Mariinsky Theater (St. Petersburg), Bolshoi New Stage (Moscow)

Bartók, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

The Mariinsky Theater performed Bartók’s dark psychodrama Duke Bluebeard’s Castle on the Bolshoi New Stage, with Willard White as Duke Bluebeard, Yelena Zhidkova as Judith, and Valery Gergiev on the podium.

It is obviously hard for me to judge proficiency in Hungarian language, but the two non-native speakers (White is Jamaican, Zhidkova is Russian) gave a fluent and chilling reading. The staging was nonsense – the opera was originally rejected in 1911 as a submission by Bartók to a theater competition because the judges did not consider this opera to contain any theater. Staging should be minimal, and the ability of the two singers to portray the psychological drama determines a successful performance. Although not over-staged, the director was trying to do something on stage, but that something was unclear. White and Zhidkova essentially ignored the stage and got on with their jobs, fully supported by Gergiev and his orchestra in the pit.

I decided to keep my cashmere scarf on when I checked my coat (and my wool scarf). This was a good thing – although the theater was not cold, the performance gave me chills and having the scarf proved useful. The audience stood for a moment of silence before the performance in memory of the victims from today’s terrorist attack on Domodedovo Airport – something which certainly added to the chill.

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Bolshoi Opera, Bolshoi New Stage

Rimsky-Korsakov, Tsar’s Bride

Went to a Sunday matinée at the Bolshoi today, to see Tsar’s Bride by Rimsky-Korsakov for the second time this year.

Since this is such a rarely-performed opera, but I found the music delightful when I heard it at the Novaya Opera in March, I figured it was worth another listen. Also, since the Novaya’s staging made absolutely no sense, and the Bolshoi is using a sensible 1966 production (which itself was merely an updating of a 1927 staging – indeed, the stage director credited in the program with the production died 11 years before the premiere!), I also thought it might be good to see the opera performed in such a way as I could tell what was happening on stage. It is the least a director can do. Now I finally understand the opera and its plot twists (which are not actually that convoluted, but the Novaya production made them impossible to follow).

That said, the Novaya Opera production I saw in March may actually have been the better performance from a musical standpoint. It certainly had better pacing. The Bolshoi performance this afternoon dragged considerably. Conductor Andrey Anikhanov might get some of the blame, but the singers themselves seemed only to be going through the paces.

The notable exception, and indisputable star of today’s performance, came from Elchin Azizov, in the role of Grigory Gryaznoy. Now that I could finally discern the plot, I know that Gryaznoy is a truly despicable character (in his first aria, at the opening of act one, he laments missing the days when he could rape women on a regular basis). Azizov did not portray him as a one-sided monster, however, but managed to expand the emotional bounds of the role – as desired by Rimsky-Korsakov and developed in the music – to make Gryaznoy’s tangled emotions almost sympathetic (well, actually, he is still a monster).

Of the other characters, Oleg Dolgov as Ivan Lykov took until the third act before he warmed into his role fully. He actually came across quite well in the third act. Unfortunately, Gryaznoy kills Lykov in between the third and fourth acts, so we did not get to hear Dolgov again.  Anna Aglatova as Marfa, the title role, also took a while to warm into her role, and showed her best vocal form after she went insane in the fourth act.

Bolshoi Opera, Bolshoi New Stage

Puccini, Turandot

Puccini’Turandot tonight on the Bolshoi New Stage (the one they are performing on during the botched renovation of their opera house across the street).

Conductor Gintaras Rinkevičius got an excellent tone out of the orchestra, particularly the winds and percussion, setting a great mood with the music. He took the first act more slowly than usual and painted a canvas. Unfortunately, he generally overpowered the singers, who had to work very hard to project over the orchestra (the chorus was not even always audible if it sang from the back of the stage).

The staging was a peculiar blend of costumes and sets which mixed influences from about 3,000 or 4,000 years of the Silk Route – I would swear there were ancient Babylonian statues and characters dressed in Maoist pyjamas. In general, though, the sets and costumes could be ignored. There were a couple of head-scratchers, though: for example, in the second act, Ping, Pang, and Pong, who are supposed to be court ministers, have been given rags to scrub down the palace walls, all the while trying to avoid getting run over by enormous statues (which might have been Babylonian gods, for all I could tell) that migrated around the stage (and occasionally opened to allow Ping, Pang, or Pong to hop inside and change their clothes, presumably because their fancy outfits were getting covered in paint scrubbed from the walls). Throughout, the three ministers actually sang with very pleasant voices (or at least what could be heard above the orchestra).

Another head-scratcher was the “appearance” of Turandot in the first act. She was carried on stage inside a large golden litter. At least I assume she was inside, since the litter was not transparent and had no windows, so she was not visible. It would seem that Calaf fell in love at first sight not with Turandot but rather with a large gold box. That is probably just as well, since when Turandot did appear in the second and third acts, no matter what mock-Chinese outfit they dressed her up in, they could not disguise the fact that she had the shape and the skin complexion of a very large potato, and only a famished Irishman could fall in love at first sight with such a spud. As Turandot, Yelena Zelenskaya was the only singer who could consistently project over the orchestra. This was unfortunate, since she also sang like a very large potato being boiled in hot water.

Roman Muravitsky, as Calaf, acted very well, but some of his notes cracked and he forgot his lines a couple of times (at least he is proficient enough in Italian to ad-lib sensibly).  Lolitta Semenina, as Liù, was not quite as good at acting, but was better at singing. However, by far the best performance of the night was by Otar Kunchulia (a Georgian), who was making his Bolshoi debut as Timur. He provided a noble portrayal of the deposed Tatar king – often this role is (with logic) portrayed as a tired old man. Here, he may have lost his eyes but he never lost his dignity.

Bolshoi Opera, Bolshoi New Stage

Tschaikowsky, Iolanta

Tschaikowsky‘s Iolanta, which I just experienced for the first time at the Bolshoi, was charming.  I can see why it is not often performed, though.  The music is “western” (not especially Russian) – typical Tschaikowsky in that regard (I prefer the more authentic Russian sounds of other Russian composers), and Westerners who like Tschaikowsky usually go for his bigger works.  There are not a sufficient number of showy arias to have this one championed by some famous singer.  And for an opera which has mystical overtones, it does not have mystical music.  But it’s still a fairy tale.  Tschaikowsky himself was not sure of the work and did not champion it either.

Bolshoi Opera, Bolshoi New Stage

Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov

Figure my first major opera in Moscow should be Mussorgsky‘s Boris Godunov at the Bolshoi.

The Bolshoi Theater is being reconstructed (it was supposed to be finished already, but corruption intervened, and they had to rip out the badly-reconstructed theater and start over, so now it won’t be done until late 2011 if then), so the performance was on the New Bolshoi Stage next door.  I’m told the Bolshoi is not what it once was and there are better opera companies in Moscow, which I will need to explore.  And while tonight was not actually that special, at least now it’s official.