I was convalescing from dental surgery this week, so although the lockdown is long over and life outside looks reasonably normal, I continue to scan residual streamings for more unusual performances I want to hear. This seems to include a disproportionate amount of Russian music.
Tschaikowsky: Iolanta and Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (Metropolitan Opera)
Good to know that sometimes a rarely-performed – indeed unjustly-neglected – opera gets a champion and another chance to re-enter the repertory. Tschaikowsky himself did not think much of Iolanta, which may have influenced the poor uptake of the work even though its champions included such notables as Gustav Mahler. Now it seems Valery Gergiev is leading a new charge, working with Anna Netrebko in the title role. I saw this combination in a streaming from the Mariinsky one month ago (a 2009 production), and was rather pleased to see them reunited at the Metropolitan Opera now (in a 2015 production). Mariusz Treliński directed both versions. His staging for the Met essentially followed a similar concept to the one he previously did for the Mariinsky – both rather silly, with no discernable logic to the combination of costumes and sets, but indeed emphasizing the psychological aspects of the drama. The confusion was inoffensive, if needless, but so long as I did focus on the psychodrama and the singing, I could enjoy the performance. In addition to Netrebko sounding in top form for the title role, Ilya Bannik sang an elegant King René, Aleksei Markov a strong Duke Robert (a role he also sang in the Mariinsky version), and Elchin Azizov an impressive Ibn Hakia. Piotr Beczala was uneven as Count Gottfried Vaudemont – his good moments shone, but he also had rougher ones.
If Iolanta provided a psychodrama of a woman moving from darkness to light, then the Met paired this performance with Duke Bluebeard’s Castle by Béla Bartók, in which a woman goes the other direction into darkness. It’s not at all an easy opera to stage, and so Treliński juxtaposed projections with odd portions of inside and outside spaces with off-balance lighting, seeking to get inside the head of Judith. I am not sure he succeeded, and in the process he made Duke Bluebeard a more one-dimensional evil character, when in reality Bluebeard is more nuanced and in some ways himself cursed to his fate, hoping Judith will succeed in rescuing him. That did not come across here. Nadja Michael and Mikhail Petrenko sang the two roles adequately, but both might have had fuller voices: Petrenko could have been darker and rounder especially in Treliński’s interpretation. Gergiev appears also to be promoting this rare opera – I heard him conduct it in Moscow in 2011.
Shchedrin: The Lefthander (Mariinsky Theater)
I don’t think I have ever heard the music of Rodion Shchedrin live. I own a recording of his opera Dead Souls, but other than having listened to that at some point (I don’t remember buying it, so think it was given to me) I don’t remember hearing anything else by him on the radio. But something pulled me to watch the Mariinsky’s steaming of the world premiere of Shchedrin’s opera The Lefthander from July 2013 (commissioned to open the Mariinsky’s brand new Second Stage).
Supposedly a witty satire on British and Russian society, I missed a lot of the amusement from not understanding Russian (the Mariinsky does not provide optional captions for its streamings, and my residual passive Russian, built up when I worked in Russia from 2009-2011, is no longer up to the task). But the production by Alexei Styepanyuk was like a lot of other fantasy stagings the Mariinsky has shown in the last few months (including his own staging of the Queen of Spades) – although set in the 19th century, it is obviously not a realistic story, and so the caricatures and sometimes cartoonish settings serve their purpose. Valery Gergiev conducted a cast headed by Andrei Popov, whose stylized Russian tenor worked well for the title role. The music itself jumped around modern tonalities on a base of Russian folk melodies – a 21st century outgrowth of the Russian classical tradition. Was it good music? Maybe, but it did seem to properly support the operatic story, so at least it was good opera. I just wish I had understood more of the text.
Prokofiev: War and Peace (Mariinsky Theater)
I may not have appreciated Prokofiev’s War and Peace when I watched it for the first time last week in a streaming from the Stanislavsky. So I decided to give it another go, to see if I might not take to it more on a second hearing, this week from a 2003 performance streamed by the Mariinsky (I actually own two complete recordings – one from 1961 at the Bolshoi, the other from 1991 at the Kirov, as the Mariinsky was then called – as well as excerpts released from the private archives of Galina Vishnyevskaya from a 1971 Bolshoi production, but until last week had never seen a production on video). My verdict: unchanged. Good music, poor music drama.
Valery Gergiev conducted this performance, starring a young-voiced Anna Netrebko overshadowing Vladimir Moroz, as Andrey. Gegham Grigoryan provided a more forceful presence as Pierre, less timid but portrayed as a bit of an older character than the Stanislavsky had him and that he might seem from the plot (Grigoryan, who passed away in 2016, was the father of Asmik Grigoryan, who made such an impression in the otherwise forgettable Salzburg Festival production of Salome in 2018). Stage director Andrei Konchalovsky used historical costumes but otherwise an abstract staging, that may have worked – but it was hard to tell, as whatever moron was in charge of filming this performance was having a severe drug trip, using vertigo-inducing camera angles, never from the perspective of the audience and always from bizarre angles that put the stage on steep diagonals which made the cast look like they should have slipped off the set completely (since they clearly were not, this was entirely due to the extreme camera angles).
Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov (Staatsoper)
I never tire of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. But I marked this one – from the Staatsoper – down in my calendar as to hear and not to watch. I saw this production in 2014 and had no desire to see it again. Director Yannis Kokkos, who despite being Greek seemingly does not have the word “drama” in his vocabulary, delivered a terrible concept: first, he used Mussorgsky’s original version – which Mussorgsky himself had rejected and which will always lack drama, and then did not even try to develop anything beyond that (see my blog review from 2014). But the music is wonderful, and although it makes every character except Boris himself somewhat one-dimension, this original version does enable whoever sings the role of Boris to have a showcase. And in this performance, the stage belonged to René Pape, ably supported by the orchestra under Marko Letonja. I may also call out Ryan Speedo Green, who sang a rousing Varlaam in his brief appearance.
Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Schostakowitsch
The Mariinsky streamed a concert from the Mariinsky Concert Hall on 25 September 2016, the 110thanniversary of the birth of Dmitri Schostakowitsch. The first half consisted of chamber music, and the second of orchestral, with two student works framing two Jewish-inspired pieces. Schostakowitsch wrote his Trio #1 when he was just sixteen years old, and his Symphony #1 as a graduation piece from the conservatory when he was twenty. Both demonstrate his budding talent at the different Fächer. The middle pieces were his song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry (performed here in its original version with only piano accompaniment) and his Violin Concerto #1 – both of which he had to hide in his desk drawer due to official Soviet antisemitism. Sergei Redkin (piano), Pavel Milyukov (violin), and Aleksandr Ramm (cello) performed the trio, with Redkin returning to accompany vocalists Anastasiya Kalagina, Yekatyerina Sergeyeva, and Dmitry Voropayev for the songs, and Milyukov returning for the concerto. Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra. The performance of the concerto stood out in particular for its robustness and vigor – celebrations in the midst of tragedy (kudos to Milyukov). And the interpretation of the symphony was very powerful, even in its softer moments demonstrating a sense of foreboding.
Philadelphia Orchestra: Bach, Dukas, Rachmaninov, Sarasate, Copland, Stravinsky
The Philadelphia Orchestra has posted on its website its 100th birthday concert from 16 November 2000. The program opened in dramatic fashion with Leopold Stokowski’s orchestration of J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d (BWV 565), one of many transcriptions Stokowski did for this orchestra during his tenure as its music director (1912-38). In keeping with Stokowski’s trends, his version represents a complete reinterpretation of the work more than just an orchestration, here for a full orchestra and emphasizing the Philadelphians’ famous lush strings. This orchestra also provided the soundtrack for the classic 1940 Disney film Fantasia, in which works such as Stokowski’s arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas entered American pop culture. So it was natural to hear these two works lead off the anniversary concert in thrilling, high-octane performances.
Three works for soloists and orchestra followed. André Watts joined the Orchestra for Rachmaninov’s second Piano Concerto – the Orchestra which Rachmaninov himself had prized so greatly gave the world premiere of several of the composer’s works (although not this one, as it happens). Sarah Chang then came on for Sarasate’s Fantasy on Bizet’s Carmen (which had its US premiere in Philadelphia, albeit before this Orchestra was founded), and Thomas Hampson for four selections from Copland’s Old American Songs (there would of course need to be some American composition on this program, in this case the greatest American composer of the 20th century, born the same year the Orchestra was founded – apparently two days before, on 14 November 1900). Watts and Chang grew up in Philadelphia so were likely chosen for sentimental reasons – Hampson did not grow up in Philadelphia (and as far as I know has no particular Philadelphia connection), but was by far the most impressive of the choices for soloists. It was a great shame they did only four selections and not Copland’s entire song cycle (ten short songs in total, the additional six would have only added another 15 minutes to the concert, so certainly within reason especially for a gala celebration that came in easily at under two hours including applause and announcements from the stage).
The concert concluded with the suite from the Firebird by Igor Stravinsky, for which the Orchestra had given the U.S. premiere – the return to purely orchestral music most welcome and again full-on showcasing the Orchestra’s craft. Wolfgang Sawallisch, the Orchestra’s much-loved music director at the time, conducted this concert in Philadelphia’s Academy of Music. The Orchestra today still owns the Academy, although it has subsequently moved to a new hall – sadly, neither the Academy nor the Orchestra’s current venue in the Kimmel Center has decent acoustics, which is a real travesty. This wonderful Orchestra desperately needs a proper home venue and is until then best enjoyed on tour. Back when I lived in Zurich, I heard it with Sawallisch in the Tonhalle – where it nearly blew the roof off considering the perfect acoustics in that hall, the best in the world, and the Orchestra simply had been used to having to over-play in order to overcome the Academy’s tendency to swallow sound – as well as in recent years with its current music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin in the Musikverein (another world-great hall), Dresden’s Semper Oper (where sound takes peculiar bounces but remains alive), and the Berlin Konzerthaus (a strangely overrated hall, albeit better than the Philharmonie across town, but still reasonable thanks to the installation of sound-deflecting enhancements around the stage).