside the audience.  The orchestra sat behind a scrim in the back of the stage.  The scenery was traditional – furniture, gates, a pillar shrine to the virgin Mary – but since there is no curtain in this theater and therefore no scene changes, it all had to serve multiple purposes.

For this it worked.  With singers who can not only sing but can also act, this indeed provided them the intimate setting in which to do both.  They enjoyed themselves, and so did the audience.  Leporello provides the most comic relief, and German Yukavsky played his role to the fullest, often stealing the entire show.  Aleksey Mochalov sang an energetic Don Giovanni – in this portrayal, Pokrovsky explained in the notes, it was important that we remember that for Don Giovanni to succeed in his rather bad exploits, he actually has to be a charming and likable character.  Mocharov managed to pull off being both the bad guy and the charmer.  In the end, as Pokrovsky further explained in the notes, although he received his punishment in hell, and the other characters gloat about it in the final ensemble, the violins are mocking everything with their laughter, so the irrepressible Don Giovanni maybe is not defeated after all.

Conductor Vladimir Agronsky once again provided a good musical foundation to allow the cast to shine.

I am going to miss this little theater.

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Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Moscow Conservatory

Kancheli, Ledenëv, Mahler

It is so wonderful to have the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory open again after it had been closed for an entire year.  The acoustics may be second only to the Tonhalle in Zurich.  I went back for my second concert since it reopened, to hear the Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra under its longtime music director Vladimir Fedoseyev.

The first half of the concert featured two recently-composed pieces I knew nothing about.  I wanted to know more, but for some reason understood only by Russians, who must be used to this nonsense, they hid the programs.  I kept trying to buy a program from the ushers (the normal way to get a program in this hall), but the ushers kept sending me to other ushers around and around in circles.  I saw a small handful of people who obviously managed to convince someone to sell them a program, but it really seemed like someone must have been hoarding them.  So I heard the first half of the concert without a program, and then set out during the intermission determined to find one.  Eventually, climbing up to the upper balcony, I found one usher sitting on a bench with a pile of programs hidden under her coat.  She reluctantly sold me one (for a discount price of 30 Rubles – usually they cost 50 Rubles).  I have no good explanation for why it was so much trouble to get a program for this concert, but I don’t have a good explanation for a lot of what goes on in this country.

The concert opened with the world premiere of “Last Flight” (Three Symphonic Fragments) by Roman Ledenëv, a professor of music theory at the Conservatory who was present in the audience.  According to the program, he wrote the piece in 2009 in memory of a colleague who had died in a plane crash.  The piece started out sounding like it might be atonal, but gradually the bits and pieces of the orchestra fell into place together to create a mood similar to a Mahler adagio – sort of like a mirror un-shattering, with the pieces rising up off the floor and reassembling on the wall.  Scored for string orchestra and percussion, the balance seemed (unsurprisingly, perhaps, given where Ledenëv teaches) designed for this very hall, with waves of lush strings accented by gentle percussion rolling over the audience.

The next piece was a bit of a mystery, which finally getting a program only partly resolved.  Gia Kancheli is a Georgian composer who left his country during the brutal Civil War, and eventually settled in Belgium.  “Do Not Be Sad” (which he calls a vocal-symphonic suite for baritone and orchestra) may not have made me sad, but it did make me thoroughly confused.  Kancheli is normally known for his sonorous post-romantic tone poetry.  This seemed like a parody of his own style, but was clearly supposed to be taken seriously.

The baritone started out singing in what I thought was Russian.  Then it seemed to be Russian-accented English.  As I tried desperately to understand the words, I clearly heard German.  I thought I caught some other languages as well.  These seemed to be coming in isolated phrases, not necessarily connected to each other.  Since I could not decipher what the piece was about from the words, which were by this point distracting me more than anything, I tuned out the words and started paying closer attention to the music.  This made about as much sense as the words.  Phrases changing in tempo, volume, mood, and instrumentation, all over the place, having little to do with each other.  Several times, the piece seemed to have reached a climax, and Fedoseyev lowered his baton, but the music continued.  When the piece actually did end, eventually, it did so in mid-phrase without resolution.

Getting the program only helped a little.  Kancheli apparently wrote the piece after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, trying to make sense of everything.  I’m not sure he succeeded.  Baritone Egils Silins tried his best, with a very dramatic reading.  The orchestra also sounded good, at least.

