Online Highlights (from residual streamings)

Highlights

I returned to work from my office in Salzburg for the first time since I fled home to Vienna in March ahead of the lockdown.  So that would seem to be a good time to reduce my intake of online streaming, right when most places are also reducing their content.  The last part of June anyway had little online that interested me.  A few new streamings caught my eye.  With one exception, I came away disappointed.

Meanwhile, the Salzburg Festival did its new ticket allocation by algorithm.  I got offered, and have now accepted, tickets for nine concerts at this summer’s slimmed-down Salzburg Festival in August. While it may not have been the broader selection I originally booked pre-covid, I emerge happy that the Festival’s algorithm thought I still deserved this assortment.  They have limited availability: one meter minimum seating distance between audience members in all directions, no intermissions to avoid people moving around, strict entry/exit protocols in place.  I cannot wait to finally hear live music again soon.

Verdi: Don Carlos (Staatsoper)

This was a surprisingly unfulfilling performance of an abridged version of Verdi’s Don Carlos from the Staatsoper, despite a promising cast from 2017.  I think I might put the blame on Daniele Abbado, son of the great conductor Claudio Abbado, who created a dark staging, with shapes and lights evocative of nothing in particular, drab costumes that looked like they might have been left over from some provincial theater’s storage, and an impressionistic mood that made no real impression.  Did Abbado have a concept?  It was not realistic, nor Regietheater, nor minimalist-staging-to-emphasize-psychodrama.  What drama there was clearly came from the singers, particularly Plácido Domingo as Rodrigo de Posa and Ferruccio Furlanetto as King Felipe II.  Domingo’s voice is of course not what it once was, but he has ably shifted into the baritone role, and his immense talent continues to shine through.  Ramón Vargas, singing Domingo’s old role of Don Carlos, paled in comparison – not only was his voice straining in trying to match the level of his colleague, but his melodramatic approach to acting also got shown up next to Domingo doing it right.  Krassimira Stoyanova and Elena Zhidkova triumphed as the two main female leads, Elisabeth of Valois and Ana Mendoza of Eboli.  Ryan Speedo Green and Alexandru Moisiuc made impressions in the supporting bass roles of Carlos V and the Grand Inquisitor, respectively.  But the wholly-unimpressive Myung-Whun Chung added nothing from the pit.  Indeed, I suppose the fact that they chose to do an abridged version (there is no standard version of this opera, but here Abbado seems to have wanted to take all possible cuts) may have helped to get this thing done more quickly.  Would his father have willingly conducted this muddle?

Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina (Staatsoper)

When I saw that Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina was on the Staatsoper’s streaming lineup for this month, I got excited – it’s a great opera.  But when I actually streamed it, I suddenly remembered why I have avoided going to hear this particular production live.

I’ll start with the positive, since it’s really worth saying.  Musically, this performance from 2014 was spectacular.  Semyon Bychkov conducted with tremendous pacing and excitement, drawing out every dynamic nuance (by the sound of it, generally using Schostakowitsch’s performing version instead of the standard Rimsky-Korsakov one, which also helped the drama – although I’m pretty sure he did not stick to Schostakowitsch entirely and do not know if that represented his modifications or if he got them from elsewhere).  The orchestra and chorus responded with lines of sheer beauty.  Among the soloists, Ferruccio Furlanetto stood out as Ivan Khovansky, with extreme vocal presence and full voice – until Khovansky’s power was spent, when he became intentionally hoarse and pained.  Andrzej Dobbert (Shakovity) was suitably animated and Elina Maximova (Marfa) had a warm and expressive tone.  Ain Aiger (Dosifei) and Herbert Lippert (Golitsin) took a little time to warm up but grew into full-sounding characters.  Even small roles, such as Norbert Ernst as the scribe, added to the whole.

Now the negative.  Lev Dodin, the director, is not German (would seem to be a Russian Jew whose family had been deported to Siberia) and I found no German training in his biography, so he may have independently come to the conclusion that an opera director need not pay any attention to the plot of the opera he is directing.  He set the entire opera on what seemed to be a building construction site at night, the cast riding up and down on freight elevators, mostly in the dark, and rarely interacting with each other, and spending an inordinate amount of time stripping to their underwear and then dressing again.  I could not discern any logic for anything.  At best the staging was distracting (indeed, the lighting was generally so dark, they would have been better off keeping the stage lights of entirely so the audience would not have to see anything and could just listen to a wonderful-sounding performance).  And now I remember being able to get a ticket to see this production a few years ago, but checking it out online first and deciding not to go.  Good choice.  I wouldn’t pay to sit there.  And as an Austrian taxpayer, I certainly hope the Staatsoper has a clause in its standard contract that allows them not to pay Regisseurs who don’t fulfill the most basic requirement to be an opera director: staging the opera they are hired to stage.

Saint-Saëns: Samson and Dalilah (Metropolitan Opera)

Director Darko Tresnjak’s somewhat stylized metallic 2018 staging of Samson and Dalilah by Saint-Saëns for the Metropolitan Opera, with strong colors and shifting lighting and overly-elaborate mock-biblical costumes, though not exactly fit for the period, worked to provide a backdrop and set a mood.  But the blocking and acting came across a tad too static (in general – some bits were randomly too bizarrely active, such as when the Philistine soldiers enter to capture Samson at the end of the second act, in which Tresnjak had them literally crawling over the walls like vermin).  Part of this would indeed be the blocking, but in general I felt the cast underperformed.  It had been the line-up which had made me want to watch: Roberto Alagna and Elīna Garanča in the title roles, and an excellent-looking (on paper) supporting cast, just sort-of fizzled.  Mark Elder and the Met Orchestra in the pit added no excitement to what ultimately resulted in a dull performance, particularly when considering this should have had extra impulse from being the opening night of a new production.

Rimsky-Korsakov: Tsar’s Bride (Mariinsky Theater)

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Tsar’s Bride has a hard enough plot to follow even when staged (although a good staging helps).  Here, the Mariinsky streamed an unstaged version from the Mariinsky Concert Hall in 2016, which like the rest of the Mariinsky’s streamings lacked an option for subtitles (which I usually keep off, but find them helpful for some operas). What this did allow, however, was for me to mostly forget about the plot except for the key outline, and to listen more intently to the sumptuous music.  Despite the convoluted plot (not the first nor the last opera to have one), this rarely-performed opera really does deserve a better place in the mainstream repertory.  Valery Gergiev ably led the orchestra, chorus, and an expressive cast (featuring Olga Trifonova as Marfa and Aleksei Markov as Grigory Gryaznoy, supported by Stanislav TrofimovVladimir Felyauer, Yevgyeny Akimov, Olga Borodina, and Oleg Valashov).  Always a pleasure to hear this opera performed well.

Online Highlights (from residual streamings)

Highlights

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).

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 5)

Highlights

The cultural news hit on Friday that while musicians may begin to rehearse together in the coming days, and museums will reopen in July, large cultural events such as concerts will not resume until September.  The Salzburg Festival indicated it is in discussion with the government to see what might go ahead in a reduced form, but right now nothing fits the roadmap.  This was not unexpected – not just from the standpoint of the gradual reopening of Austrian society, but also from the fact that the roadmap for reopening still does not include any plan to reopen our international borders at any time in the foreseeable future.  Austria shut down the corona virus, but we may have been too successful and have developed no herd immunity, meaning that as soon as the borders open, more people will die.  So here we sit watching music streamed online.

Strauss: Rosenkavalier (Staatsoper)

Otto Schenk is one of the best opera directors of all time, and his staging of Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier for the Staatsoper (originally in 1968) may be his best production.  I saw this wonderful production live in 2010.  Schenk pays so much attention to detail without being busy, and this production is just a delight to see over and over to catch new things.  The Staatsoper streamed it this week with two different casts, and frankly it was worth seeing both even if only to take in Schenk’s brilliance.  For the first streaming, the Staatsoper went deeper into their archives than they generally have been doing for these free lockdown streamings: a 1994 performance under the elegant Carlos Kleiber, with a fine cast including Felicity Lott as the Marschallin, Kurt Moll as Ochs, Anne Sofie von Otter as Octavian, and Barbara Bonney as Sophie.

