Novaya Opera

Puccini, Gianni Schicchi
Offenbach, Mr. Cauliflower Remains at Home

Double-bill at the Novaya Opera tonight: Gianni Schicchi by Puccini and Mr. Cauliflower Remains at Home by Offenbach.

Both operas were staged as farces.  This worked better for the Offenbach piece than for the Puccini, which relies more on its clever text to provide the comedy.  Perhaps the director assumed that Russians who do not speak Italian would not understand the humor (although supertitles were provided) so decided to ham it up for a laugh.  But people were not laughing that much.  By contrast, the Offenbach opera was performed in Russian, and the audience was in hysterics.

This production of Gianni Schicchi began before the music: at a birthday party for Buoso Donati, at which his family accidentally kills him as part of the slapstick act.  This type of humor continues throughout, and at the very end, after the opera should be over, Donati suddenly comes back to life, aware of what has gone on, and chases Gianni Schicchi out of the house.  All of this extraneous action was wasted, since the humor of the opera is more subtle.  The cast at least understood that, and when singing their roles (in clear Italian) did convey the text properly.  Oleg Didenko (as Simone) and Galina Korolëva (as Lauretta) especially excelled, and Dimitry Volosnikov kept the music lively in the pit.

For the Offenbach, the farce worked.  My Russian was insufficient to keep up with the text, and it is not an opera I previously knew (I’ve only read the plot summary on the day of the opera), but the audience kept laughing steadily, so I suppose it worked.  I could follow the plot easily enough, and enjoy the slapstick, but not catch the nuances of the text.  But the setting clearly worked better for the second half of the double-bill than for the first.  Musically, the company gave a better performance for the Puccini, however.

Novaya Opera

Rossini, Barbiere di Siviglia

Went back to the Novaya Opera tonight for Rossini’s Barber of Seville.  Realized that I cannot remember having ever actually seen this opera before, although I know it well.

Initially, I thought it would be a disappointment, but the production, directed by the Australian opera director Elijah Moshinsky, grew on me during the course of the first act.  Moshinsky used bright colors, as though out of an old Dick Tracy comic book, and backdrops of geometric shapes and optical illusions evoking a bizarre 1950s atmosphere.  During the scenes which take place outdoors, which are most of the first scenes, he kept the stage dimly lit, and the cast and chorus had to walk around using flashlights.  I did not understand this aspect, as it muted the colors and made the whole production come across as confused.  But since most of the scenes take place indoors, where Moshinsky used bright lights, causing the colors to jump, the setting accentuated the operatic farce extremely well, and this turned into a fun production.  His staging allowed for the cast of characters to ham it up to the fullest, and this worked – especially contrasted with last night’s director, who had too much going on providing distraction.  Moshinsky clearly realized that there is a difference between making everyone on stage do things just to make them do things (as last night’s director clearly did, to justify his own existence on the planet) and actually making them do things for the purpose of enhancing the action of the opera.

The cast certainly enjoyed it, too.  For the second night in a row, the lead tenor had a light, dry, and not overly pleasant voice (tonight: Aleksandr Bogdanov as Almaviva), but the others were all very good.  Vasily Ladyuk, as Figaro, led the charge as the Factotum della Città.  Yelena Tyerentyeva, as Rosina, also sounded and acted great, although, rather unfortunately, she periodically forgot her lines.  Aleksey Antonov and Yevgeny Stavinskyas Basilio and Bartolo, provided strong singing and acting voices and much additional fun.  The young conductor Vasily Valitov kept the orchestra alive and full of humor.

Novaya Opera

Donizetti, L’Elisir d’Amore

Donizetti’l’Elisir d’Amore is in the repertory of two different Moscow houses at the moment.  I do not believe I have seen it live in person since I saw it at the Lowell House Opera thirty years ago, so I figured I would pick one.  According to the newspaper, the version at the Stanislavsky was being performed in a confused mix of Russian and Italian, so I opted instead for the Novaya Opera, which stuck with a single language (Italian).

If I thought this might allow me to avoid confusion, I was wrong.  The director, Yury Alexandrov, was not German, nor did his bio in the program indicate that he trained in Germany, but must have studied enough German Regietheater, since he decided not to stage the opera but rather to demonstrate that, since he was the boss, the cast had to do whatever he told them to do on stage.  The only Regietheater convention he left out was the homoerotic scene, but everything else was there up to and including the Chassidic Jew, who appeared in two scenes to inspect the stage, generally look disgusted, and to taste the (hopefully kosher) food at the banquet.

