Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Konzerthaus (Vienna)

Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Alfeyev

I followed the Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra and Vladimir Fedoseyev to Vienna for the third concert with them in four days.  It does help when they have a good variety on the program.  This evening, the Choir of the Moscow Synod joined them for a selection of choral church music.

The concert opened, however, with an overture that was not especially religious: to Rimsky-Korsakov‘s opera The Invisible City of Kitezh.  I suppose that was to set the mood, which it did with its hymnlike theme, although rearranging the stage to shift the right musicians and instruments afterwards before the choral music rather broke the mood.

Two selections from Rachmaninov‘s All Night Vigil followed: Rachmaninov’s take on traditional Russian church music forms.  This made a nice bridge to Stravinsky‘s Symphony of Psalms, which took an old idea and somehow created an entirely new concept all together.  The chorus pulled both sets off, with the orchestra – or the odd group of musicians Stravinsky scored the work for – joining in merrily.  Indeed, this was a merry reading, a happy way to praise the Lord.  Stravinsky’s method was rather complex, but under Fedoseyev’s organizing structure it sounded almost easy.

These works nicely set the table for something new (or was it also just something old made new?) after the intermission: works by the composer Grigoriy Alfeyev, who under his ordination name, Metropolitan Hilarion, is the Russian Orthodox Church’s current minister of external relations.  He’s a little older than me, but exactly overlapped with me at Oxford when we were both doing our doctorates (I don’t believe we ever met).

The first piece by Alfeyev set the Catholic Latin text Stabat Mater.  Not surprisingly, then, it opened in a classical church music tradition that suggested some influence from Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and early Bruckner (when Bruckner was still composing church music).  It then moved from the Brucknerian in the (not actually unrelated) direction of Taneyev (who was the great professor of counterpoint at the Moscow conservatory in the late 19th century).  Taneyev’s students included Rachmaninov and Scriabin, so it was probably not surprising that the piece started to head that way… except for some neo-Baroque orchestral interludes.

Alfeyev’s Songs of Pilgramage followed, based on excerpts from Psalms in Russian language translations.  Perhaps because they were Russian texts (and not Latin), they owed more to a combination of traditional Russian choral church music but passed through the development of Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and beyond.  I suppose befitting a high-ranking figure in the Russian Orthodox Church, it never got too radical, and the textual language remained clear (thanks also to the talent of the choir), but it nevertheless came across as new and fresh.  Fedoseyev, on the podium, seemed careful.  Indeed, if I had to categorize his interpretive style in all three concerts I have heard this week, I would say that Fedoseyev has demonstrated enormous control over the performances, keeping them well-contained and allowing for full color – if not especially bold, then at least especially balanced and thoughtful.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Khachaturian, Rimsky-Korsakov

Middle Eastern-inspired music filled Salzburg’s Great Festival House this evening, presented by the Mozarteum Orchestra under the young Spanish guest conductor Antonio Méndez.

Violinist Alina Pogostkina (born in the Soviet Union, her violinist parents left after it collapsed to begin a new life in Germany as street musicians, which is how she got her start) joined the orchestra for Aram Khachaturyan‘s violin concerto.  She may not have fully warmed up before coming on stage, as the sounds that initially emerged from her instrument were weak and halting, even though the music itself requires a robust and somewhat edgy opening.  Méndez noticed, and quickly dialed down the orchestra to not overwhelm her.  As her sound warmed (although it never became completely full), the orchestra came back up to a normal level.

I’m not convinced she ever quite captured the rawness of this work.  The orchestra did, however.  Although not scored for duduks, it could have been: the most quintessential of Armenian instruments made its presence felt in the music even without being in the score.  The orchestra painted a journey across the low Caucasus, with highly evocative playing.

The journey south deeper into the Middle East continued with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov‘s tone poem Scheherazade.  Méndez did not magnify the sounds, but pulled out individual lines and wove them together.  Not big drama, but lots of little touches.  Both halves of the concert presented especially fine playing by the bassoon soloist in particular, and also the first chair oboe and clarinet.