The second take of this, from a 2017 performance, was not nearly at the same level.  It was worth watching for the staging, but Krassimira Stoyanova was a far less glamorous Marschallin than Lott, Peter Rose could not remotely master Ochs’ Viennese dialect (actually not even close), and Stephanie Houtzeel, though playful as Octavian, did not quite have the chemistry (at least not with the other cast members) that von Otter showed.  When I saw Houtzeel in this role in the same production in 2010, she carried it out better, but it may have been that a more convincing cast surrounded her then too (mostly from the Staatsoper’s own ensemble or regular guests, rather than tourists like Stoyanova and Rose).  Especially with this Schenk production, which relies on the details, that chemistry among the cast becomes even more important.  Ádám Fischer, if not quite as enigmatic a figure as Kleiber, is possibly as cerebral and knew how to shape the music from the pit.

  • [Recording tip: I think everyone has a different favorite recording of Rosenkavalier.  I’ll put mine forward.  In March 1945, an American bomb destroyed the Staatsoper.  When the reconstructed building reopened in November 1955, it put on a whole row of legendary new productions.  Its new Rosenkavalier (in the staging that Schenk’s ultimately replaced in 1968) debuted with an all-star cast under the baton of Hans Knappertsbusch.  This was a production in which Ochs dominated (Strauss and Hofmannsthal had originally intended to call the opera “Ochs von Lerchenau”), even if there are other interpretations such as Schenk’s in which the Marschallin pulls all the strings.  In purposefully selecting Kurt Böhme, Knappertsbusch got the Ochs he needed.  Maria Reining (the Marschallin), Sena Jurinac (Octavian), and Hilde Güden (Sophie) produced some luxurious music together.  I do listen to other recordings, but I always return to this one.]

Rossini: L’Italiana in Algeri (Staatsoper)

I saw this Staatsoper production of Rossini’s Italian in Algiers in person in 2017, but the performance streamed here from 2015 was a much better cast.  I remember the staging, by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, to have been simple but tasteful, however when I saw it live I wondered then if Ponnelle had even understood the opera at all since he made it so static.  This 2015 cast more than made up for Ponnelle’s deficiency – they had so much fun on the stage it was hard not to have fun watching them.  Ildar Abrazakov (Mustafà), Aida Garifullina (Elvira), Rachel Frenkel (Zulma), and Alessio Arduini (Haly) stood out in particular with their strong voices and characterizations, but Edgardo Rocha (Lindoro), Anna Bonitatibus (Isabella), and Paolo Rumetz (Taddeo) also joined in the farce.  Jesús López-Cobos conducted and the orchestra, as when I heard this in 2017, absolutely nailed Rossini’s idiom.  If this music does not already emerge dancing out of the pit, then even a good cast cannot make it.  What fun!

  • [Recording tip: I first got to appreciate this opera through a recording that remains my most-listened-to recording of a Rossini opera: a charming and lively version by conductor Claudio Scimone and his orchestra, I Solisti Veneti, with a cast headed by Samuel Ramey s Mustafà and Kathleen Battle as Elvira, and with luxuries such as Nicola Zaccaria as Haly and Marilyn Horne as Isabella.]

Wagner: Parsifal (Staatsoper)

If the Staatsoper provided me the two highlights of the week with Rosenkavalier and Italiana in Algeri, it also provided me the biggest lowlight of the week.  I am sorry I thought I wanted to see Wagner’s Parsifal again in a new production (after three Parsifals last week).  The Staatsoper seems to have replaced the miserable staging by Christine Mielitz (which I saw live in 2006 and a different performance streamed last week) with yet another miserable staging, this time by Alvis Hermanis.  Hermanis is Latvian, not German, and although his CV includes productions staged in Germany, I did not expect he would be just as bad as a German opera director (seriously, who is as bad as the Germans at staging operas – such a common theme on this blog, but I feel I do have to keep pilloring them until they literally find the plot).  But he was (I should have googled him before making this decision: when I looked him up I realized he was responsible for a staging of Trovatore at the Salzburg Festival a few years ago, right after I moved to Salzburg, reset nonsensically in an art museum and which I remember was panned as vapid).  The staging here was set in the Otto Wagner Hospital (or an interpretation thereof), a psychiatric clinic designed by, and later named after, the famous Viennese Sezession architect in 1907.  Most of the knights (and Kundry, kept in a special caged bed) were patients, with Gurnemanz being the chief doctor.  (Act 2 was in an operating room, with Klingsor as a brain surgeon.)  Why?  I tried to watch a bit to figure out why, but even in the midst of an indefinite lockdown I have better things to do with my time.

Doing other things was also less distracting that watching this stupidity.  So I did get to appreciate René Pape’s luxurious Gurnemanz.  The rest of the cast seemed a bit off – probably not a bad cast under normal circumstances (although the shrill and almost nasal Parsifal lacked much of a voice, it sounded like it had aged badly even though the singer is not yet 50), but truly uninspired singing across the board.  I won’t list the cast because it’s not fair: it must be extremely difficult to sing seriously while traipsing around this travesty of a stage.  Valery Gergiev did not have that problem in the pit, but really what could he do?

Lortzing: Undine (Staatsoper)

Kudos for the Staatsoper for the last opera I watched this week.  I had never seen Albert Lortzing’s Undine before (and I don’t believe I’ve ever heard it performed either other than excerpts).  I still haven’t, but that’s not a bad thing.  The opera was listed as being streamed and I tuned in to discover it was actually an abridged version for children.  The opera was shortened to fit within one hour, and although the main roles were sung by members of the Staatsoper’s Ensemble, the supporting roles, chorus, and dancers all came from the Staatsoper’s children’s academy.  I am not quite clear where this was performed – a small theater space, presumably in the bowels of the Staatsoper.  But it made me discover that the Staatsoper does offer an entire array of abridged operas performed this way in front of an audience of children.

One thing I have to say in Austria is that opera is not just for old people, and audiences are full of people of all ages, but to ensure the future requires making the art form accessible to the youngest generation.  This does not have to come in the form in which my father exposed me, through his constant listening to operas, setting me in front of the television every time an opera was broadcast (whatever the opera), and frequent one-on-one lectures from him to me about Wagner’s Ring when I was still a toddler.  He took me to my first live opera, Otto Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor at the Volksoper, when I was five years old, and that hooked me for good.  So I give the Staatsoper full points for this little presentation.  Not only do they do these “Operas for Children,” but they are including them in their corona lockdown streamings.

Dvořák: Rusalka (Metropolitan Opera)

Although a fairy tale, Dvořák’s Rusalka is a heavy one.  While it is dark, the music has its shimmers of light.  For this 2014 performance from New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Yannick Nézet-Séguin crafted a lush orchestral color.  Renée Fleming headed an excellent cast with Piotr Beczala as the Prince, John Relyea as the Water Goblin, and Dolora Zajick as the Witch Ježibaba.

  • [Recording tips: Fleming has owned the role of Rusalka for years.  She recorded it in 1998 with Charles Mackerras conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, with Ben Heppner as the Prince, Franz Hawlata as the Water Goblin, and Dolora Zajick – again – as the Witch.  I also have a sentimental connection to a 1987 live recording from the Staatsoper, for which I myself saw the same cast later that year, with Eva Beňačková as Rusalka, Peter Dvorský as the Prince, Yevgyeny Nyestyernyenko as the Water Goblin, and Eva Randová doubling as the Witch and the Foreign Princess, with Václav Neumann conducting.  Apparently that was the first time that opera had ever been performed at the Staatsoper.  To be a little different, just because of Gottlob Frick, there is a 1948 German-language recording available out there from Dresden conducted by Joseph Keilberth.  I’ve not heard the whole thing, but own extended highlights on a CD set featuring some of Frick’s best recordings, and it is worth hearing him sing the Water Goblin.]

Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov (Metropolitan Opera)

I have a ticket for Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov at the Salzburg Festival on my birthday this year.  But first we tragically lost Mariss Jansons, who was supposed to conduct but passed away late last year.  Now it looks like we’ll lose the Festival this Summer thanks to the Chinese Communist Party deciding to destroy global health, welfare, and livelihoods.  They’ve murdered more of their own citizens than they’ve killed with their virus, but the virus has caused more worldwide devastation (yes, it’s a natural virus, but the pandemic is still entirely the Chinese Communist Party’s fault).

The plot of Boris is set during the “Time of Troubles” in Russia.  The title character was vilified by the repressive Romanov Dynasty, which ruled after that period until it, in turn, was deposed by the Russian Revolution leading to the again-repressive Soviet Communist regime.  The real-life Boris was probably more sympathetic, at least in the context of his time (is anyone in Russia truly sympathetic?  Boris created Ivan the Terrible’s secret police, so he was no saint, but apparently was relatively competent technocrat if overtaken by events out of his control and a bunch of schemers who resented him as the outsider he was – he came from a Tatar family that had converted to Christianity – and he had somewhat of a conscience, unlike most of the Russian ruling classes).  But I digress…

American director Stephen Wadsworth did not manage to capture the nuances, mostly because he was too busy with everything else.  In this production (filmed in a performance from 2010), he decided to augment the portrayals of the minor characters.  While this could be seen to be in the tradition of greats such as Otto Schenk to pay attention to intricate details, Schenk’s details are usually grounded in the opera and are merely fine incidental details that complete the plot.  Wadsworth’s strayed into distraction, especially given a non-traditional (but not modern) staging, with suggestive rather than accurate sets and extra elements added, such as a map and the book chronicling Russia’s history (both of which do appear in important places in the opera, but do not remain on stage – and the book in this case is enormously over-sized).  So, as an example, we got the Simpleton already taking a visible role in the prologue, which demonstrated clearly who he was, but did not give us any more of his story to make it useful or add to the scenes where he did play a role.  At the end of the scene in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral (the Cathedral itself missing here), he rolled himself into the pages of the chronicle.  All of this combined make Wadsworth’s staging additive, and it may have been too much while missing the realism, particularly as the additions did not necessarily accord with the plot – having Shuisky appear in the Polish court is one intrigue too many, even for that infamous historical villain.  But I guess I should be thankful that Wadsworth clearly put some thought into this staging (he’s not a German Regisseur), so there was some intelligence even if he failed to convince me.  So, for example, Varlaam and Missail much to their astonishment recognized Grigory when he returned in the final scene, adding a bit of comedy to the revolution: the brutality of guards towards the Russian people in the prologue was exceeded by the Russian people towards everyone viewed as an authority in the Kromy Forest epilogue, a clear reversal of fortune.  (Wadsworth set both the St. Basil’s scene and the Kromy Forest scene, as parentheses to the final act, as is one common and perfectly acceptable convention).

René Pape sang a strong Boris.  Valery Gergiev, in the pit, knew this opera upside down (and used Mussorgsky’s own scoring).  They combined to produce a particularly effective death scene musically.  But it did not work on stage, where the dying Boris did too much running around.  The rest of the cast was adequate (even Aleksandrs Antonenko, whom I heard sing an inadequate Radamès last week, but who seemed more comfortable singing in Russian as Grigory).  I may highlight two minor figures: they decided to use appropriately-aged singers for Boris’ children Ksenya (sung by Jennifer Zetlan) and Fyëdor (sung by Jonathan Makepeace), and they actually had a stage presence.  I googled them to see if their careers have taken them anywhere since 2010: the older Zetlan seems to not quite have launched herself yet in any major roles beyond inconsequential provincial US opera companies – her appearances with major US companies or orchestras have been in minor roles or as an understudy (I find no European credits at all on her website bio); and Makepeace is still an undergraduate at Princeton – but nice that they get a little bit of fame here.

  • [Recording tip: For an opera that actually has been recorded many times, I have never found an ideal version.  This is only partly the result of the problematic history of this opera, which exists in several versions.  The most-used performing version is an arrangement made by Rimsky-Korsakov that managed to miss Mussorgsky’s point entirely.  Most recordings are of this orchestration, and it fails – so this rules out the recordings with Mark Reizen perhaps the greatest Boris of all time (I do own one complete version with him as Boris, and numerous excerpts).  Overshooting in the other direction, in recent years a trend has been to perform the original version of the opera, which the composer himself rejected and which is lacking drama.  I am looking for a recording of Schostakowitsch’s arrangement – which I did get to hear at the Gelikon Opera in Moscow once – since Schostakowitsch did understand Mussorgsky and while cleaning up some of the loose odds and ends nevertheless kept Mussorgsky’s raw colorings.  But in the absence of a recording of the Schostakowitsch version, if I insist on Mussorgsky’s own scoring rather than the more-common Rimsky-Korsakov rewrite, but also insist on not using Mussorgsky’s rejected first version but some construction coming out of his more mature later version with the scenes in some semblance of order, and on top of all of that insist on a cast that can give character development and drama, then I end up with one very peculiar recording.  And that is a rather Wagnerian production broadcast live by the Bavarian Radio in 1957, under the baton of Eugen Jochum, with Hans Hotter as Boris.  Hotter, more known for his portrayals of Wagner baritone lead roles, regarded Boris as his favorite part.  The cast includes Martha Mödl, Hans Hopf, Kim Borg, Paul Kuen, Lorenz Fehenberger, Benno Kusche, Kurt Böhme, Hermann Uhde, and others, all singing in German.  Not ideal, but it’s what I go back to until I find something I am entirely satisfied with, which hasn’t happened yet.]

Tschaikowsky: Queen of Spades (Mariinsky Theater)

A simple staging by Aleksey Styepanyuk of Tschaikowsky’s Queen of Spades on the Second Stage of the Mariinsky Theater allowed the cast to act out their respective emotional and psychological psychoses.  The sets were not quite minimalist – there were props and furniture and important details – but the framing (colonnade to represent St. Petersburg, dark lighting highlighted by a giant moon…) was more suggestive of the mood.  Interestingly, Styepanyuk did not actually show either of the opera’s two suicides, those of Liza and Gyerman, but rather only suggested their deaths.  Whether they died physically or only mentally was left up to the audience.  A thrilling Maksim Aksyënov as Gyerman was obsessive, tormented, and mentally unbalanced right from the start, making it easier to see his descent into madness.  He gave a tremendous performance (I had thought of giving this streaming amiss, but his performance alone made me glad I did tune in).  Irina Churilova was a dreamy and distracted Liza who falls into his spell.  Of the smaller roles, a coquettish Yekaterina Sergeyeva as Polina thought she was being playful in the first act, but helped deliver the push.  The ubiquitous Gergiev conducted.

  • [Recording tip: I am going to go out on a ledge here and recommend a recording that has never been available but which I am certain must exist in an archive somewhere waiting to be rediscovered.  I have heard extended excerpts on two separate Russian disks: one on a recording released from the private archive of Galina Vishnyevskaya for patrons of her Moscow singing academy (I went when I lived in Moscow), the other on a Bolshoi Opera archival release for Melodiya in memory of Zurab Anjaparidze (which I found on Amazon, since I am always searching for recordings of Anjaparidze).  From the late 1950s until the early 1970s, the Bolshoi – then at its peak – had the world’s greatest dramatic soprano (Vishnyevskaya, a Russian dissident) and the world’s greatest dramatic tenor (Anjaparidze, a Georgian) both in the house’s ensemble, and they did sometimes perform together.  In May 1967, under Boris Khaikin, they did Tschaikowksy’s Queen of Spades.  The extended excerpts I have heard are so far beyond anything else available on recordings that there’s not really any point looking for another recording, although I do own other recordings.  I keep hoping someone finds the complete version of this, or at least some other complete performance including both of them in that period.  There is a complete film made around that time with Anjaparidze as Gyerman, but the sound quality is very poor.]

