Stanislavsky Opera

Rubinstein, Demon

I suppose it was fitting to use Anton Rubinstein’Demon as my final performance in Russia: the opera is set in Georgia.  Also, Rubinstein was a Jewish pianist of international acclaim (even Liszt refused to take him as a student because he was too good and reminded people of Beethoven back when Beethoven had performed publicly on the piano), composer, and conductor whose greatest contribution to music was probably that he introduced higher musical education to Russia.  He founded the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and then sent his younger brother Nikolai to Moscow to open a branch there which later became the Moscow Conservatory.  The system he set up in St. Petersburg was copied all over the Russian Empire, and is directly responsible for the level of music education that has continued to this day (with periodic interruptions so the Russians could purge the over-representation of Jews in music).  This means that I owe to Rubinstein, more than to any other person, my enjoyment of the music scene here for the last two-plus years.

I actually saw this same production of the Demon at the Stanislavsky in October 2010.  However, that was a poor performance, so I went back to the Stanislavsky again tonight with a different cast.  I enjoy this opera (I also saw it at the Novaya Opera in 2009), but it is almost never performed outside Russia, so I figured it was worth hearing one last time even in a substandard production.  That said, tonight was a huge improvement on last year.  The problem then was a weak-voiced cast which required miking.  Tonight’s cast was full-throated.  Not only did this allow for better tone (and no feedback from the tinny loudspeakers), but it also meant that the cast did not have to constantly move to the front of the stage (where the microphones were last year) but instead could sing from further back.  The result of this was better acting.  The dark fairy-tale staging, which did not seem fully thought-through last year made more sense this year without the singers constantly coming forward for the mikes.  Although I am not sure this staging fully convinced me even now, it did make some more sense than it did last year and had a certain charm.

Aleksey Shishlyayev, whom I have seen perform an energetic Scarpia on this stage, gave the same amount of dark energy to the title role here tonight.  Mariya Lobanova was a sympathetic Princess Tamar.  The singers in the secondary roles also came across stronger than their counterparts last year, now both audible without miking and with pleasant voices.

Wolf Gorelik conducted again this year.  Like last year, I did not find his reading particularly idiomatic, missing the tension between good and evil that permeates this opera.  But with a better cast to work with this time, he did not get in their way at all.  While I might hope to see an even better performance sometime in my life, with a true A-list cast and a mystical conductor, this time through did mark an improvement and provided a satisfactory conclusion to my musical program in Russia.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Schubert, Adams, Lutosławski, Brahms, Britten, Bernstein

The Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra performed a Sunday afternoon light concert of symphonic dances under the baton of Dmitry Liss, which ran through a number of styles: Six German Dances by Franz Schubert (as orchestrated by Anton Webern), the Chairman’s Dance from Nixon in China by John Adams, Five Dance Preludes for Clarinet and Orchestra by Witold Lutosławski (with Vladimir Permyakov on Clarinet), Hungarian Dance Nr. 6 by Johannes Brahms, the Musical Evening Suite by Benjamin Britten (based on Rossini), and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein.

Liss kept the afternoon light and bouncy.  This worked best for the Brahms, with an almost-Hungarian lilt, and for the Bernstein, which Liss made sound like Bernstein had composed it under the influence of Stravinsky (maybe he did…?).  It worked less well for the Adams dance, which had a lot of movement and went absolutely nowhere, a typically poor effort by that ridiculously over-hyped composer.

After coffee and a sandwich, I migrated over to the Stanisklavsky.

Novaya Opera

Puccini, Gianni Schicchi
Offenbach, Mr. Cauliflower Remains at Home

Double-bill at the Novaya Opera tonight: Gianni Schicchi by Puccini and Mr. Cauliflower Remains at Home by Offenbach.

Both operas were staged as farces.  This worked better for the Offenbach piece than for the Puccini, which relies more on its clever text to provide the comedy.  Perhaps the director assumed that Russians who do not speak Italian would not understand the humor (although supertitles were provided) so decided to ham it up for a laugh.  But people were not laughing that much.  By contrast, the Offenbach opera was performed in Russian, and the audience was in hysterics.