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.

London Philharmonic, Musikverein (Vienna)

Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, Bruckner, Wagner

Next week I will go to London.  This week the London Philharmonic came to me.  The orchestra, under its cool and talented chief conductor Vladimir Jurowski, performed in the Musikverein.

I have not heard this orchestra in many years, and although its reputation waned for a while, it sounded like the London Philharmonic of old that I remembered from its days under Klaus Tennstedt.  The opening showpiece demonstrated why: although Rimsky-Korsakov’Great Russian Easter Overture sounds different performed by Russians, with their distinctive sound, the lush London Philharmonic playing completed Rimsky’s rich orchestration, and the sonorities filled the hall.

The young violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, born in Moldova, educated in Austria and Switzerland, came out for the Prokofiev Second Violin Concerto looking like she had just snuck out of her own wedding – wearing a long fluffy white dress and barefoot (presumably from dancing, since she also danced the whole time she played).  She and the orchestra stayed in idiom for Prokofiev’s playful 1930s modernized re-telling of a classical model: quite a fun work, performed with great humor.  Her sound, though not large, blended perfectly with the orchestra.  As an encore, Kopatchinskaja and the orchestra’s concert master, South African Pieter Schoeman (whose solos in the earlier Rimsky-Korsakov had shone), performed a Prokofiev sonata for two violins with equal banter.

Bruckner’s Symphony #1, performed here in its original Linz version, must have sounded as innovative in the 1860s as Prokofiev’s concerto did in the 1930s, both taking strictly classical forms in new directions.  This was young Bruckner (relatively – he wrote the first symphony in his 40s), and showed his lack of experience with orchestral music at that time.  But it marks a contrast with the first symphony by Brahms, who also waited into his 40s before writing a symphony.  Both Bruckner and Brahms found approaching symphonies hard after Beethoven. But when they were finally ready to do so, Brahms produced the more sophisticated and polished work which said nothing new and simply imitated Beethoven, while Bruckner advanced the art with a rough but new Beethoven-inspired construction.  Ultimately, this work paved the way not only for Bruckner’s own future development, but also for great symphonies to come, including those of Mahler, Sibelius, and Schostakowitsch.  Setting this classical-derivative work, with its raw dissonances and soaring organ-inspired chorales inexpertly mixed throughout, after Prokofiev’s concerto emphasized just how new and important this symphony could sound.  The London Philharmonic and Jurowski put it in context, with resounding orchestral color.

The prelude to the third act of Wagner’Meistersinger served as a final encore, as the orchestral chorale that Wagner based on the hymn “Wacht Auf” (sung by the chorus later in the opera) by the historic Hans Sachs wafted the audience out of the hall, another for-its-time modernized setting of an older form.

Rostov Opera (Rostov-on-Don), Stanislavsky Opera Theater (Moscow)

Rimsky-Korsakov, Tsar’s Bride

After never seeing it at all before, I have now managed to see the Tsar’s Bride by Rimsky-Korsakov four times in the last year and a half.  This is a seldom-performed opera, which should really be more-often performed.  So it when another performance popped up unexpectedly on the schedule as a late addition tonight, I snagged a ticket.

The Rostov Opera, from Rostov-on-Don, came on tour to Moscow and performed in the Stanislavsky Theater.  Overall, for a provincial opera company, the Rostov made a good showing.  I did not understand the overall concept of the staging, except that it did allow more focus on the music, so if that was the intention then it succeeded.  Instead of sitting in the pit, the orchestra sat on the back half of the stage.  Until late in Act Three, the orchestra pit remained covered, allowing the cast to give most of the performance from in front of the orchestra (a smaller amount of the action took place on a raised platform behind the orchestra).  Costumes were traditional, props were simple, and the scenery consisted in only two onion-domes (without the church underneath them) hanging in the back of the stage.  The stage direction was either poorly thought-through, or badly carried out – for example, when the company made a toast, but the waiters did not manage to serve everyone in time for them to actually toast with goblets in their hands (hint: send the waiters on stage a little earlier).

