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.

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Gelikon Opera, Arbat Theater

Rimsky-Korsakov, Mozart & Salieri

Back in Moscow, the Gelikon Opera tonight performed Rimsky-Korsakov’s rarely-performed one-acter Mozart and Salieri, based on the short story by Pushkin.

Dmitry Skorikov was a serious but troubled Salieri and Vasily Efimov a playful prankster Mozart.  Konstantin Chudovsky conducted a dramatic reading.

Everyone probably knows the basic plot.  The staging was minimal (basically a piano, a small dinner table, candles, wine glasses, and sheet music), but the stage was mostly made from angular reflective black panels, which gave it an other-worldly feel with lighting coming from different directions.  The two characters (Mozart and Salieri, naturally) were dressed in costumes that looked more late-19th century, but the clothing was harmless.

The director took one deviation from the plot.  In the original Rimsky-Korsakov version, the dying Mozart, after drinking the wine Salieri had poisoned, showed Salieri the sketches of his Requiem, which the horrified Salieri began to read as Rimsky-Korsakov quoted Mozart’s actual music.  In this production, they inserted the entire Mozart Requiem into the performance, sung by a chorus of spirits behind a skrim in the back of the stage.  As Salieri read the music, he began to sob uncontrollably about having murdered Mozart, and then went slowly mad.  Mozart’s ghost rose from the piano and taunted Salieri.

On one hand, this deviation worked, since it gave us something to watch during the performance.  It must be remembered, of course, that Mozart died before writing or even sketching much of his Requiem.  The work was mostly composed by Franz Xaver Süßmayr in a Mozartian style based on Mozart’s limited sketches.  The parts composed by Süßmayr are clearly far inferior in quality to the parts composed by Mozart, so this piece can drag on.  So in this respect it was good to have something happening on stage.  On the other hand, unless the performance is spectacular (and the Gelikon orchestra and chorus, though perfectly good, were not at that level) Süßmayr’s Requiem really does drag, and no amount of diversion will save it.

When the Requiem ended, Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera resumed where it had left off.  Salieri emerged from his trance obviously changed by the visions he had just experienced.  Mozart (not dead yet) laughed at him from atop the piano and trotted home.  The horrified Salieri finished the wine left behind in Mozart’s poisoned chalice.

Unfortunately, as Rimsky-Korsakov’s music ended and the distressed Salieri sunk to the floor, the director decided to ruin the mood by using a piped-in recording of Mozart’s Requiem.  Totally unnecessary and bizarre (especially with the orchestra and chorus right there, but with the production already including a complete performance along with extra character-development for Salieri, this last bit was inexplicable).

Gelikon Opera, Arbat Theater

Rimsky-Korsakov, Tsar’s Bride

Although seldom-performed, the Czar’s Bride by Rimsky-Korsakov is currently in the repertory of three different Moscow opera houses.  So I decided to take in my third version in a year, this time at the Gelikon Opera.  The verdict: the Novaya had the best overall musical production but an incomprehensible staging, the Bolshoi had a clear traditional staging but poor musical quality, and the Gelikon ended up somewhere in the middle.

The orchestra sounded a bit raw, and the pacing from conductor Kirill Tikhonov uneven at times, but the opera never dragged (unlike at the Bolshoi).  I think much of the Gelikon Opera had come down with illness, since no fewer than six of the cast were replaced – and not with the B or C cast, but with people whose names had to be literally written into the programs by pencil (I recognized one of the substitutes as a regular member of this company, but obviously tonight performing a role not in his current repertory).  Under these circumstances, the cast did fine, but nothing outstanding – however, when not singing solo but rather in ensemble they blended very well with each other.  Two of the best solo performances came, not surprisingly, from the regularly-scheduled cast: Andrey Bilegzhanin as Grigory Gryaznoy and Mikhail Guzhov as Sobakin.

The Gelikon’s temporary premises during the renovations of its theater remain inadequate.  Nevertheless, the simple but suggestive staging was, under these circumstances, sufficient.  Not many props are needed, so a lavish staging such as at the Bolshoi is not strictly necessary (and I still much prefer simple to silly – such as the staging at the Novaya that made the opera impossible to follow).  However, the director added a non-singing character – a bell-ringer – who started prancing around the stage during the overture for no apparent reason other than to distract the audience, and continued making odd appearances throughout.  Not only did this new character add nothing, but by doing his thing front and center the bell-ringer remained in focus and forced the actual plot to the background.  Indeed, it is telling that the bell-ringer got to take the final individual curtain call, as the supposed star of this production.  Why?