Rimsky-Korsakov: The Tale of Tsar Saltan (Mariinsky Theater)

Last week the Mariinsky gave us Rimsky-Korsakov’s rarely-performed fantasy opera The Golden Cockerel.  This week came another, The Tale of Tsar Saltan, suitable for children (and adults!), in a charming fairytale staging by Aleksandr Pyetrov which did not try to do too much.  It is after all a fairy tale.  A nice touch was that during the preludes to each of the acts, they projected a cartoon summary of the coming act’s plot.  This would make it even more accessible for children, but the cartoons were lovingly drawn and had so much personality on their own.   The 2015 performance streamed here marked the Mariinsky debut of Mikhail Vekua, singing Prince Guidon, whom I heard in the same role at the Stanislavsky in Moscow back in 2010.  Eduard Tsanga sang Tsar Saltan and Irina Churilova sang Empress Militrisa; Gergiev conducted.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Schostakowitsch, Prokofiev

Either the Mariinsky orchestra performs a lot in the new Zaryadye Hall in Moscow, or they simply make more recordings there.  Gergiev is a Putin loyalist, and despite his jetsetting – or indeed because of it – he is always ready to perform his service to Mother Russia.  In this streamed concert, they opened with Schostakowitsch’s fifth symphony.  The orchestra displayed wonderful almost delicate phrasing (while also being robust), the sort of understanding of drama that comes from primarily being an opera orchestra rather than a concert orchestra.  The mood of the symphony did come across as uplifting and triumphant, rather than dark and mock-triumphant: Schostakowitsch intentionally wrote a piece with two meanings, one for Stalin’s consumption and one private (Yevgeny Mravinsky, who gave the premiere along Stalinist lines, was famously described by the composer as too stupid to understand the secret meaning, but of course the triumphant version is what saved Schostakowitsch from arrest and murder by the Soviet Russian regime).  Given Gergiev’s attention to detail (and his orchestra’s ability to follow through), I am sure Gergiev understood the symphony’s meaning, but at the same time the triumphant sound produced would have pleased that other famous Ossetian.  The concert continued with Prokofiev’s wonderfully crazy Piano Concerto #2 with Denis Matsuyev pounding out the solos idiomatically, wave after wave washing over the audience (or in this case spilling out of my speaker system and through my home office).

Boston Symphony Orchestra: Schostakowitsch, Hindemith, Martinů, Copland

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is still not posting full concerts online, but it is adding individual works each day to the selection available.  This week, several performances highlighted what this orchestra once used to be: an elegant ensemble, maybe smaller in size that its peers near the top of the US rankings, but able to provide just that little extra intimacy and character – an American counterpart to the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester (as it happens, both now share a music director, Andris Nelsons).  I will flag four pieces they posted this week, which exemplify its old sound: Dmitri Schostakowitsch’s Symphony #1 conducted by the BSO’s then-music director Erich Leinsdorf in 1964 took the composer’s conservatory graduation work and made it into a mature and groundbreaking next step beyond Mahler; Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler symphony, conducted by guest conductor Carlo Maria Giulini in 1974 was expansive and stately; Bohuslav Martinů’s Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano, and Timpani guest conducted by Rafael Kubelik with Charles Wilson joining the orchestra on the piano in 1967, and Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, with Copland himself conducting and Harold Wright playing the clarinet in 1980, also explored new combinations of sounds.  Together they made a nice set this week, which I listened to in one sitting.

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 4)

Highlights

With the world still on indefinite lockdown, I spent a fourth week perusing archival performances streamed online.  I am nocturnal, so am normally awake through the night and usually spend the hours reading.  The lockdown has changed my patterns, so that I now do a lot less reading and a lot more opera-gazing.

Wagner: Parsifal (Staatsoper, Metropolitan Opera, and Berlin Philharmonic)

This being the Holy Week in the Western Church, my week’s selections were dominated by three versions of Wagner’s Parsifal (and I will add a fourth new version next week).  Two were staged (the previous production at the Staatsoper and the current one at the Metropolitan Opera) and one was a concert version (Berlin Philharmonic).  I will move on to the Staatsoper’s current staging next week.  This is such a wonderful transformative opera, and when I get fully immersed into it I really do get into it.

I saw that previous Staatsoper staging live in 2006 – yet another abomination by a German director, in this case Christine Mielitz.  So I had absolutely no desire to see her nonsense again.  But I did want to listen to this cast, from a 2015 performance, and the sumptuous sounds of the Staatsoper orchestra crafted by Ádám Fischer.  Danish baritone Stephen Milling, as Gurnemanz, was the real revelation here with his warm and all-encompassing voice.

That said, I did look into the streaming a few times on this production, including the final scene.  Mielitz’s travesty was every bit as imbecilic as I remembered, but she does seem to have made some adjustments between 2006 (when I saw it live) and 2015 (this video).  So now Parsifal, with help of the spear, embraces Amfortas and Kundry in a big bear hug towards the end, which both healed Amfortas’ wound (the key event of the entire opera, which had been completely missing in her original) and in the same process clearly blessed Kundry (another key plot point Mielitz completely left out before) who instead of walking off the back of the stage into what looked like a backstage construction site (when I was there in 2006) now got onto a lift and was transported up to (presumably) heaven.  It wasn’t satisfying, but it least showed that Mielitz may actually have decided to read the plot sometime after she had done the staging, and attempted to make the staging more closely approximate the plot by reintroducing some key actions.  (Reminder to trashy German Regisseurs: please read the plot before staging an opera; is that really too much to ask?).  I still saw no Grail.  But maybe if I rewatched the whole thing I might have found other corrections – but I am not watching the whole thing (and the snippets I did see did not make me hopeful; even if she did make corrections in the final scene, that scene still failed miserably).

From there it was over to the Met for their 2013 new production by Canadian director François Girard.  The Met Orchestra is not the Vienna Philharmonic, and the dull Daniele Gatti on the podium lacked the intellectual stature of Ádám Fischer, so the Met forces were not as lush nor able to provide the same driving coloration.  Girard’s concept probably required more from the pit, since his staging was oddly modern but timeless, minimal but semi-realist, focusing on the psychological elements of the opera rather than the action (such as it is – this is indeed a very long opera with very little action).  I do not think it really worked.  It was all blood and darkness and ominous cloud formations (and in one case something that looked like a huge Mars gone into eclipse).  Klingsor’s magic garden was transformed into a blood-soaked hewn cave, for example (Klingsor himself was a bloody mess).  The chorus generally stood around, sometimes contorting itself (often with arms outstretched to mimic the crucifixion – but in Parsifal Wagner actually used the story of the grail knights as a myth, and while the final act takes place on Good Friday the symbolism is generally not Christian and Jesus never gets a mention at all).  Girard’s blocking was questionable, but partly balanced by camerawork which allowed those of us watching from home to focus in ways it would have been harder to do in person.

The third act took place in a post-apocalyptic setting, opening with the knights, visibly unhealthy and in tattered clothing, burying their dead from a plague – obviously not a reference to the corona virus (this was filmed in 2013), but a bit disturbing in the current context.  The dark foreboding lighting (even at noon – enter Mars under eclipse at that point) did not so much make this production transformative and mystical, but rather gloomy and depressing.

Jonas Kaufmann, the Met’s Parsifal, was more convincing than the Staatsoper’s Johan Botha.  Botha may have had the bigger voice, but Kaufmann was more lyrical and sympathetic (it also did not help that Botha forgot the words at times).  If Kaufmann was undermatched for the Heldentenor role of Siegmund in Walküre, Parsifal falls more within his vocal strengths.  René Pape, the Met’s Gurnemanz, was in his usual fine form (especially warm in the third act), but on hearing these two performances back-to-back when juxtaposed next to Milling was simply outperformed (I am not sure I had heard Milling before, but I definitely intend to again).