At the end of Act Three, during Marfa’s wedding to Ivan Likov, when the announcement comes that Ivan the Terrible has chosen that Marfa become his bride instead, the Tsar’s henchmen restrained the guests while the orchestra pit opened, and Marfa descended literally into the pit.  The pit remained open for Act Four, allowing Marfa to once again literally descend into the pit during her mad scene.  That seemed to be the only concept here.

Natalya Dmitriyevskaya portrayed Marfa well, particularly getting her descent into madness right.  Pyotr Makarov as Grigory Gryaznoy had an extremely warm and peasant voice, but too much so to fully convey the evil within his character.  The finest performance in the cast came from Nadezhda Krivusha as Lyubasha, a highly-conflicted woman who starts and ends as a victim of Gryaznoy but in the middle causes mayhem.  Krivusha managed to convincingly represent the contradictory tendencies and nuances within this woman.

Aleksey Shakuro conducted a well-paced performed.  Unfortunately, since the director forced him to put the orchestra on the stage instead of in the pit, he obviously felt he had to subdue the orchestra in order to keep it from overwhelming the singers.  This meant that we did not get to hear the full lushness of Rimsky-Korsakov’s score.  Even during the overture and orchestral interludes, when the orchestra had no singers to overwhelm, Shakuro still kept them bottled.  This was especially noticeable with the brass, which was, rather unusually, hardly audible.

Gelikon Opera, Arbat Theater

Rimsky-Korsakov, Mozart & Salieri

Back in Moscow, the Gelikon Opera tonight performed Rimsky-Korsakov’s rarely-performed one-acter Mozart and Salieri, based on the short story by Pushkin.

Dmitry Skorikov was a serious but troubled Salieri and Vasily Efimov a playful prankster Mozart.  Konstantin Chudovsky conducted a dramatic reading.

Everyone probably knows the basic plot.  The staging was minimal (basically a piano, a small dinner table, candles, wine glasses, and sheet music), but the stage was mostly made from angular reflective black panels, which gave it an other-worldly feel with lighting coming from different directions.  The two characters (Mozart and Salieri, naturally) were dressed in costumes that looked more late-19th century, but the clothing was harmless.

The director took one deviation from the plot.  In the original Rimsky-Korsakov version, the dying Mozart, after drinking the wine Salieri had poisoned, showed Salieri the sketches of his Requiem, which the horrified Salieri began to read as Rimsky-Korsakov quoted Mozart’s actual music.  In this production, they inserted the entire Mozart Requiem into the performance, sung by a chorus of spirits behind a skrim in the back of the stage.  As Salieri read the music, he began to sob uncontrollably about having murdered Mozart, and then went slowly mad.  Mozart’s ghost rose from the piano and taunted Salieri.

On one hand, this deviation worked, since it gave us something to watch during the performance.  It must be remembered, of course, that Mozart died before writing or even sketching much of his Requiem.  The work was mostly composed by Franz Xaver Süßmayr in a Mozartian style based on Mozart’s limited sketches.  The parts composed by Süßmayr are clearly far inferior in quality to the parts composed by Mozart, so this piece can drag on.  So in this respect it was good to have something happening on stage.  On the other hand, unless the performance is spectacular (and the Gelikon orchestra and chorus, though perfectly good, were not at that level) Süßmayr’s Requiem really does drag, and no amount of diversion will save it.

When the Requiem ended, Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera resumed where it had left off.  Salieri emerged from his trance obviously changed by the visions he had just experienced.  Mozart (not dead yet) laughed at him from atop the piano and trotted home.  The horrified Salieri finished the wine left behind in Mozart’s poisoned chalice.