This production of Gianni Schicchi began before the music: at a birthday party for Buoso Donati, at which his family accidentally kills him as part of the slapstick act.  This type of humor continues throughout, and at the very end, after the opera should be over, Donati suddenly comes back to life, aware of what has gone on, and chases Gianni Schicchi out of the house.  All of this extraneous action was wasted, since the humor of the opera is more subtle.  The cast at least understood that, and when singing their roles (in clear Italian) did convey the text properly.  Oleg Didenko (as Simone) and Galina Korolëva (as Lauretta) especially excelled, and Dimitry Volosnikov kept the music lively in the pit.

For the Offenbach, the farce worked.  My Russian was insufficient to keep up with the text, and it is not an opera I previously knew (I’ve only read the plot summary on the day of the opera), but the audience kept laughing steadily, so I suppose it worked.  I could follow the plot easily enough, and enjoy the slapstick, but not catch the nuances of the text.  But the setting clearly worked better for the second half of the double-bill than for the first.  Musically, the company gave a better performance for the Puccini, however.

Gelikon Opera, Arbat Theater

Schostakowitsch, Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk

I heard Schostakowitsch’Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk tonight at the Gelikon Opera.  I will only say that I *heard* it, since I do not know what opera I saw.  The staging had less and less to do with the plot as the opera went on.  The director (Dmitry Bertman, the principal director of the Gelikon) clearly intended to stage something with a coherent plot, but whatever he staged it was not this opera.

Instead of being set at the Izmailov home in a village, the opera I saw took place in what appeared to be a factory basement.  Katerina’s room was a cage in the back.  Costumes were possibly 1950s-ish, maybe 1960s, with Katerina starting out dressed in a red velvet gown.  OK, I thought at first, this is just interpretation of a wild opera.  He’ll go somewhere with this.

But soon it became clear that, although he was going somewhere, it was not the same direction according to the book.  Various actions described in the text simply did not happen.  Other actions were bizarrely changed – for example, in this version Katerina gave her father-in-law a poisoned drink, even though both of them kept singing about mushrooms.  By the third act, the drunk had turned into a wedding singer, with the villagers dancing a bop to his description (crooned into microphone, with electric guitar accompaniment) of finding Katerina’s first husband’s body in the basement when he went looking for more alcohol.  By the final act, the director was not even trying anymore.  I could attempt to explain what was happening on stage, but I’m not sure I understood it (In which nightclub was this act set, and why weren’t the characters prisoners marching to Siberia as in the plot?  Why did the murdered father-in-law return to life as a camp guard?  What were the cook and priest from the village doing there?  Who were all the extras in latex?)

Schostakowitsch’s opera, with its sex and violence, was intended to shock.  This director did not shy away from that.  But, in short, there was very little he could do to shock anyone any more than the opera plot already did.  Therefore, maybe he got angry at Schostakowitsch for not allowing him freedom to shock on his own.  I really cannot begin to explain what was going on in the director’s head.  Again, it was not a random staging, nor German Regietheater, but clearly a staging of some plot line, just not the same plot the opera was about.

This was a huge shame.  Staging a different opera than the one being performed causes the attention to drift away from the music and on to trying to figure out what the hell is happening on stage.  Schostakowitsch’s music was fantastic.  And the performance… well, I was so distracted by the staging, I cannot be quite sure.  Certainly, everyone sounded reasonably good.  This was more remarkable, because I think the Gelikon Opera has been hit by a massive flu bug: of the fifteen cast members individually listed in the program, fully ten of them were indisposed and replaced by late substitutes (who were not even from the B or C casts).  The conductor was also a late substitute.  This may have lessened the drama on stage, and possibly caused some additional confusion, but clearly the understudies knew their way around enough so that the confused staging was not due to their substitution but rather was the staging itself.  As understudies, mostly rather young singers, they all acquitted themselves very well.  If I had not been distracted by the actions on stage, I might be able to give them even better reviews.  Certainly, they were not the problem tonight.

Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Berlioz, Tschaikowsky, Schostakowitsch

Now that it is safe to go hear the Russian State Symphony Orchestra again, after it has deposed Gorenstein, I have now heard it perform twice in six days.  Tonight it played in the Tschaikowsky Hall, with a program that included very different works by Berlioz, Tschaikowsky, and Schostakowitsch.  The orchestra handled all three idiomatically, switching styles with ease from one to the next.  That it did not shine as much as it did last Thursday I can attribute to the different acoustics of the hall – the Tschaikowsky Hall is simply not in the same league as the Conservatory.  However, this orchestra clearly enjoys life much more than it used to until recently, a joy that comes across in its playing.