The opera opened and closed at what appeared to be a Renaissance costume party gone haywire.  Nemorino seems to have been a tourist guide dressed in a track suit, leading a group of Japanese tourists, including an old lady in a wheelchair, all of whom annoyingly kept taking flash photos (which can be blinding in a dark theater).  Once Dulcamara appeared, and until almost the very end of the opera, most of the cast turned into stereotypical Russians – the men were the sort of drunken slobs I see all over the sidewalks in Moscow, and the women were all dressed like the lowest class of prostitutes (not all Russian women are whores, they just seem to think it is appropriate to dress that way in public).  Dulcamara dressed like a Russian oligarch – indeed, until his first cue, he was seated (in costume) in the middle of the audience, and I do not think anyone noticed him looking out of place there.  Although he sang the role, he left the dispensing of quack potions up to some other mute character in a red bowtie and glasses.

Meanwhile, a lot of extraneous action was going on on stage, which had nothing to do with anything but was very distracting.  Aside from the aforementioned Chassid, the old Japanese woman who opened and closed the opera in the wheelchair pranced around all over the stage (not in her wheelchair), doing everything from reading pornography to trying to eat leftovers using her hairpieces as chopsticks.  One man stood in the window of a house overlooking the square and watched all of the action through a telescope.  A little kid practiced violin in an open window.  Everyone else scurried about, drawing attention away from the people trying to sing.  As if to claim the spotlight back, the main members of the cast started contorting their bodies to move around the stage unnaturally.

All of this was a great shame, because musically it was a fine performance.  Dmitry Volosnikov, in the pit, kept the music light, spritely, and fun – as Donizetti meant it – and the orchestra responded.  The cast sounded great, particularly Tatyana Pechnikova as Adina and Oleg Shagotsky as Dulcamara.  Only the Nemorino, Georgy Faradzhev, did not meet the standard set by everyone else – his tenor was thin, dry, and not overly pleasant.  However, the staging was such a distraction that I left this performance feeling unsatisfied.

The director Alexandrov should be deported to East Berlin, or else at least to somewhere that still has a big wall around it.

Novaya Opera

Borodin, Prince Igor

I got a late ticket for opening night of the 2011-12 season at the Novaya Opera: a new production of Borodin’Prince Igor.  Judging by the look of the men sitting around me, I think my seat was in the section normally set aside for bodyguards.  I looked very out of place among this group of overly-stiff thugs, who all looked miserable having to attend an opera, but who at least remained attentive (with shifty eyes) and did not speak at all (actually, they did not even move at all, except to look at their watches).  I guess someone brought one fewer bodyguard than usual, so I got the seat.  I also suppose that some VIP(s) left at intermission, because most of my row did not return for the second half.

The performance met the standard I have come to expect from the Novaya.  Music Director Yevgeny Samoilov led a well-paced musical production.  The cast – made up of the Novaya’s ensemble – sounded uniformly good.  Sergey Artomonov stood out with his noble portrayal of the title role.  Yelena Popovskaya, as Igor’s wife Yaroslavna, warbled at first (to such an extent that she visibly reacted with disgust at her own voice when she first opened her mouth) but managed to calm her vocal chords down as the night went on, so that her long lament in the final scene (of this setting) came across as moving and haunting.  Vitaly Efanov, who sang Khan Konchak, was obviously an audience favorite and had a tremendous stage presence, but his voice sounded a tad tired tonight.

As I noted when I saw this opera at the Mariinsky in July, no definitive version of Prince Igor exists – not even the exact plot – as Borodin left everything in chaos when he died.  The Novaya used a more-standard performing version than the Mariinsky.  Although edited, this version captured the drama far more convincingly than the Mariinsky’s confused plot line.  That said, the Mariinsky’s staging was far more effective, mostly because of over-active stage direction at the Novaya rather than a poor concept.  The scenery tonight was, in fact, generally acceptable.  For the first half of tonight’s staging at the Novaya provided a traditional-looking backdrop, with run-down city walls and a gate representing the decayed and impoverished state of mediaeval Russia.  This backdrop remained throughout most of the opera, with only the props and lighting changing to convey the different scenes.  On the whole, though, this worked.  The final scene was set on a cloudy wasteland, representing Russia destroyed after the Polovtsian raids. Only the scene set in the Polovtsian camp came across as odd, consisting of a bunch of jewel-encrusted war tents with shifting multi-colored lighting inside which made the whole camp look like a crashed UFO.

The main problem with this staging, however, came from the hyper-active method acting the director required.  This bordered on the melodramatic most of the time, but often even crossed that line.  The young women of Putivl were forced to contort themselves in especially bizarre ways (which must have also made it difficult to sing properly, although they somehow sounded good).  During the first scene, the emphasis the director placed on the impoverished miserable citizens of Putivl being brutalized by soldiers distracted from the characters actually singing.  The furthest the director crossed the line came in the dialogue between Yaroslavna and her brother Vladimir Galitsky, when he started fondling her – Galitsky is an unsavory character, but this went too far even for him.