Gelikon Opera, Arbat Theater

Prokofiev, Love for Three Oranges

Prokofiev’Love for Three Oranges: what a bizarre opera, but delightful.

Still trying to digest it. Most of the plot summaries I have read don’t make a whole lot of sense. And my Russian is not good enough to figure the twists out entirely. But taking it for what it is, I had fun. Performance was good – singers and orchestra (although I do not care for the lead tenor, who also sang Grigory in the Schostakowitch version of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov that I saw at the Gelikon in February, and sings with a pitiable voice rather than a nice one, possibly on purpose).  Denis Kirpanev was on the podium.

There is no “traditional” way to stage this opera, so pretty much anything goes. Given the plot, the staging was clear enough. I may have to see it again sometime with a different production to understand it, though.

Gelikon Opera, Arbat Theater

Janáček, The Makropoulos Affair

The Makropoulos Affair by Janáček at the Gelikon-on-Arbat.

The Gelikon Opera is still performing temporarily in a very small theater while its own home is being renovated. This setting (minimal stage, full orchestra pit, seating on one level – no balconies – with only about ten rows and thirty seats per row) gave the performance an added degree of intimacy.

Musically it was very good, as expected from the Gelikon. The production used traditional costumes, but with such a tiny stage there was not much room for a staging, so it was a bit abstract. Still, it was thoughtful, meaning it added to the understanding of the plot, and therefore worth staging and not doing a concert version despite the sub-optimal conditions. Clearly the director had thought about this. Also likely that the director had never been to the opera in Germany (thankfully).

The program advertised that Gennady Rozhdestvensky would conduct, but he was not there. Vladimir Ponkin took his place.

Gelikon Opera, Arbat Theater

Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov

Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov in the rarely-heard arrangement by Schostakowitsch.

Basically, Schostakowitsch augmented the woodwinds and brass, and “corrected” Mussorgsky’s raw harmonies. Unlike the more-performed Rimsky-Korsakov version, however, Schostakowitsch actually assumed Mussorgsky knew what he wanted and simply lacked the skills to accomplish it (whereas Rimsky and others assumed Mussorgsky did not even know what he wanted, and so made more radical changes). I am a fan of Mussorgsky’s raw harmonies and simple orchestrations, though, so prefer the original orchestration. But it was worth getting to hear this version.

The performance was by the Gelikon Opera, one of Moscow’s four full-time opera houses. The Gelikon Theater, however, is being renovated, and so the opera is forced to borrow stages this year. Boris was staged in a small theater, probably normally used for intimate plays. The auditorium had about ten rows total, meaning the orchestra pit took up nearly half the room. The advantage was that I really did get to hear all the nuances of Schostakowitsch’s instrumentation.

The stage was tiny, so the director can be forgiven for not trying to stage the opera so much as suggest it. To maximize the space, he set up a set of metal bleachers, and the action took place on and underneath these bleachers. However, the director cannot be forgiven for changing the plot. I am not talking about which scenes were included or omitted (always an issue with this opera), as there is no “correct” version. I’m talking about what he actually did stage. Most appalling was his decision to cast Grigory and the Simpleton as the same character (not just the same tenor, but actually the same character) – this was silly beyond belief, especially in the scenes where Grigory is the Pretender Dmitry but dressed in rags and acting clueless. Made absolutely no sense, and was so risible as to distract from the quality of the performance. It also made no sense that in this version the Rangoni and Marina are lovers. Boris’ children were made to be about ten or more years older than they really were for no good reason, perhaps so that Fyodor can be portrayed as power-hungry (something not believable if he were a small child). And Boris was completely unsympathetic. Cuts were made (not introduced by Schostakowitsch) where necessary to support these plot changes.

However, from a musical perspective, the performance was great. A very talented cast. I think their voices would have held their own in a normal theater (particularly Anatoly Ponomarev as Shuisky), and as it was they still had to project over a full-sized orchestra (with augmented winds) in a small room.

I’ll go back to Mussorgsky’s original orchestration now, but it’s sort of like hearing Mahler’s re-orchestrations of Beethoven. Good curiosity and thoughtfully done