The Romanian conductor Ion Marin took the podium with equal excitement.  The concert opened with a cheerful rendition of the Roman Carnival Overture by Berlioz.  The mood switched from upbeat to pensive for Tschaikowsky’s Variations on a Rococo theme, with Ivan Karizna as the cello soloist.  Karizna is a 19-year-old Byelorussian, student at the Moscow Conservatory.  Oddly, from my vantage point, he looked a bit like Marin, and could have passed as the conductor’s illegitimate son.

Karizna produced a pleasant sound, and his agile fingers handled all the variations well from a technical perspective.  But he missed something, as his playing lacked depth.  At 19, he has plenty of time to mature.  He returned to the stage for an encore – a solo cello piece I did not recognize, that required additional showmanship.  Again, he could perform it technically very well, but still lacked something.  I also think his cello caught a cold between the Tschaikowsky and the encore, as it rasped a bit too much during the encore, a tone that was only rarely present during the Tschaikowsky and which was not required to interpret the encore.

After the intermission came Schostakowitsch’s 6th Symphony.  This is a strange work, which Schostakowitsch described as showing “spring, joy, and youth,” but which instead has Schostakowitsch’s typically bitter and foreboding tones.  Employing another musical language from Berlioz and Tschaikowsky, the orchestra spoke Schostakowitsch fluently as well.

Russian National Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Grieg

As a rarity, the Russian National Orchestra under Mikhail Pletnëv performed the complete music to Grieg’Peer Gynt in the Tschaikowsky Hall tonight.

For this concert, we not only got the complete music, but also a literary reading.  Aleksey Bruni crafted Ibsen’s story into Russian poetry, and did a reading, accompanied by the music.  The portions of Ibsen’s original text that Grieg set to music (but which are normally performed these days – if at all – transcribed for instruments instead of sung) were restored to chorus and soloists.

Some of Grieg’s Peer Gynt music is well-known from the two suites that he prepared and which get performed frequently enough.  Normally, the music, while pleasant, comes across disembodied and not necessarily dramatic.  But putting the music back into a literary context, the music regains the drama it loses in the suites.  The Russian National Orchestra, full of splendid musicians, captured the drama to the fullest.  Bruni provided a lively and enthusiastic reading.  The soloists, two young singers Anastasiya Byelukova (soprano) and Igor Golovatyenko (baritone), had large, clear, and pleasant voices which filled the hall nicely.  And the chorus, from the Popov Academy of Choral Arts, also managed its way well through the Norwegian texts, blending its sound and boldness with the orchestra’s.

I probably would have appreciated this performance more if my Russian were good enough to fully understand more of the poetry.  But I got the sense of the performance.  I’m not convinced Grieg’s score is first-rate music drama, but hearing it in this context – more like its natural environment as incidental music to a drama rather than as isolated numbers in an orchestral suite – certainly added an extra dimension.

Considering the recent child-sex scandal at Penn State, I wondered whether I should patronize a concert conducted by Pletnëv.  The Thai authorities dropped all charges against him, but there has still never been an explanation for what those young boys were doing at his home in Thailand (about which he claims ignorance).  In the end I went to the concert, but Pletnëv still comes across as a seedy character.

Moscow Symphony Orchestra, Moscow Conservatory

Mozart, Beethoven

My final concert in the Moscow Conservatory.  I tried desperately to get tickets for another concert a week later, but those were impossible to come by in a typically Russian sort of way (officially they had been on sale for a month, but the box office claimed to know nothing and calling “upstairs” also produced no information).  So this was it.

This concert was a bait-and-switch.  It was supposed to conclude with Mahler’s 5th, but a couple of days ago new posters went up showing Beethoven’s 6th.  The pre-printed programs still indicated Mahler.  No idea what caused the late change and will not speculate.

The concert opened with Mozart, in the form of the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro and the Piano Concerto #20.  The Moscow Symphony Orchestra under the Dutchman Arthur Arnold, the Orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor, kept things light.  At the keyboard, Nikita Mndoyants, a 22-year-old recent graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, showed proficiency.  In this hall, it is easy to let the notes waft out over the audience.  Of course, it is also easy to hear any errors.  What we got was a solid performance, with a nice blend of orchestra and piano.  While nothing special, the performance was clean and clear.

