Mariinsky Theater

Borodin, Prince Igor

Final opera in my weekend at the Mariinsky: Borodin’s Prince Igor.  Like Mazeppa last night, this was yet another production where they dusted off sets originally designed in the 1950s (although not a revival of the old production; more on that below).  The painted canvas sets once again provided traditional backdrops, which allowed the cast to act.  And act they did.

As Prince Igor, Nikolai Putilin gave an outstanding performance, portraying Igor as a dark and brooding character who nevertheless evoked great sympathy and energy.  As Khan Konchak, the opera’s supposed villain, Sergei Aleksashkin displayed a clear humanity and likability in his context.  As a foil, the hard-partying Vladimir Galitsky, Igor’s brother-in-law, was portrayed by Alexei Tanovitsky, who had a booming voice to make his character lively and utterly despicable.  Bravo for the Mariinsky’s basses.

In other supporting roles, Oleg Sychev and Vladimir Zhivopistsev made rousing and humorous comrades-in-crime in the foil roles of Skula and Yeroshka.  Stanislav Leontievmade his Mariinsky debut as Igor’s son Vladimir, and paired nicely with Natalia Yevstafieva, singing Konchakovna, Konchak’s daughter and Vladimir’s betrothed.  Only Larisa Gogolevskaya, as Igor’s wife Yarolsavna, disappointed – probably about 40 years old in the plot, she came across as an ancient hag, and her voice was well past its retirement date – still rather pleasant in the lower registers, but shrieking and screaming in the upper.

Boris Gruzin conducted in a way which generally allowed everyone to get on with it, but his orchestral passages were too fast and did not draw out the harmonies enough.  The only orchestral musician to get a special mention in the program, Anatoly Chepkov, the principal french hornist with lots of exposed parts, probably wishes he had remained anonymous: this was a serious off-night for him (although the rest of the orchestra sounded fine).

As for the production, the Mariinsky used a non-standard performing version.  When Borodin died, he left this opera unfinished and in a state of complete chaos.  He was only a part-time composer, so had worked on it sporadically and in no particular order.  He was also writing the libretto, but instead of sketching it out in advance, he was writing it together with and often after writing music.  He had made no plot summary, nor had he even determined what he might set and in what order.  It was left to his friends Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Aleksandr Glazunov to construct a performing version from this mess.  And while there can be (and indeed has been) reasonable discussion about whether they succeeded (and also about how much of the final version was actually written by Glazunov instead of Borodin), which has resulted in various other editions and performing versions over the years, at least Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov did manage to create a coherent drama.  I am not at all sure what the people at the Mariinsky were thinking with tonight’s performing version (the program did not credit an editor, nor provide any program notes at all to explain the choices made).  The scenes were shuffled from the standard performing version, seemingly ordered entirely at random, and did not form a coherent plot (the logical conclusion from the staged order was that the same battle was fought twice, possibly years apart, and that cities which had been burned down and populations killed or taken prisoner had suddenly risen again from their ashes with their people miraculously returned).  The jumps also made everything very disjointed.

As a result, this performing version, taken as a whole, was a dramatic failure.  Each scene taken individually was a dramatic success.

Mariinsky Theater

Tschaikowsky, Mazepa

For my second opera of the day, I took in Tschaikowsky’s lesser-performed opera Mazepa in the Mariinsky Theater (the main one, that is).  The performance met the high standards I expected.  The Mariinsky Ensemble cast was fine across the board, with particularly strong female voices this evening: Tatyana Pavlovskaya as Maria (Mazepa’s wife) and Lyubov Sokolova (as Lyubov Kochubey, Maria’s mother).  Aleksandr Morozov as Vasily Kochubey sounded a little tired, but soldiered on.  All of them knew how to act, and so could give dramatic performances.  They were assisted in this by a well-designed set revived from a 1950 production – realistically portrayed, but a clearly-painted set, which must not have been expensive (not much solid, mostly objects painted on canvas) but still accomplished everything a traditional staging would have required.  Young US-trained Russian Conductor Mikhail Agrest provided a dynamic reading from the pit.

Although the singer in the title role, Vladimir Vaneyev, did not sound like anything was wrong, he suddenly stood up and walked off the stage in the middle of the Second Act.  The orchestra stopped playing.  Everyone started looking confused at each other.  Then the curtain fell.  The announcement said they were experiencing “technical difficulties” and would take an unplanned intermission right at that point.  Forty minutes later, they gonged everyone back into the hall, the curtain went up, and someone else was singing Mazepa.  Go figure.  The new singer was better, although maybe this could be explained if Vaneyev was not feeling well.  However, that would merit an announcement that he was ill, not having “technical difficulties.”  We may never know.