After the intermission, I did not require a program for Mahler’s 1st.  As I have said before, I like the way Russian orchestras sound when they play Mahler, since they give it an edge that accentuates the angst.  That said, I think the 1st Symphony is less suited to this sort of sound, since it is perhaps the most cheerful of his works.  Nevertheless, Mahler being Mahler, a degree of tension must exist, and the Russian sound brings it out.  Clearly, however, this orchestra was less-familiar with the work, as Fedoseyev (who spent some time as principal conductor of the Vienna Symphony) must surely know it.  As a result, Fedoseyev took a more precise approach, allowing the orchestra to be careful, which may have broken up some of the lines in return for actually getting the music out.  Nevertheless, the orchestra often sounded unsure.

Where this performance came off best, however, were during the opening of the third movement – with its slow crescendo as the orchestra plays a mutilated minor-key Frere Jacques, which in this performance slowly filled the hall and almost snuck up on the listener – and the final movement.  In the final movement, Fedoseyev accented the streaking strings and the twisted woodwinds over the brash brass, but then introduced an apocalyptic percussion.

That said, perhaps the only way to make Mahler’s 1st work using a Russian sound would be to emulate Kirill Kondrashin, the conductor who more than anyone introduced Mahler’s music to Russia.  I have a recording of Kondrashin leading this symphony, where he does get the right amount of angst and foreboding behind Mahler’s lilting melodies.  Of course, Kondrashin’s career also ended with a performance of Mahler’s 1st, which resulted in his death from a heart attack.  So, I suppose, no, we do not want anyone else to go that route.

Stanislavsky Opera

Puccini, Madama Butterfly

The Stanislavsky Opera decided to showcase some of its new young talent in Puccini’Madama Butterfly tonight.  In Moscow, there seems to be no shortage of good young talent, so that was the evening’s entertainment.

The problem tonight was not the cast, however, but a conductor who must have been on drugs.  Vyacheslav Volich started out the overture at such a high speed that the orchestra could not keep up with him, making the start of the opera sound like a damaged CD that kept skipping all over the place.  And somehow they did this at high volume, which made life very difficult for the singers.  During the course of the first act, Volich slowed down, got things together (the orchestra actually sounded good, once they could follow the music), and modulated the volume, and we could begin to hear the singers properly by the final duet of the First Act.  Once we could hear them, the singers across the board sounded fully adequate.  Irina Vashchenko as Butterfly turned out to be a real treat, with a warm full voice and secure stage presence.

The staging was typical Stanislavsky minimal, with a few objects meant to suggest Japan (including Butterfly’s house, bizarrely shaped somewhat like Mount Fuji).  The director seemed to want to make up for the lack of scenery by overcompensating with the costumes, but these came off in part Chinese and in part silly.  She would have been better off keeping the costumes simple.

Two of her touches might have worked, if she had followed through properly.  The first was to have Butterfly become Americanized in both dress and movement in Act Two – including sitting in a Western-style chair (reverting in Act Three after she realizes Pinkerton has betrayed her).  But the whole tragedy here is that Butterfly never actually crosses over into Pinkerton’s world.

The other alternative touch came at the very end.  Butterfly stabbed herself not in the traditional Japanese way but instead by thrusting the knife downwards into her chest while standing.  The director had her drop the knife, but not collapse immediately.  This set up a dramatic ending, in which she would collapse dead just as Pinkerton came on stage, which would have made for a nice interpretive twist.  However, that is not what happened.  Pinkerton never arrived on stage, and she never collapsed dead.  Instead, the small boat she had climbed onto in order to commit suicide (an odd prop that had appeared in all three acts), gradually drifted across the stage, as Butterfly extended her arms.  So instead of having a nice interpretive twist, we got instead a heavily confused ending.  Close curtain.

Novaya Opera

Rossini, Barbiere di Siviglia

Went back to the Novaya Opera tonight for Rossini’s Barber of Seville.  Realized that I cannot remember having ever actually seen this opera before, although I know it well.