Since it’s hard to get too much Parsifal once I start immersing myself, I migrated over to the Berlin Philharmonic archive they’ve opened up this month, and found a 2018 concert performance under Simon Rattle.  Since it was not staged, the entire focus could go onto the music.  A good staging (particularly of a mystical opera such as this) augments that message, but bad stagings detract.  So in this case, particularly since this was being performed in Germany, where incompetent opera direction reigns, a concert version made for a really good idea.  Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic captured that mystical level.  Stuart Skelton sang an excellent Parsifal (he who recently sounded so good as the Met’s Tristan, there felicitously placed opposite Nina Stemme as Isolde, who sang Kundry here for Berlin).  Franz-Josef Selig was in absolute top form as Gurnemanz, who is really the key character in this opera.

  • [Recording tips:  When it comes to selecting a “best” recording of Parsifal, I think the biggest discussion is not which conductor but rather conceding that some of the best are by Hans Knappertsbusch, then which version conducted by Knappertsbusch deserves that distinction.  I favor the live 1951 Bayreuth Festival performance by virtue of the best overall cast balance.  Wolfgang Windgassen sings the title role, with Ludwig Weber as the critical Gurnemanz.  George London (Amfortas), Arnold van Mill (Titurel), Hermann Uhde (Klingsor), and Martha Modl (Kundry) round out the lead ensemble.  For excerpts, there are several exciting recordings of the second act duet with Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad, of which the best may be the one recorded in Philadelphia in 1940 with the Victor Symphony Orchestra under Edwin McArthur.  A recording of the “Good Friday Spell” from Act Three, with Alexander Kipnis as Gurnemanz and Fritz Wolff as Siegfried, recorded at the 1927 Bayreuth Festival with Siegfried Wagner, the composer’s son, on the podium, has never been equaled.]

Strauß II, Zigeunerbaron (Volksoper)

I actually started the week on a much lighter note, with Johann Strauß II’s Zigeunerbaron.  This was unfortunately a confused and humorless new production – the last premiere at the Volksoper before the coronavirus lockdown – by German director Peter Lund.  Despite the nationality of the director, I had better expectations, since Lund had managed to successfully capture Benatzky’s Axel an der Himmelstür in this house a few years ago, which I assume got him invited back for this.  But now he demonstrated no understanding for the Straußian Austro-Hungarian idiom, and his clumsy sets left no room for charm (so, indeed, the cast, orchestra, and conductor – all of whom will remain nameless here so as not to drag them down for something not their fault – could provide none).

  • [Recording tip: A lot of Viennese operetta is best experienced live.  I have happy memories of a performance of Zigeunerbaron at the Volksoper in December 1987.  I did not grow up speaking German, but had begun to study it as my fifth language only in September 1986.  Of course, I had heard Viennese German regularly growing up, since my father spoke to his parents in Viennese (but they all, for some reason, spoke to me in English), so that influenced my dialect, but clearly this was not my native language and my father liked to laugh at my pronunciation as a beginning German-speaker (at that time only a year into when I started speaking the language), which sounded to him like I came from one of the Monarchy’s Kronländer – maybe Slavic or even Hungarian.  After listening to the thick Hungarian accents in the Volksoper’s Zigeunerbaron, my father smiled at me….  Recordings do not quite capture the spontaneity of live performances, so critical for this genre.  But I lean towards one in particular, on the basis that it is sufficiently Viennese to capture the humor, even if it is a tad too “grand.”  But its mostly Viennese performers all would have performed this in a less serious manner, and understood the Fach: a 1961 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic under Heinrich Hollreiser, with a cast including Staatsoper (and Volksoper) ensemble stalwarts Hilde Güden, Karl Terkal, Walter Berry, Erich Kunz, Anneliese Rothenberger, Hilde Rössel-Majdan, and Kurt Equiluz.]

Strauss, Elektra (Staatsoper)

From a purely musical perspective, this performance of Elektra by Richard Strauss was electric.  Waltraud Meier and Christine Goerke were in full voice, and Semyon Bychkov provided the perfect amount of sound and powerful framing from the Staatsoper pit.  Yet Uwe Eric Laufenberg, another worthless German director, staged something other than Elektra, and the only advantage of not being in the opera house live (where the music sounds so much better) is that I really don’t have to watch this Prussian nonsense.  I thought initially maybe I would watch, and see what Laufenberg offered, but life really is too short.  I listened happily while doing other things.

What is strange about this opera is that, for no apparent reason, I have never really gotten into it.  I own one recording – a classic 1953 West German Radio recording conducted by Richard Kraus with Astrid Varnay in the title role – which is fine but I will make no claim that it is necessarily the best available – which I may have listened to only 2-3 times since I bought it 20 years ago.  And I am not sure I have listened to the opera otherwise in that period (maybe a Met radio broadcast at some point – assuming it has even been in the Met’s repertory – but if so then certainly never paying much attention).  So it was great to hear it properly like this and scratch my head as to why I haven’t listened to it more often.  I do have a ticket for Elektra should the Salzburg Festival go ahead this Summer (which looks unlikely – although Austria is opening up gradually starting next week, the government has clearly indicated it wants to keep the borders closed until there is a vaccine, which won’t be until mid-2021 at the earliest, so travel in and out would remain blocked; under those circumstances, I could envision a shrunken Austrian-only Festival, but not the normal one).

Verdi: Aida (Metropolitan Opera)

The Met’s staging of Verdi’s Aida is monumental, but this cast was not.  The blocking was poor and the cast in general could not act (I wonder if these facts were related: did they give up on blocking to accommodate a cast that couldn’t act, or was the cast unable to act because the director thought monumental sets alone would substitute for stage direction?).  Within those constraints, the two female leads, Anna Netrebko (as Aida) and Anita Rachvelishvili (as Amneris), could at least sing really well.  Netrebko has been doing this for a while.  But as a rising talent, Rachvelishvili has a unbelievably powerful round and dark lower register (which I heard live in Salzburg last summer) but still handled the high notes with dexterity – hers is quite a remarkable voice in every respect.  As Radamès, Aleksandrs Antonenko was awful – his voice screeched even on those rare occasions when he was not trying to locate his pitch.  Nicola Luisotti did what he needed to in the pit.

  • [Recording tips: My preferred recording of Aida does not seem to rank on most people’s lists, but I’ll stick with it anyway.  Erich Leinsdorf’s 1971 set with the London Symphony Orchestra, featuring Leontyne Price (Aida), Grace Bumbry (Amneris), Plácido Domingo (Radamès), Sherrill Milnes (Amonasro), Ruggero Raimondi (Ramfis), and Hans Sotin (Pharaoh) simply captured this drama better than most.  For something different, if I may, there is a 1955 live Staatsoper recording led by Rafael Kubelik floating around on the market and worth searching out, sung in German with Leonie Rysanek (Aida), Jean Madera (Amneris), Hans Hopf (Radamès), George London (Amonasro), and Gottlob Frick (Ramfis).]

Janáček: The Cunning Little Vixen (Staatsoper)

I had never seen Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen before.  I am not sure I had even heard it – if I had, it was on in the background at some point and I was not paying attention.  While it may not be performed too often, it does appear regularly, and I meant to see it at the Staatoper before but never got around to it.  It is a strange little opera: a fantasy, it has a dose of hard realism; almost a children’s tale (most of the characters are animals), it has adult themes; and although a comedy, it is sad.  I like Janáček’s music, although unlike the bolder music in his other dramas or his orchestral works, here he stayed restrained, moody music shimmering in the forest.  Tomáš Netopil conducted with feeling.  Chen Reiss sang a playful Vixen.  Roman Trekal pulled together the arc of the story as the Forester.

Rimsky-Korsakov: The Golden Cockerel (Mariinsky Theater)

Another seldom-performed work, which I also had never seen before (although I do own a recording), Rimsky-Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel was on offer from the Mariinsky Theater.  Rimsky-Korsakov did not originally mean this as a children’s story but it is easily accessible as one, in its world of fantasy, here in a fairy tale staging by the young Russian opera director Anna MatisonAida Garifullina was in great voice as the Queen of Shemakha.  Valery Gergiev conducted in the Mariinsky Second Stage, a modern state-of-the-art theater behind the original Mariinsky.  The house opened in 2013 and for which the visionary Gergiev himself was the mastermind (I actually visited the construction site with him late one night in 2010, when it was still a hole in the ground).

Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina (Mariinsky Theater)

The best opera performance I attended in 2010 (the night Maestro Gergiev showed me that hole in the ground) was Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina (in the performing version by Schostakowitsch) at the Mariinsky main stage (a performance I already reviewed on this blog back then for 2 June 2010).  They have now streamed a 2012 performance on their website with a similar cast (so this performance let me see Sergey Alekshashkin as Khovansky, Nikolay Putilin as Shaklovity, Vladimir Vaneyev as Dosifei, Olga Borodina as Marfa, and Vladimir Galuzin as Andrei again; Yevgeny Akimov as Golitsin was the only major character with a different singer this time) with Gergiev in the pit.  It was as thrilling this time through as well (although it is always better to see opera live).  One thing that was obvious during my time living in Russia was that Russian opera singers are taught to act, which produces much more dynamic portrayals across the board.  This stood out here in contrast to some of the poor acting I have seen in other non-Russian productions these last few weeks.

  • [Recording tip: Surprisngly for such a tremendous opera there are not exactly a ton of recordings.  And even then, most use the standard performing version by Rimsky-Korsakov.  Mussorgsky died with the opera unorchestrated and not tidied up, so there are options.  Rimsky-Korsakov did the first clean-up, but his result is actually not very satisfying even though it became the standard.  Stravinsky and Ravel later did another version together (each taking different parts rather than jointly working on the same parts).  By all accounts, the parts orchestrated by the incompetent Ravel were terrible (he had an undeserved reputation as a good orchestrator based on his quite excellent version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition but otherwise never produced much of value, whether orchestrating his own work or the work of others), although Stravinsky’s contributions are still sometimes heard.  Schostakowitsch did a new orchestration, which had its premiere at the Mariinsky in 1960 with the same staging they use today, and it is probably the most fulfilling and respectful of Mussorgsky’s wishes.  So if I narrow down to recordings of the Schostakowitsch version, there aren’t a lot to choose from.  But there is an especially good one by Claudio Abbado (who substituted Stravinsky’s version of Act Five instead of Schostakowitsch, for intelligent reasons he explains in the liner notes), with the Vienna Philharmonic, and a cast including Aage Haugland, Paata Burchuladze, Vladimir Popov, Anatoly Kotchega, Marjana Lipovšek, and Vladimir Atlantov.]

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky

Since the Mariinsky is putting up concerts, not just operas, during its corona streamings, it is nice to hear the rarely-performed full score of Stravinsky’s Firebird and not just the oft-performed suite.  Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky Theater Orchestra carried it off with drama and suspense, with even the normally-omitted bits bringing their intrigue.  This is raw music, which usually gets sanitized when cut into the suite (not that the suite isn’t good, just that this is even more exciting).  They prefaced the Firebird with a suite from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, in this case presenting the opposite problem: made me wish for the full length opera (itself almost never performed).  A late Rimsky work, it crosses the composers rich tone-painting with more experimental chromatics.  Rimsky-Korsakov’s student Stravinsky followed on this musical language with the Funeral Song #5, written upon the older composer’s death.  That piece was performed once at the memorial service in 1909 and then the score was lost until being rediscovered in 2015 and given its first public performance at this 2016 concert.  In that it formed the missing link in the musical progression from Kitezh to the Firebird.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Beethoven, Schostakowitsch, Mussorgsky

With Mariss Jansons taking a doctor-advised period of rest, Yannick Nézet-Séguin sprung in to replace him on the podium in front of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra for two concerts at this Summer’s Festival.  Nézet-Séguin retained the original programs with one change: substituting Schostakowitsch‘s 5th Symphony tonight for his 10th, paired with Beethoven‘s 2nd (Sunday morning’s concert will remain as programmed by Jansons).

Even if not originally scheduled, the new pairing made sense.  Both symphonies represented, in their own ways, defiance in the face of personal tragedy.  Beethoven wrote his Second Symphony at a time when he was borderline suicidal, coming to grips with the deafness he realized would consume him and the world he knew.  Nézet-Séguin captured pure exuberance.  Whatever Beethoven may have been feeling under the circumstances (and he wrote those morbid thoughts down in words), his music expressed the opposite, full of wit, humor, and life.  Tonight’s performance came fully-charged.

After the intermission came a different take on the Schostakowitsch Fifth.  The composer’s enemy in this case was not nature, but a man, Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator who had criticized Schostakowitsch’s music and had purged his friends.  Schostakowitch had to produce a symphony within bounds acceptable to the regime, but true to himself wrote something which nevertheless transcended the regime.  Tonight’s interpretation took an unusual route: melancholy.  Neither artificially upbeat nor dark and oppressive, this reading demonstrated an almost-hopeful subtext: things were bad, but the listener should cheer up; the human soul will survive.  So while not up-beat, Nézet-Séguin also did not make this performance devastating: how might the original listeners in 1937 have heard this (not quite a capitulation to Stalin’s criticism of the composer, but rather a new addition to the approved canon).

Foot-stomping applause induced an encore: the prelude to Mussorgsky‘s opera Khovanshchina, which both relaxed the mood while also building on the hopeful feeling derived from the Schostakowitsch interpretation.  Throughout all three works, this orchestra played as a fully-coherent unit: no standout individual instrumentalists, but all working together as an accomplished whole.  However the woodwinds in particular took this concept to a higher level, with evocative wistful playing as a unit, perhaps responding even more than the other sections to the unfamiliar guest conductor’s lead.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Schubert, Tschaikowsky

Musical pictures went on exhibit at the Great Festival House this evening, painted wonderfully by Vladimir Fedoseyev and the Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio.  

Modest Mussorgsky‘s Night on Bald Mountain led off the evening appropriately enough as a showpiece – although a popular piece, often regarded as a “warhorse,” I don’t recall seeing it on many concert programs and I do not even remember when I last heard it live.  At any rate, with such a performance, the work refreshed itself.  The wonderful bitter colors of this orchestra, whose sound has been built up by Fedoseyev in his nearly 44 years at its helm, portrayed a particularly evil witches’ sabbath and a welcome (if not entirely hopeful) escape of the hero saved by the day’s dawn.

Bookending the programmed part of the concert came more Mussorgsky: his Pictures at an Exhibition, in the Ravel orchestration.  Ravel’s over-rated reputation as an orchestrator derives primarily from what he accomplished with this set of pieces that Mussorgsky originally wrote for piano.  And it is indeed a most excellent scoring – in this case, made more so by this orchestra which ably highlighted the raw Russian character of Mussorgsky’s original music.  Each painting came across vividly, the troubador serenading his love outside the castle, the ox wagon rolling harshly by, the newborn chicks chirping in their shells, and the clanging bells of the Great Gate of Kiev bringing the exhibit to its glorious conclusion.  Colorful vivid playing brought out the music.

In between, Andrei Korobeinikov returned as soloist for the Second Piano Concerto by Prokofiev.  The two previous times I heard this concerto (most recently at last Summer’s Festival) overwhelmed me.  Tonight’s interpretation ended up being much more sedate.  Korobeinikov did not approach this concerto as the tour de force that it is.  Instead, he restrainted himself by opting to play it almost delicately.  Instead of massive angles of sounds bombarding the listener from all directions, we may have had all of the notes there but wafting from the keyboard and moving merrily out into the room.  Fedoseyev took his cue from the soloist in leading the orchestral accompaniment in a manner that supported Korobeinikov – to do anything else would have left the soloist swamped.  In this reading, the concerto became somewhat less bizarre than it had sounded before, maybe even more beautiful, although it had been the utter craziness of it which had endeared it to me the previous two times I heard it.

Korobeinikov came back out for one encore: Schubert‘s Erlkönig in an arrangement without words for solo piano.  For the vocal lines, Korobeinikov made clear and dramatic distinctions among the three characters, but he also slowed the tempi right down for those sections, which did not come across as necessary and probably made this piece more schizophrenic than it needed to be.