Speaking of technical difficulties, the biggest problem with this performance was, surprisingly, Tschaikowsky.  The composition was of uneven quality – with some brilliant moments and some less so.  Since the performers were all acting well, and the conductor was keeping things moving, this was not a problem of poor interpretation or execution, but rather had to be the composition.  I am also not sure that Tschaikowsky ever understood action drama – he could certainly do psycho-drama (e.g., Yevgeny Onegin and Queen of Spades), but this was an action story even if Tschaikowsky himself rewrote the libretto to make it more psychological (or at least that was his intent – he was not so successful, since the character at the center of Tschaikowsky’s psycho-drama would need be Mazepa’s wife Maria and not the main character himself).  Despite the best acting efforts of the cast, the work remained too static.  The opera is also very Russian in nature, and Tschaikowsky’s music was perhaps too westernized.  I kept thinking throughout that it was a shame this story had not instead been set by a more authentic Russian composer.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra and Chorus, Mariinsky Concert Hall

Verdi, Aida

In 2003, the Mariinsky’s set warehouse, a few blocks from the Theater, burned down, leaving only parts of three walls from the historic building.  Valery Gergiev decided this was an opportunity to build a completely new concert hall inside those walls, and the Mariinsky Concert Hall duly opened in 2006.  Gergiev has boasted to me that the acoustics are as good as those in the Moscow Conservatory, which has some of the finest in the world and certainly sets the standard for Russia.  Until today, I had not yet had the opportunity to have a listen.  I am pleased to report that the acoustics did not disappoint, although today’s performance may not have been the best way to judge.

The Mariinsky’s new production of Verdi’s Aida has been designed for the Mariinsky Concert Hall.  The front part of the stage submerges an entire level (a full floor down, rather than the usual lesser amount for an orchestra pit) to allow for an otherwise non-existent orchestra pit, leaving the rest of the stage clear.  I must say that the disembodied sounds coming from the submerged orchestra floated clearly into the theater in full sonority.  So, although this is not perhaps how the hall was designed to showcase orchestral acoustics, obviously the architects and acoustical engineers thought of even this detail.  Well done.

The singing from the stage was clear.  Some of the soloists sounded a tad tinny, but this may not have come as a result of the acoustics and may just be their actual voices.  As is usually the case in Russia, the male singers were stronger than the females.  Dmitry Polkopin, whom I have enjoyed in Moscow as part of the ensemble from the Stanisklavsky Opera (he provided a wonderful German in the Queen of Spades there last year), sang a strong-throated Radames.  His two unattractive female suitors, Zlata Bulycheva as Amneris and Yekaterina Shimanovich as Aida, had pleasant enough voices, when they could be fully heard (Bulycheva was more expressive, but less audible than Shimanovich – I was sitting in the second row, and only really heard her clearly when she was singing stage front and center, which could not have been an acoustical problem since I could hear everyone else).  Perhaps the two best-voiced cast members represented the clergy: Mikhail Kit as the High Priest Ramfis and Irina Vasilyeva as the Priestess.

In the pit, Andrei Petrenko, the Mariinsky’s Principal Chorus Master, conducted.  His reading ironically worked best with purely orchestral passages, particularly the lighter moments.  The singing was not always altogether in time with the orchestra.  He also provided no interpretation: good, bad, or otherwise.  Where the singers provided some, then the plot moved.  Where the singers did not, then the performance dragged.  The chorus, which in this production remained on stage the entire time, often looked bored.

Staging a performance on a concert hall stage obviously placed limits on how elaborate the sets could be.  In this case, Daniele Finzi Pasca, the stage director, is a circus clown (quite literally – the man’s profession is indeed a circus clown).  Finzi Pasca is also a Swiss peace activist, which may actually also be synonymous with “circus clown.”  In the program, he explained that he intended to stage Aida as an anti-war drama (“if only the Pharaoh and Amonasro could have sat down and talked.”)  Even knowing what his concept was, I could not discern it from the staging.  If the idea was in his head, he never managed to convey it.  The sets were minimal (because of the stage), and the costumes looked like they had been design leftovers rejected from a production of Zauberflöte (at least that made them mock-Egyptian, at any rate).  He presented nothing offensive, so in that respect he did better than every stage director working in Germany today.  However, he may wish to keep his day job.

St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Philharmonia Large Hall


Tonight’s concert of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, under its music director Yuri Temirkanov, was billed as marking the 150th birthday of Gustav Mahler. They were off by a month, but no matter, I’ll take it.

I’ve said before that I enjoy hearing Russian orchestras play Mahler, because they have a distinctive sound – particularly in the winds – that captures the angst very well. And the way this particular orchestra plays, it is also easy to understand why Schostakowitsch was Mahler’s true symphonic heir.

For the first offering, Thomas Hampson joined the orchestra for an expressive Kindertotenlieder. He made quite a dashing figure in a charcoal-grey Austrian-tailored (or at least Austrian-style) suit, and proved quite a charismatic performer, up close. With the applause, I almost thought the audience (and Temirkanov) would make him sing it again. But no such luck.

