Pokrovsky Chamber Opera

Mozart, Don Giovanni

For my final production at the Pokrovsky Chamber Opera (there’s nothing in the schedule when I am here in November), Mozart’Don Giovanni.  The late Boris Pokrovsky can always be counted on for intelligent stagings, this one dating from 1987.

In the program notes, Pokrovsky explained that he decided to focus on Mozart’s own description of this opera as a “drama giocosa” (amusing drama).  This resulted in a production which would maximize the need for the characters to act, on one hand, and would emphasize the comic elements.  The small theater was rearranged from its usual set-up (nothing is bolted down), with the seats parked on a diagonal.  Where the orchestra pit usually is was covered over, thus allowing the action to spill off the stage, both within the triangle-shaped area where there were no seats and alongside the audience.  The orchestra sat behind a scrim in the back of the stage.  The scenery was traditional – furniture, gates, a pillar shrine to the virgin Mary – but since there is no curtain in this theater and therefore no scene changes, it all had to serve multiple purposes.

For this it worked.  With singers who can not only sing but can also act, this indeed provided them the intimate setting in which to do both.  They enjoyed themselves, and so did the audience.  Leporello provides the most comic relief, and German Yukavsky played his role to the fullest, often stealing the entire show.  Aleksey Mochalov sang an energetic Don Giovanni – in this portrayal, Pokrovsky explained in the notes, it was important that we remember that for Don Giovanni to succeed in his rather bad exploits, he actually has to be a charming and likable character.  Mocharov managed to pull off being both the bad guy and the charmer.  In the end, as Pokrovsky further explained in the notes, although he received his punishment in hell, and the other characters gloat about it in the final ensemble, the violins are mocking everything with their laughter, so the irrepressible Don Giovanni maybe is not defeated after all.

Conductor Vladimir Agronsky once again provided a good musical foundation to allow the cast to shine.

I am going to miss this little theater.

Pokrovsky Chamber Opera

Mozart, Zauberflöte

I can always count on Moscow’s Pokrovsky Chamber Opera for intelligent and charming productions, at least as long as they keep trotting out ones directed by the late great Boris Pokrovsky.  So when I saw a 2004 production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte on their schedule, I figured I should snag a ticket for tonight just to see what the genius Pokrovsky could make of it (when he was 92 years old!).  The Chamber Opera did not let me down.

Considering the size of the theater, Pokrovsky scaled the production down to the minimum needed to produce a concept.  He used very little in the way of sets – mostly geometric figures representing the heavens – and lighting, and having the cast spill off the stage and down the center aisle.  The disembodied chorus sang from the rafters above and behind the audience.

During the overture, the male and female leads – soon to be transformed into Tamino and Pamina – came on stage as children reading a picture book.  As they flipped through the pages for a preview of the story to come, they conjured up the other performers on stage.  Once the cast had assembled, the fairy tale could begin.  There really is no “right” way to stage this opera (although there are plenty of wrong ways).  Within the limitations of a chamber opera theater, Pokrovsky kept this production light-hearted and emphasized the comic aspects.  He simplified the action, having members of the cast double up on roles (for example: the Armored Men were also Priests), without changing the plot.  The cast – essentially just the house’s ensemble – acted their roles and drew the audience into the story.  The audience itself had dozens of little kids attending, all of whom looked absolutely enraptured by what they experienced.  They needed nothing fancy – just pure unadulterated fun.

Oleg Byeluntsov kept the orchestra playing along in the same character, and I could almost hear the smiles on the musicians’ faces as they performed a light and spirited accompaniment.  Of the cast, Maksim Palin had an absolutely booming voice Sarastro, but radiated warmth.  Yuliya MoiseyevaBorislav MolchanovYekaterina Fyerzba, and Sergei Ostroumov mastered their singing and acting as Pamina, Tamino, the Queen of the Night, and Monostatos.  And someone named Chvetkov (no first name provided) deserves special kudos as Papageno – an understudy and last-minute substitution for the two ensemble members who have it in their repertory but who must have come down sick in our rapidly-winterizing weather.  A little shaky with his lines at first, his nerves settled in and he came into his role to soon charm the audience.