Still, over all, the production made a good impression, mostly for its overall musical integrity.

Novaya Opera

Prokofiev

Went to the movies at the Novaya Opera tonight, where concert excerpts from Prokofiev’s music to Eisenstein’s films Ivan the Terrible and Aleksandr Nyevsky were on the program (for the Nyevsky excerpts they used the Cantata that Prokofiev himself prepared based on the film ).  The orchestra played from the pit, a film screen was dropped halfway up the stage, and the chorus sang from the sides of the stage.  Since I have never seen the Ivan films (Eisenstein completed Part I, most of Part II, and only a small amount of Part III before the Soviets killed the project), it was hard for me to follow along with the video excerpts, which jumped around a bit.  However, I do know the Nyevsky film, so although the portions shown also jumped around I could follow – I wonder how well the rest of the audience knows these two films?

The Novaya orchestra and chorus sounded in full form (although the brass began to wear out as the night went on), conducted by Dmitry Volosnikov.  These works are not part of the house’s normal repertory, so it was a one-night-only performance.  That said, I hope they do it again.  Fantastic way to hear this music and see parts of these classic films.  Absolute genius.

Novaya Opera

Rimsky-Korsakov, Snow Maiden

An afternoon performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’Snow Maiden at the Novaya Opera.  Rimsky-Korsakov apparently wrote in his auto-biography that this was his own favorite of all his works.  However, although pleasant enough, I do not understand why.  It has some typically Russian chorus parts, and a few lyric arias, but is generally of no special interest that I could discern and appeared to need further editing (something that can rarely be said about the normally detail-oriented Rimsky-Korsakov).  This performance by the Novaya, under Evgeny Samoilov, was fine, so although perhaps a more inspired performance might bring out something special, I just do not see where.

Unusual for a Russian production, the strongest voices today came from women: Galina Korolëva (as the Snow Maiden) and Tatyana Tabachuk (as Lel) led a serviceable ensemble cast.  Benjamin Egorov, in the character role Bobil, also provided good-spirited amusement.

Fairy-tale staging was suggestive, and therefore better than most at the Novaya, although I do not think the director was entirely clear on the concept he was suggesting – or at least was not clear enough to convey his concept to me with this staging.  Distractions included forcing the Emperor and his Boyar to contort their bodies bizarrely as they sung rather than allowing them to act naturally like everyone else; some chorus roles were acted out on stage but sung by a chorus sitting in the box seats; and Spring and Frost, the parents of the Snow Maiden, sang their roles from the orchestra pit rather than from the stage, which somewhat limited their ability to interact with their daughter.

Distractions for which the director was not responsible also came from both backstage and from the theater.  Backstage, visible stagehands broke the fundamental rule: if they can see the audience, the audience can see them – very amateurish, and not what I have come to expect from this opera house.  In the theater itself, due to the 2:00 start time, many children attended; they behaved wonderfully, but the same can not be said of the adults they brought with them, who talked incessantly, got up and walked around (and in and out of the hall) during the performance, and took flash photos, which spoiled the fairy-tale mood and must have blinded some of the cast.  Someone should tell these children to leave their adults at home next time.

Novaya Opera

Mozart, Zauberflöte

Following on my own advice from last night, I went to the Novaya Opera tonight to hear (but to try not to see) Mozart’Zauberflöte.  The performance was excellent, from a musical perspective, with a very good ensemble cast, orchestra, and chorus all under the direction of Anatoly Gus.  I spotted last night’s conductor from the Stanislavsky in the audience – maybe learning a thing or two – oddly still dressed in the same outfit he wore in the pit last night.

But, indeed, I should have kept my eyes closed.  Zauberflöte is a magical fantasy opera, and so there is no correct staging, and many possibilities exist.  Since there is no such thing as a realistic staging, I entered the theater figuring it could not be so bad.

However, in this case, the stage director was probably on drugs.  He did actually attempt to stage this opera, so I suppose if I ignored what things looked like then the plot was preserved and presented.  And there seemed to be some concept to this staging (for example, the white set changed to black and other colors were inverted for the second act), but I cannot say that in my sober and non-drug induced state that I could figure out what the director meant.  Most of the costumes seem to have been based on the cartoon figures in Yellow Submarine, the Beatles’ LSD-inspired movie, but I could find no obvious correlation between characters in that movie and characters dressed the same way in this opera, so I assume the director had not thought that bit through.  Additionally, Sarastro appeared (to me at least) to be a caricature of Stalin, although again it was not obvious why or what connection this had to the plot.  There were certainly Soviet references mixed in, though: the Queen of the night carried a sickle (and her daughter Pamina had a sickle embedded in her head for no apparent reason), whereas Sarastro carried a hammer (as did his men, eventually).  The two Armored Men were statues, one of which bore a resemblance to Lenin (and I probably just missed who the other one was supposed to be).