As good as that was, it paled compared to what we got after the intermission. This was quite simply the best performance of Mahler’s 4th I have ever heard. Temirkanov had the mood down perfectly and the orchestra was in form. The soloist was a very young (20-something) soprano, Lyudmila Dudinova, who is one of the repertory singers at the Mariinsky. Nice sounding voice, expressive and pleasant; not yet fully matured, but worked for this piece.

The concert was in the famous Philharmonia Large Hall. Good acoustics in my seat (seventh row, near the center), but I cannot swear that is the case everywhere. Some seats were hidden behind pillars and in back of the orchestra. The room sort of looked like a synagogue with a women’s gallery upstairs. The hall was absolutely packed. That is something as well considering how tightly squeezed together the rows are, with barely any room to move in our seats. And if there were a fire in this theater, everyone would die. Even if they managed to get out of their rows, there is only one exit and extremely narrow corridors which all converge on it. What I also found strange was that, from the outside of the building, it would be impossible to know that there is a theater inside (other than a couple of small signs on the side of the building – which are next to doors that actually do not go into the theater itself but rather to the ticket office and to back stage). The building looks instead like a normal office/residential block from the mid-1800s.

Mariinsky Theater

Mussorgsky, Khovanshchina

For Mussorgsky’Khovanshchina at the Mariinsky, conductor Valery Gergiev used the Schostakowitsch arrangement, which is probably the best available option (Mussorgsky never completed the opera, leaving it unorchestrated, so there is no “original” Mussorgsky version – the version traditionally used was Rimsky-Korsakov’s, but he butchered the music; then there was a Stravinsky/Ravel collaboration which flopped badly and is never performed; then came the Schostakowitsch version in 1960 which respected Mussorgsky’s music, albeit orchestrated like Schostakowitsch; and finally there is a hybrid version which mostly uses the Schostakowitsch version with some portions following Stravinsky, particularly in Act 5).

The Schostakowitsch version had its premiere on this stage in 1960, and the Mariinsky is still using the same production. The sets and costumes are very traditional. The stage direction, however, is a bit static. The director also appears to have taken some liberties with the plot, simplifying elements and leaving some odds and ends out completely (notably Peter the Great’s soldiers never do show up at the end to massacre the Old Believers – which does not affect the plot, since the Old Believers have already set their church on fire with themselves on the inside burning to death – but just seemed odd).

However, the cast was tremendous. Not only could they sing, but they could also act. So it did not matter that the blocking was static, given a sensible set the singers took over and interpreted their roles. It makes me wonder why more emphasis is not put on acting for opera singers in conservatories, because being able to act makes a huge difference.

As Prince Ivan Khovansky, Sergey Aleksashkin made a striking characterization. He carried out the role traditionally in the first two acts, portraying Khovansky as arrogant and tough. But when the scheming Fyodor Shaklovity (cunningly portrayed by Nikolay Putilin) storms on stage at the end of Act 2 and announces that the Tsar has uncovered the plot (without saying that he – Shaklovity – is the one who both invented the plot and informed the Tsar), I could almost see the heart drop out of Aleksashkin’s Khovansky. When Khovansky returned in Act 3, he was a broken man. And, in Act 4, when the plot usually calls for him to continue his arrogance, Aleksashkin portrayed him as someone who was still resigned to his fate – arrogant, yes, and hopeful that he might prevail, but also clearly aware that he was likely a doomed man.

But Aleksashkin did not dominate the opera, since he shared the stage with other first-rank performers. This was most clear in the second act, when Prince Vasily Golitsin (performed by Aleksey Steblyanko) sits alone in his study being sarcastic. Then Khovansky storms in without knocking, and the two of them try to outdo one another in their sarcasm. Then Dosifei (Vladimir Vaneyev), leader of the Old Believers (traditional Orthodox Christians persecuted by Peter the Great) joins them, also without knocking. The three of them are, of course, alleged to be co-conspirators, but they don’t like each other and the scene actually is quite amusing, particularly with these three performing the roles.

The main female role, Marfa, was performed by Olga Borodina. All I have to say is, why aren’t there any female singers in Moscow like her? Moscow is awash in good male singers, but I have not heard any women approach her level. In an opera full of dominant men in dominant roles, she asserted herself and could not be ignored when she was on stage.

The supporting cast was excellent. So was the orchestra (a lot better than when I heard them at the Dom Muziki in Moscow – but as I suspected, that hall has famously dreadful acoustics and Maestro Gergiev told me over dinner that there was no way to get his orchestra to be heard properly in that building, since they could not play with subtlety and be come across in the dry room). I heard the orchestra as Gergiev did, since my seat (costing only about 35 US Dollars) was first row center aisle and I sat behind his left shoulder.

The sensible audience clearly appreciated the performance. Indeed, the applause continued even after the fire curtain descended, and they had to re-open the fire curtain for an additional round of bows.

This was my first live performance of Khovanshchina. I’ve heard it on the radio live from the Met many times, and various recordings on the radio, and I myself own two recordings, but finally I got to hear it live in person. This was the way to do it.