Initially, I thought it would be a disappointment, but the production, directed by the Australian opera director Elijah Moshinsky, grew on me during the course of the first act.  Moshinsky used bright colors, as though out of an old Dick Tracy comic book, and backdrops of geometric shapes and optical illusions evoking a bizarre 1950s atmosphere.  During the scenes which take place outdoors, which are most of the first scenes, he kept the stage dimly lit, and the cast and chorus had to walk around using flashlights.  I did not understand this aspect, as it muted the colors and made the whole production come across as confused.  But since most of the scenes take place indoors, where Moshinsky used bright lights, causing the colors to jump, the setting accentuated the operatic farce extremely well, and this turned into a fun production.  His staging allowed for the cast of characters to ham it up to the fullest, and this worked – especially contrasted with last night’s director, who had too much going on providing distraction.  Moshinsky clearly realized that there is a difference between making everyone on stage do things just to make them do things (as last night’s director clearly did, to justify his own existence on the planet) and actually making them do things for the purpose of enhancing the action of the opera.

The cast certainly enjoyed it, too.  For the second night in a row, the lead tenor had a light, dry, and not overly pleasant voice (tonight: Aleksandr Bogdanov as Almaviva), but the others were all very good.  Vasily Ladyuk, as Figaro, led the charge as the Factotum della Città.  Yelena Tyerentyeva, as Rosina, also sounded and acted great, although, rather unfortunately, she periodically forgot her lines.  Aleksey Antonov and Yevgeny Stavinskyas Basilio and Bartolo, provided strong singing and acting voices and much additional fun.  The young conductor Vasily Valitov kept the orchestra alive and full of humor.

Novaya Opera

Donizetti, L’Elisir d’Amore

Donizetti’l’Elisir d’Amore is in the repertory of two different Moscow houses at the moment.  I do not believe I have seen it live in person since I saw it at the Lowell House Opera thirty years ago, so I figured I would pick one.  According to the newspaper, the version at the Stanislavsky was being performed in a confused mix of Russian and Italian, so I opted instead for the Novaya Opera, which stuck with a single language (Italian).

If I thought this might allow me to avoid confusion, I was wrong.  The director, Yury Alexandrov, was not German, nor did his bio in the program indicate that he trained in Germany, but must have studied enough German Regietheater, since he decided not to stage the opera but rather to demonstrate that, since he was the boss, the cast had to do whatever he told them to do on stage.  The only Regietheater convention he left out was the homoerotic scene, but everything else was there up to and including the Chassidic Jew, who appeared in two scenes to inspect the stage, generally look disgusted, and to taste the (hopefully kosher) food at the banquet.

The opera opened and closed at what appeared to be a Renaissance costume party gone haywire.  Nemorino seems to have been a tourist guide dressed in a track suit, leading a group of Japanese tourists, including an old lady in a wheelchair, all of whom annoyingly kept taking flash photos (which can be blinding in a dark theater).  Once Dulcamara appeared, and until almost the very end of the opera, most of the cast turned into stereotypical Russians – the men were the sort of drunken slobs I see all over the sidewalks in Moscow, and the women were all dressed like the lowest class of prostitutes (not all Russian women are whores, they just seem to think it is appropriate to dress that way in public).  Dulcamara dressed like a Russian oligarch – indeed, until his first cue, he was seated (in costume) in the middle of the audience, and I do not think anyone noticed him looking out of place there.  Although he sang the role, he left the dispensing of quack potions up to some other mute character in a red bowtie and glasses.

Meanwhile, a lot of extraneous action was going on on stage, which had nothing to do with anything but was very distracting.  Aside from the aforementioned Chassid, the old Japanese woman who opened and closed the opera in the wheelchair pranced around all over the stage (not in her wheelchair), doing everything from reading pornography to trying to eat leftovers using her hairpieces as chopsticks.  One man stood in the window of a house overlooking the square and watched all of the action through a telescope.  A little kid practiced violin in an open window.  Everyone else scurried about, drawing attention away from the people trying to sing.  As if to claim the spotlight back, the main members of the cast started contorting their bodies to move around the stage unnaturally.

All of this was a great shame, because musically it was a fine performance.  Dmitry Volosnikov, in the pit, kept the music light, spritely, and fun – as Donizetti meant it – and the orchestra responded.  The cast sounded great, particularly Tatyana Pechnikova as Adina and Oleg Shagotsky as Dulcamara.  Only the Nemorino, Georgy Faradzhev, did not meet the standard set by everyone else – his tenor was thin, dry, and not overly pleasant.  However, the staging was such a distraction that I left this performance feeling unsatisfied.