The one complaint I initially had came from the outrageous Russian accents everyone in the cast had, since it seemed odd not to have a speech coach.  These accents made the dialogues sound especially silly.  However, as the night went on, not only did I become accustomed to these accents, but I ultimately decided that they actually added extra charm to the whole evening.  This was a fantasy production, after all.  It was fantastic in other ways as well.

Pokrovsky Chamber Opera

Schostakowitsch, The Nose

I saw Schostakowitsch’Nose at the Pokrovsky Chamber Opera tonight.  It had gone missing, you know?

Schostakowitsch wrote this peculiar opera in the 1920s, based on a story by Gogol.  For political reasons it never caught on and the Soviets destroyed most of the manuscripts.  Shortly before Schostakowitsch died, Boris Pokrovsky, the late great artistic director of the Bolshoi, found a surviving copy of the score and, together with conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky and with some input from the composer, produced a version, which has since toured the world and has now landed on the stage of the Chamber Opera which Pokrovsky founded after he was pushed out of the Bolshoi.

The plot concerns a nose which has left the face of a Russian bureaucrat in order to have a life of its own.  It will not even speak to the bureaucrat, since in the meantime it has received a promotion to a much higher rank.  No one else will speak to the bureaucrat either, since they consider it bad taste for someone to leave his home without wearing a nose.  Eventually, though, the bureaucrat does succeed in getting his nose back on his face.

A realistic staging would obviously not be possible.  So Pokrovsky elected to have a staging which allows the cast to act.  There was not much in the way of sets, but the stage directions provided enough detail and meant that a lot was taking place on stage.  If I spoke Russian better, I probably would have gotten more out of this production, but even I could appreciate the humor, which kept the bizarre tale moving at a good pace without ever deteriorating into farce.  Schostakowitsch set the opera to very eclectic music of no particular style, one of the reasons the Soviets did not react so positively to it the first time around in the 1920s, and Pokrovsky’s staging provided the necessary symbiosis.

The cast was adequate, and the Pokrovsky Opera trotted out yet another dour Soviet-looking conductor – this time, Vladimir Argonsky – who kept everything moving along together.

Pokrovsky Chamber Opera

Stravinsky, The Rake’s Progress

For The Rake’s Progress by Igor Stravinsky tonight, Moscow’s Pokrovsky Chamber Opera sung in a Russian translation (from the original English), and used a 1978 staging by the late Boris Pokrovsky himself (the longtime Artistic Director of the Bolshoi Opera back when it was good from 1952-1982, who founded the Moscow Chamber Opera and who died in 2009, after which the Chamber Opera was named after him).

Pokrovsky was a master, and understood drama in a way few directors seem to these days.  The concept of this staging was actually quite simple.  Stravinsky had based the story on a series of paintings by William Hogarth.  So Pokrovsky put enormous picture frames on the stage, which when the drapes were pulled back from each frame revealed one of scenes in the original Hogarth paintings.  The cast emerged from the paintings to act out the scenes, dressed in period costumes from early eighteenth-Century Britain.  The rest of the props were kept simple and suggestive, allowing the cast to act their roles out.

I would imagine that singers can very much enjoy such stagings, since they get to demonstrate their full talents without distractions.  The theater layout was different from the way it had been set up the last time I was there (for Mussorgsky’s Sorochintsy Fair in the Fall) – the room was set up like a typical theater this time.  Although Stravinsky scored this opera for a small classical-sized orchestra, he nevertheless wrote a full opera and having a little more distance between the audience and the stage allowed for better visual and acoustical perspective.  The cast excelled – particularly Olesya Starukhina as Anne Truelove and Borislav Molchanov as Tom Rakewell (although Mochanov’s voice may have been too large for this theater – he often needed but failed to modify his volume).  Igor Gromov kept the whole work moving from the podium.  He seemed humorless, but considering he created the platform to allow the cast to provide the humor, and orchestra and cast sounded excellent, he should get the credit.

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.