The orchestra also presented two encores at the very end.  The first was their old stand-by, which I have finally learned is the Spanish dance from Tschaikowsky‘s Swan Lake.  I knew it sounded like a Russian interpretation of Spanish music, but had never placed it before perhaps because I now realize I have never actually seen Swan Lake nor heard the whole ballet.  This was again suitable up-beat, as was the second encore (it did not look like they intended a second encore, as the orchestra members had already started congratulating themselves on stage and gotten ready to leave, but the buzz in the hall required more).  I could not identify the second encore, however – sounded annoyingly familiar, but had me stumped.

Israel Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schoenberg, Tschaikowsky, Mussorgsky

Zubin Mehta, recovering from knee surgery, conducted the Israel Philharmonic tonight in Salzburg’s Large Festival House while sitting down.   He received major applause for the effort, and for his genuine popularity. Unfortunately, the handicap resulted in a concert that resembled one of his misses that came all-to-frequently for much of his otherwise charismatic career.

The Israel Philharmonic demonstrated real virtuosity across all of its lines, one instrumentalist finer than the other.  They played well together.  So the problem came in interpretation, and possibly a lack of inspiration.

Two works by Schoenberg took up the first hour of the concert: Verklärte Nacht and the Chamber Symphony #1.  The first work, for a string chamber orchestra, can be quite sensuous, an individual work but still fully tonal.  Not tonight, as it dragged from the beginning and the night felt like it never ended.  The Chamber Symphony #1, for 15 instruments, already shows Schoenberg begin to break down traditional tonality.  This imaginative work requires much expert playing, which we got.  But after ten minutes tonight, Mehta ceased to say anything new, leaving the audience to just wait for this to pass.

After the intermission came Tschaikowsky’s Sixth.  This interpretation featured more excellent instrumentalism, yet somehow managed to both lack dancing in Tschaikowsky’s lush swinging orchestrations, and also miss the morbid foretelling of the composer’s own death days after the Symphony’s premiere.  This version tonight just dragged.

Mehta managed to stay on his feet during the encore, the prelude to Khovanshchina by Mussorgsky, and here we received more drama in the reading.  It’s hard to criticize the conductor, who could have rightfully canceled, but that’s what we got.  He’s personally popular for a reason.  But at least we did get to hear the Israel Philharmonic, itself worth the price of a ticket.

Staatsoper

Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov

Mussorgksy’s opera Boris Godunov exists in many versions, most with an inherent logic and which one production or another might legitimately favor for different reasons.  One version of the opera, however, should never be performed, except possibly as a curiosity: the original version, which was rejected by everyone including the composer himself for its complete lack of drama.  While the figure of Boris Godunov himself goes through a character development, everyone else is a stick figure, and this even makes it difficult for Boris to interact.

I know the many versions of this opera well.  I have also seen this original version staged twice myself – once in Geneva in 2003 (that failed) and once in Moscow in 2011 (at the Vishnyevskaya Opera Center, which used it as a venue to display a particularly exceptional student in the title role rather than as a fully-staged developed version, and the Center’s emphasis on acting meant the supporting characters got the little details right).

Yet, in an era of financial crisis, it beggars belief why the Staatsoper would hire a director who chose to stage Mussorgsky’s original version, as they did in 2012 with director Yannis Kokkos.  The music remains wonderful, but Kokkos gave us nothing and the evening ended unfulfilled.  Born in Greece, Kokkos has worked his entire career in France, which may explain the utter lack of drama (a good Greek word, but clearly the French influence has rubbed off).

Costumes were contemporary (or maybe 1990s) Russian, which combined with the intentially dark lighting meant I had unpleasant flashbacks of walking the streets of Moscow, city of 18 million miserable wretches, during my time working for the Russians.  The sets had no discernable logic, mixing semi-abstract iconography (to represent the churches) with geometric colored shapes (representing nothing in particular), and an assortment of odd furniture (and a ladder) that looked like the Staatsoper ran out of money before they completed the staging (or Kokkos entrusted the money to the mafiosi who run the Bolshoi and they absconded with it).  Some of the scenes contained an enormous statue with its back to the audience, which looked like it could have been Lenin.  And Kokkos also installed subterranean cisterns (or something), so that characters could sometimes make their entrances from steps emerging in the middle of the stage.  At one point, so did a bloodied child, representing the murdered Dmitri Ivanovich walking the earth again (I suppose if Kokkos selected the only version of this opera that lacks drama, he had to invent some of his own).

Ferruccio Furlanetto strove mightily to portray the title role under these circumstances.  His voice began, like his reign, hopeful and almost sweet, and became more nuanced as his character slowly decayed.  Norbert Ernst as Shuisky contrived and plotted his way through the evening – the real evil character in this opera, who sets up Boris for mental ruin (did Kokkos give him a Lenin goatee for a reason, or does Ernst normally wear his facial hair that way?).  Pavel Kolgatin as the holy fool also shone in his small but critical role.  The rest of the cast just struggled to make something dramatic of this version and senseless staging.  Kurt Rydl especially disappointed as Pimen – a mainstay of the Staatsoper, he displayed his customary full lower bass, but missed every note in the upper half of his register, rasping instead of singing.

In the pit, the German conductor Michael Güttler also failed to inject drama.  He did nothing to augment the thin scoring of this early version, and he never managed to get the chorus (apparently imported from Slovakia, according to the program) to sing in time with the orchestra.  He did flail his arms a lot, so I suppose that was dramatic.

Meanwhile, the Staatsoper appeared in a hurry to get the whole production over with: an early start time (6:30 p.m. on a weeknight!?!?) combined with zero intermissions ensured we finished long before 9:00.  They must have sensed that they wasted their money on this production.  A better idea: since the Staatsoper has been digging out old successful stagings from their warehouse, maybe it is time to cancel the rest of this run and find some old Boris sets in storage from an intelligent director, and then stage any one of the possible versions of this opera except the correctly-rejected original version.

On the other hand, the music was beautiful if I ignored everything else.  For that, it was worth buying a ticket.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Yerkanyan, Prokofiev, Mussorgsky

The Armenian Philharmonic sounded especially good tonight.  Not surprisingly, it did so under the baton of Eduard Topchjan, who continues to be the only person who can get good noises from this gang.  The star attraction this evening, however, was Steven Isserlis, the soloist for the second work on the program: Prokofiev’s Cello Concerto.

This was an unusual composition, mixing as it did a mechanized symphonic backdrop typical of Russian composers from the 1930s, perhaps the darkest decade in Russia’s already dark history, with lyrical solo lines.  If the lines were not fully lyrical, Isserlis made them so.  Isserlis treats the cello as his dance partner, even if he never does leave the chair the two of them spin around in place together.

Preceding the Prokofiev piece, Misteria by Armenian composer Yervand Yerkanyan opened the program.  The music was pleasant enough, in a pseudo-mystic sort of way, but never seemed to go anywhere.  Maybe it was not supposed to.  Maybe that was the mystery.

Almost half the audience failed to return to the Khachaturian Hall for the second half of the concert, and they made a big mistake.  Topchjan led an inspired performance of Mussorgsky’Pictures at an Exhibition in its Ravel orchestration.  A highly-regarded but generally over-rated orchestrator, Ravel exceeded his talents with this work – other attempts to orchestrate the Pictures have not come close.  Topchjan clearly knew every aspect and each instrument’s strength, bringing out lines here and nuances there which often get overlooked, showcasing Ravel’s accomplishment even more.  The Orchestra responded passionately, and without the usual squeeks and missed cues I have gotten used to here in Yerevan.  Tonight the Maestro had them on.

Soloists of the Vishnyevskaya Opera Center, Cadogan Hall (London)

Tschaikowsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Mascagni, Verdi

Russian oligarchs have adopted Sloan Square in London as one of their preferred neighborhoods to purchase real estate and hide outside Russia, which has somewhat ruined the quality around there.  Tonight, however, good Russians descended on the area: soloists of Moscow’s Vishnyevskaya Opera Center performed at Cadogan Hall.  The Opera Center, founded in 2002 as a training school by the great diva Galina Vishnyevskaya, who died last December, was one of seven opera venues I experienced during my Moscow years.  There, Vishnyevskaya taught the students the tricks of her trade: both the beautiful singing but equally importantly the acting, which made her – in my opinion – the greatest-ever dramatic soprano.