The director Alexandrov should be deported to East Berlin, or else at least to somewhere that still has a big wall around it.

Camerata Siberia, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Rubinstein, Christus

I decided to be esoteric tonight and attend the Moscow premiere of Anton Rubinstein’s opera Christus at the Tschaikowsky Hall with the Tyumen Philharmonic Chorus and the Camerata Siberia under the direction of the composer’s great-grandson, Anton Sharoyev.  Rubinstein, one of the great nineteenth century pianists, composer, founder of the St. Petersburg Conservatory and possibly more responsible than any other person for the quality of music education in Russia to this day, regarded “Christus” as his best composition.  More oratorio than opera, he completed it shortly before his death in 1894, and it had its posthumous premiere in 1895 in Stuttgart.  The score then completely vanished, until someone discovered it in a Berlin library in 2007.

Sharoyev, the composer’s great-grandson, who happens to be a conductor himself, dusted it off and taught it to his ensemble as an unstaged oratorio.  They have performed it before, but brought it to Moscow for the first time tonight.  The huge hall was 2/3rds empty, so I figured either the Muscovites were not as curious as I was, or they knew something I did not – or both.

I was looking forward to hearing this work.  Unfortunately, the people on stage had no musical talent whatsoever, therefore I cannot really say that I have heard the work.  I think it resembled something about halfway between oratorios by Felix Mendelssohn (Rubinstein’s friend and mentor) and by Franz Schmidt (certainly it was halfway between them chronologically).  But that is really just a guess.  Although it would seem that Rubinstein pre-dated Schoenberg in inventing atonal music with this work, I think this came not by design but more as a result of the orchestra not bothering to tune its instruments before playing, and the singers not being able to hold a pitch.

The orchestra was a small strings-only chamber ensemble.  Its sounds got lost in the Tschaikowsky Hall, and were periodically completely inaudible whenever the organ joined in.  This was probably for the better, because no conservatory would teach people to make those sounds on string instruments – I could not tell if the musicians were producing those sounds, or if the instruments themselves were crying on their own from the pain.

The Tyumen Philharmonic Chorus and pack of soloists did not do any better.  The opera was set to a German-language text, and these people sang German as though they had shoved marbles into their mouths first.  Periodically, and for no apparent reason, they lapsed into Russian.  This was slightly better – and if they were so uncomfortable with German diction, then they probably should have sung the whole thing in a Russian translation.  But even in Russian, although more clear with their words, they still could not sing.

I sat in a section full of well-dressed women in their 60s.  Judging by their facial expressions and head-shakings of utter disappointment, which matched mine, their assessment of the performance agreed with mine.  Like me, they had a hard time even giving a polite applause for effort.  These so-called musicians on stage did not merit that much – the most polite thing to do was to walk out without applauding (at least I did not boo them).  I would say a performance this bad might get them deported to Siberia, but apparently they already live in Siberia.

The saddest thing with this performance, though, is that it was so bad that they may have succeeded in burying this piece for another hundred years.  No one else has performed it since it was rediscovered, and maybe no one ever will.  That may be a shame, since it is possible the work was as good as Rubinstein thought it was.  We may never know.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Respighi, Bartok, Ravel, Liszt

An afternoon concert of lighter music at the Tschaikowsky Hall, with the Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra under Dyenis Lotoyev.

The concert opened with Respighi’s Suite #1 of Ancient Dances and Airs.  I do not believe that this orchestra often plays music composed before the mid-19th century, and although Respighi wrote this in the 20th century, he based it on Renaissance music.  The orchestra seemed a little lost as a result.  Much of this I can directly attribute to the harpsichordist, who seemed incapable of playing in time, and who must have distracted the rest of the orchestra.  The performance greatly improved in the movements with limited harpsichord, which meant that the orchestra could capture the 20th-century sonorities Respighi used to enhance the music.

Bartok’Dance Suite followed, and here the orchestra was more at home.  Likewise for the piece following the intermission: Ravel’s Noble and Sentimental Waltzes.  I do not listen to much Ravel, since I consider him excessively dull.  But he was good at orchestration, although not as great at it as his reputation.  Both the Bartok and the Ravel pieces, with lots of solo lines emerging from lush scoring, allowed this orchestra to showcase its skilled instrumentality.  This orchestra was formerly known as the USSR State Radio-Television Orchestra, and has retained its standards under its Principal Conductor Vladimir Fedoseyev (who has been at the helm since 1974).  He turns 80 next year and is slowing down, so it will be curious to see who takes over this fine ensemble.

