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