Tonight’s performance felt doubly disembodied: not only did they only perform brief excerpts, but they did so without an orchestra and only piano accompaniment, which removed much of the drama.  Nevertheless, these six young performers – Konstantin BrzhinskyLyubov MolinaAleksey TikhomirovSergey PolyakovYekaterina Mironicheva,and Karina Flores have learned well. They came across as much more comfortable in the Russian repertory (TschaikowskyRimsky-Korsakov, and Mussorgsky) than in the Italian (Mascagni and Verdi), which is probably no surprise. Certainly the Russian selections made the biggest impression.  The giant bass-baritone Tikhomirov sang excerpts from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, a role I heard him perform live at the Opera Center’s theater in 2011.  The final scene of Tschaikowsky’s Yevgeny Onyegin, performed by Mironicheva as Tatyana (a role I also saw her in at the Opera Center in 2011) and Brzhinsky as Onyegin, concluded the Russian-repertory part of the program as a particular highlight.

Soloists of the Vishnyevskaya Opera Center, Cadogan Hall (London)

Tschaikowsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Mascagni, Verdi

Russian oligarchs have adopted Sloan Square in London as one of their preferred neighborhoods to purchase real estate and hide outside Russia, which has somewhat ruined the quality around there.  Tonight, however, good Russians descended on the area: soloists of Moscow’s Vishnyevskaya Opera Center performed at Cadogan Hall.  The Opera Center, founded in 2002 as a training school by the great diva Galina Vishnyevskaya, who died last December, was one of seven opera venues I experienced during my Moscow years.  There, Vishnyevskaya taught the students the tricks of her trade: both the beautiful singing but equally importantly the acting, which made her – in my opinion – the greatest-ever dramatic soprano.

Tonight’s performance felt doubly disembodied: not only did they only perform brief excerpts, but they did so without an orchestra and only piano accompaniment, which removed much of the drama.  Nevertheless, these six young performers – Konstantin BrzhinskyLyubov MolinaAleksey TikhomirovSergey PolyakovYekaterina Mironicheva,and Karina Flores have learned well. They came across as much more comfortable in the Russian repertory (TschaikowskyRimsky-Korsakov, and Mussorgsky) than in the Italian (Mascagni and Verdi), which is probably no surprise. Certainly the Russian selections made the biggest impression.  The giant bass-baritone Tikhomirov sang excerpts from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, a role I heard him perform live at the Opera Center’s theater in 2011.  The final scene of Tschaikowsky’s Yevgeny Onyegin, performed by Mironicheva as Tatyana (a role I also saw her in at the Opera Center in 2011) and Brzhinsky as Onyegin, concluded the Russian-repertory part of the program as a particular highlight.

Galina Vishnyevskaya Opera Center

Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov

I have now tried my seventh different venue for an opera in Moscow: the Galina Vishnyevskaya Opera Center, named for its director, the legendary Galina Vishnyevskaya, perhaps one of the greatest dramatic sopranos of all time and the widow of the dissident cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.  The center is one of Russia’s foremost training grounds for opera singers.

Inside the building sits a charming miniature theater, designed to look like a full-size opera house (complete with four levels of seating) but with only about 250 total seats.  Vishnyevskaya herself adorned the royal box, and the audience gave her an applause when she took her seat before the opera began and a standing ovation after the final curtain call.  The orchestra pit has been built directly underneath the stage, with only a small amount sticking out so that the cast can see the conductor.  The acoustics in the hall allow for the orchestra to be heard well without overwhelming the signers in the close quarters.  The stage is not large, but conducive to a suggestive staging.

On the program was something billed as Boris Godunov by Mussorgsky.  Unfortunately, the version they chose to stage was the so-called “original” version, which is to say Mussorgsky’s rejected sketch version, which was rejected for good reason and dug up again about 15 years ago as a curiosity, after which it has, quite peculiarly and undeservedly, become part of the international repertory.  While there is a healthy debate about which performing version of Boris is best (and there are several alternative versions), I can see no argument at all to favor this one.

That said, if someone is going to perform this version, than it might as well be the Vishnyevskaya Center.  So, while I normally avoid this version, I decided tonight would be worth attending, and the Vishnyevskaya Center did not let me down.

This rejected version lacks drama – the only character with any development is Boris.  Since the other characters are so thin, this also impacts the developed character of Boris, because he has no context to operate in.  As could be expected from an opera center led by Vishyevskaya, the cast put a large emphasis on dramatic interpretation, and so the intelligent acting went a certain way towards filling in the weakness of this early sketch.  The stage direction also provided intelligence, with small touches of masterful detail (Shuisky sneaking onto Boris’ throne, Fyodor moving his nanny’s feet out of the way so he could expand the map of the Russian Empire across the floor, Boris getting progressively greyer hair as the opera went on), and dramatic lighting.

In this production, the Boris, Aleksey Tikhomirov, was a massive human being – even when he knelt, he was taller than other cast members, and he had to keep ducking to get under parts of the scenery.  His voice resonated accordingly, and had a warm quality that was most sympathetic when he was with his children.  The small confines of the auditorium meant he did not have to project much during the more dramatic scenes, so he could concentrate on singing-acting.  Presumably, with his size, he can project in a large theater when he needs to.

The other characters simply are not sufficiently developed in this version of the opera.  The cast made a good go of it though.  The best scene, in this respect, came in the Inn, where Anna Fatyeyeva made a rousing innkeeper and Yevgyeny Plekhanov a jovial and debauched Varlaam.

The pit orchestra was ragged, but reasonably good for what is not a regular orchestra.  I do not know where those musicians come from, whether they are professionals or not, and what their status is with the Vishnyevskaya Center, which does not have a regular performance schedule.  The Lithuanian conductor Gintaras Rinkevičius, whom I have heard give dramatic readings elsewhere before, certainly came through this evening as well, with good pacing and balance.

Pokrovsky Chamber Opera

Mussorgsky, The Fair at Sorochintsy

Tried out a different opera house tonight: The Pokrovsky Chamber Opera.  It is named for its founder, a former artistic director of the Bolshoi (between 1943 and 1982, back when the Bolshoi was actually good), who after leaving the Bolshoi started his own small company, then known as the Moscow Chamber Opera.  He died a year ago at the age of 97, and the house has been renamed for him.

Small theater, seats about 100 – tonight they set the room up with the stage (actually, there was no stage, just an area where the sets were) in the middle and about 50 seats on either side, with aisles down the middle of each side to allow the performers to move on and off the stage and in and around the audience.  The chamber orchestra took about 1/3rd of the central area, and faced the wall, allowing the conductor a view to the singers and ensuring the orchestra did not drown anyone out.  The lobby/café was relaxed and had a certain charm, and before the start of each act a theater hand wandered through the lobby ringing a small dinner bell in order to alert people to take their seats.

The opera on the program was The Fair at Sorochintsy, by Mussorgsky.  This opera is almost never performed, mostly because it was never actually written in the first place.  Mussorgsky worked periodically, but never primarily, on this setting of a Gogol short story, but at the time of his death he had only completed fragments and sketches.  Several of his friends (including Lyadov, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Cui) decided to elaborate on different sections, mostly independently of each other.  Other composers have also subsequently worked on portions.  At different times in the 20th century, still other composers have decided to cobble these bits and pieces together, and it was one such version being performed this evening.  The resulting work is identifiably Mussorgsky, but naturally a bit disjointed and unpolished.  Still worth a listen.

This performance was fun.  Clearly, the cast had a good time out there.  Staging was kept as realistic as it might be for such a small performance space, but generally was designed to allow the performers to ham it up a bit, which they gladly did.  Pokrovsky himself was responsible for this production, originally put on in 2000.  The orchestra sounded a bit thin and student-ish, which it probably was, but the cast was solid across the board.

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.

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