As I said, I am not sure what any of this had to do with the opera.  Unlike German Regietheater, which makes no attempt to portray the action, this production actually followed along with the plot.  But the staging, and more particularly the costumes, seem to have resulted from a drug-induced vision inspired by the Beatles.

Novaya Opera

Verdi, Rigoletto

Tonight was Verdi’Rigoletto at the Novaya Opera.

Musically, it met the standards I have come to expect from the Novaya. Conductor Yevgeny Samoilov drove the performance, and had an excellent sense of theater.

On stage, there was less of a sense of theater. The staging was simplified traditional, but the director had no sense of drama. Characters essentially stood around, or moved around the stage independent of events. This is possibly because the production was originally a co-production with an Italian festival, and since Italian opera singers tend towards the obese, perhaps it was designed to have minimal motion. However, Russian opera singers tend towards the starving artist look, and are much more agile, so they should have adapted the stage directions accordingly.

Singing was musically good, but it is hard to act with such lousy blocking. As a result, some of the cast did not even try (the Gilda, for example, seemed comically incapable of knocking on Sparafucile’s door in time with the knocking sound in the score).

Rigoletto was an exception.  Vasily Svyatkin, a big bear of a Russian baritone, acted with his voice, even when the stage director gave him odd blockings. He was the highlight.

Nurlan Bekmukhamvedov, as the Duke, also had a very pleasant voice, but it was a tad too high: he had absolutely no trouble hitting all the high notes beautifully, but without the lower register his voice did not fully resonate. Volume was fine, just not so much depth.

That may be my last performance in Moscow until the Fall. June is a thin month, and then I won’t be back here until October.

Novaya Opera

Glinka, Ruslan & Lyudmila

A terrifically charming production of Glinka’Ruslan i Lyudmila at the Novaya this evening.

This opera is rarely performed and is mostly known because of its overture (which in this production, for some reason, was not performed before the opera but rather came at the very end of the opera as the conclusion to the celebration at the end of the final act). However, if the opera were more often produced like the version I saw tonight, it would become a staple in the repertory.

This was the sort of production you bring kids to (as a lot of people did this evening) to make them interested in opera. It was a ton of fun, staged as though it were out of a children’s picture-book, and musically excellent too. It is a fairy tale, so the staging captured that mood, with bright colors, fanciful creatures, and over-acting. It was also the first opera I have seen at the Novaya Opera where I understood the staging (although not realistic, but it is a fairy tale, so what is realism? – importantly, the director used the staging to support the story).  Sergey Lisenko on the podium, Vladimir Kudashev and Yelena Terentyeva in the title roles. Truly delightful.

Novaya Opera

Rimsky-Korsakov, Tsar’s Bride

Tsar’s Bride by Rimsky-Korsakov this evening at the Novaya Opera.

This opera should be performed more often, although not necessary in this staging.

It’s an opera I was only familiar with previously though excerpts, so it was good to hear the whole thing. Plot was a little convoluted. The program was only in Russian, so I had to try to remember what I had read in advance. Unfortunately, the staging did not allow me to keep track of what was going on. Although some of that can be my fault for not knowing the plot perfectly, the director really should help out a little bit.

I’m not sure what the stage was supposed to be. Sort of a huge wooden scaffolding that reminded me of the Trojan Horse for no particular reason. Characters climbed in and out. Costumes were more or less traditional. Staging was not shocking – not Regietheater – but just made no sense in general. Added nothing but distraction. And since this is not an often-performed opera, the director cannot assume people are familiar enough with it that he doesn’t need to make the action somehow clear, even if only suggestive.

Male voices were noticeably superior to the female voices on the whole. Actually, male voices were all quite good. Female voices were a tad weak, although the title character was good.

Novaya Opera

Rubinstein, The Demon

I have wanted to see Anton Rubinstein‘s famous, but rarely performed (in the West), opera The Demon for a while.  Now I have.  Great music; what a shame about the Novaya Opera‘s staging, though.

It was a good performance, from a musical perspective.  I’ve seen far worse stagings of operas by German directors or directors who studied in Germany, and while this staging did not sink to German levels of nonsense, it was certainly not good and contributed nothing to clarity.  At least they did not alter the plot (again, unlike the Germans, who tend to stage things that have nothing to do with the plot), but it was just weird.

And still Russians chatter away in the audience.