For the Beethoven, Arnold took a more robust approach.  The strings may have taken it too far, producing a strong tone but lacking in fluidity.  On the other hand, the woodwinds, given the opportunity by Beethoven to imitate birds, soared.  The music swelled into the storm movement, and the finale emerged triumphant.

In all, a worthwhile evening spent in a wonderful hall with solid performances of beautiful music.  I would not have minded staying another hour to hear the Mahler, although perhaps it was too much to ask of the orchestra.

Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Moscow Conservatory

Stravinsky, Chausson, Ravel, Rachmaninov

I attended an unplanned concert at the Moscow Conservatory – the 75th Anniversary Concert of the Russian State Symphony Orchestra.  When I was deciding what concerts interested me this month, this concert had a different program and conductor, and so I had marked it off the list.  But it seems that all that changed while I was away from Moscow.  I swung by the afternoon before the concert to see if any tickets would be available, and there were a few left up in the top level of the second balcony (but the hall has great acoustics, so this only meant it was hard to see the orchestra, but I could hear just fine).

This is the orchestra Yevgeny Svetlanov led for 35 years before he was fired in 2000 (after Putin came in), when the Ministry of Culture suddenly questioned his patriotism.  Mark Gorenstein, an impossibly dull Soviet wand-waver, was appointed to replace him.  The Orchestra musicians have been miserable ever since (but stay because the orchestra pays relatively very well for Russia).  Finally this Summer the musicians got up the courage to demand that Gorenstein be fired.  When this did not happen, they simply refused to show up for rehearsals this Fall, and all of their concerts this season have been canceled one-by-one as a result.  Two weeks ago, while I was away, Gorenstein got the axe and the young and dynamic Vladimir Jurowski was appointed in his place effective immediately.  Today was Jurowski’s first appearance with the orchestra in his new position.

The program opened with Stravinsky’Firebird Suite.  This is still the most Russian-sounding of orchestras, and the flagship of the state orchestra system, so it was fitting to open the anniversary concert with a showpiece.  Jurowski made the most of it, generating excitement with each scene in the suite.  If he had added the entire ballet as an encore, no one in this audience (nor in the orchestra) would have objected.  I have a soft-spot for this piece, since I think it was the first recording I ever owned as a child (with Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony Orchestra – a birthday present from my sister).  Hearing it fresh tonight, with a fully-charged orchestra and conductor happy to be there, made me remember the joy and excitement of putting on that record for the first time way back in my childhood.

After this thrilling start, the concert unfortunately shifted to French composers.  The choice for the next two pieces was curious, since they certainly do not figure in the core repertory for this orchestra, nor should they figure in the core repertory for any orchestra.  While, starting in the mid-19th Century, Russia discovered classical music and has since produced enormous quantities of exciting material (possibly the only civilized thing the Russians do produce), France has inexplicably seemed incapable of having any composer other than Berlioz (whom the French ridiculed for his admiration of Beethoven) capable of consistently producing music of any reasonable quality.  The French never cease to amaze me just how dull the music is that they write – and I keep listening to new pieces just hoping something will come along to break the monotony, but it never does.

So tonight we had two pieces for violin and orchestra: the Poem for Violin and Orchestra by Ernest Chausson and the Gypsy Concert Rhapsody by Maurice Ravel.  Julia Fischer was the soloist.  Try as she, Jurowski, and the orchestra might, nothing they could do could bring these works to life.  And boy did they try.  Technically, they all played very well.  Fischer proved very adept.  The audience dozed, and awoke at the end of each piece to give a polite golf-tournament-style applause most notable for its contrast with the roaring applause which had greeted the Stravinsky.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned to Russian music with Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances.  These are less dance music and more somewhat-eccentric post-Scriabin-esque studies in orchestral color that Rachmaninov wrote shortly before he died.  Jurowski and the orchestra kept the movements moving along, exploring their tones and rhythms until the end of the third dance, which sounded like it represented the composer taking a hop, skip, and a jump into the grave.  Never has the Dies Irae sounded so whimsical.  Jurowski applauded his new orchestra, the orchestra applauded Jurowski, and the audience applauded both.  This applause went on for a while.

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.

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.

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.