The concert concluded with Liszt’Mephisto Waltz #1, which was more like a scheduled encore than a natural follow-on.  Still nice to hear this orchestra get enthusiastic.

Russian Staatskapelle, Moscow Conservatory

Taneyev, Scriabin

My first concert back in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, which has reopened after being closed for renovations since June 2010.  This hall has some of the best acoustics in the world, and I am pleased to confirm that the renovations did not damage the sound.  After so many concerts during the interim in the Stalinist Tschaikowsky Hall, it is nice to be back.

Valery Polyansky and his Russian Staatskapelle presented a somewhat idiosyncratic program of music by Sergey Taneyev and Aleksandr Skryabin.

The Staatskapelle chorus began with five a capella pieces selected from a series of Taneyev choral songs setting poems by Yakov Polonsky and dedicated to the memory of Nikolai Rubinstein, the founder of the Moscow Conservatory and younger brother of the composer Anton Rubinstein, who founded the St. Petersburg Conservatory.  It may be a tad ironic that Russia’s two leading music schools were founded by Jews, and that, despite periodic purges, Jews have continued to play a disproportionate role in Russian musical life.

The Taneyev a capella works themselves were uninteresting.  However, Taneyev was a master of counterpoint, and hearing this talented chorus sing his exquisite harmonies in the soaring acoustics of the Moscow Conservatory made for a rich experience.

These pieces also did well to set up the mood for what followed.  The devastatingly black performance of Taneyev’s John of Damascus – described by the composer as a “Russian Requiem” – moved me to tears.  Polyansky and his team produced probably the best performance of any single work I have heard all year.

I did not think they could top this after the intermission, but I nevertheless returned to my seat.  The chorus dismissed for the night, only the orchestra remained, and – as I have noted before – Polyansky’s orchestra is far inferior to his chorus.  But in this hall, with this mood, they rose to the occasion.  Although sometimes muddy, they performed Skryabin’s third symphony, the “Divine Poem,” with great passion.  Skryabin believed that musical notes represented visual colors, and Polyansky and his Staatskapelle Orchestra did their best to display them, helped by the glowing – and freshly-painted – Conservatory Hall.

Galina Vishnyevskaya Opera Center

Tschaikowsky, Yevgeny Onegin

The Galina Vishnyevskaya Opera Center does not have many public performances, but they are worth attending to hear the young voices studying under the diva.  They have adopted her style, combining beautiful singing instruments with expressive acting.  Tonight’s production of Tschaikowsky’s psychodrama Yevgeny Onegin, with its minimal scenery, relied on this style to convey the plot.  In that it succeeded simply and elegantly.

Three moments stood out emotionally, the points at which each of the main characters psychologically crack.  First came Yekatyerina Mironicheva, portraying with her voice Tatyana’s heart falling onto the floor when Onegin rebuffs her love letter.  Second was Sergey Dudkin, as Lensky, throwing his glove at Onegin when his troubled mind saw no other solution than to challenge his friend to a duel he know would result in his death.  Third, Sergey Atyushev, as Onegin, having tried to remain stoic throughout the entire opera, finally realized that what he turned down when it was attainable is now something he only wants once it has become unattainable.

The show-stopper of the evening, though, came when Aleksey Tikhomirov, in the brief role of Prince Gremin, sang of his love for Tatyana.  Tikhomirov was the same enormous bass-baritone whom I saw sing Boris in this same venue last Spring, and his voice once again had no rivals tonight.  A name to watch for.

The theater sells out quickly, so only tickets on the balcony remained.  I took one: in this diminutive theater, there are no bad seats. Unfortunately, I think the balcony is where they stuff all the old babushkas.  I sat up there amidst a herd of them, who yakked incessantly throughout the performance.  And they appeared to be deaf, since to hear each other they were yelling.  Makes me wonder why they bought tickets to an opera they did not want to hear, and probably were too deaf to hear even if they shut up.  I somehow managed to restrain myself from chucking them one by one from the balcony throughout the evening.  But they tempted me.