Unfortunately, as Rimsky-Korsakov’s music ended and the distressed Salieri sunk to the floor, the director decided to ruin the mood by using a piped-in recording of Mozart’s Requiem.  Totally unnecessary and bizarre (especially with the orchestra and chorus right there, but with the production already including a complete performance along with extra character-development for Salieri, this last bit was inexplicable).

Armenian State Youth Orchestra, Khachaturian Hall

Rimsky-Korsakov, Sibelius, Bach, Schubert, Khachaturian

The Armenian State Youth Orchestra performed at Yerevan’s Khachaturian Hall this evening, under the baton of Maxim Vengerov.  The hall was packed to overflowing, with the standing-room audience even crowding all of the aisles.  Judging by the number of close protection agents, I assume there were also a lot of government officials in attendance.

Students from the Yerevan Conservatory make up most of the members of this orchestra, supplemented where necessary by members of the Armenian State Philharmonic.  By my observation, the Conservatory must only train students in a limited number of instruments, since half of the woodwinds, all but two of the basses, and the entire brass and percussion sections were clearly not students.  That said, the orchestra – including its student sections – sounded reasonably good.  Another oddity: the student strings (i.e., violins, viole, celli, and two bassists) were obviously trained to sway together like grain in the wind – I know that most orchestras have the strings bow together, but this swaying business was disconcerting.  Two violinists did not get the memo: the second row second chair sat immobile and stared intently at his lap when he played and a woman several rows back swayed completely out of synch with everyone else.

Vengerov seemed to want to protect the students from being overwhelmed by the adults, so he muffled the brass.  This worked for the piece after the intermission – Rimsky-Korsakov’Scheherezade – since the strings lead that work, and their sound represented the waves surging and crashing.  It did not work so well for the concert’s opening work, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture, where Vengerov did not permit the brass choirs to soar.

Between the two Rimsky pieces on the program came the Sibelius Violin Concerto, with Jaroslaw Nadrzycki, a young Pole with bizarre technique, as the soloist.  Instead of holding the violin diagonally under his chin and bowing across his body, Nadrzycki held the violin parallel to the floor, stuck his elbow high in the air above his head, and fiddled from above.  I do not know if it was the technique, or some other lack of talent, that produced the thin and sour tone.  The concerto dragged on like this for half an hour.  If Vengerov were going to trot out a young soloist, it is a shame he chose this one instead of showcasing a local Conservatory student – indeed, from the brief violin solos in the Russian Easter Festival Overture, the concertmistress may have been a good choice.  At the very least, he could have let her play the violin solos in Scheherazade, but he brought Nadrzycki out for that too, marring those sections.

For encores, we got three.  One came before the first intermission, when Nadrzycki played an arrangement for solo violin of Schubert’Erlkönig.  This arrangement seemed designed to maximize showmanship and fingering, and to minimize emotion.  The Erlkönig might as well have taken the child and been done with it.

At the end of the second half of the concert, Vengerov came out on stage with his own violin, and teamed up with Nadrzycki and the student strings for the largo movement of Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins.  Vengerov’s sweet and sensitive sound contrasted with Nadrzcki’s tones.

As a final encore, Vengerov knew how to bring the audience roaring to its feet: the Lezghinka from Khachaturian’s ballet Gayaneh.  For this, Vengerov unleashed the hounds, and the orchestra – especially the wild percussionist – played without restraint.

Gelikon Opera, Arbat Theater

Rimsky-Korsakov, Tsar’s Bride

Although seldom-performed, the Czar’s Bride by Rimsky-Korsakov is currently in the repertory of three different Moscow opera houses.  So I decided to take in my third version in a year, this time at the Gelikon Opera.  The verdict: the Novaya had the best overall musical production but an incomprehensible staging, the Bolshoi had a clear traditional staging but poor musical quality, and the Gelikon ended up somewhere in the middle.

The orchestra sounded a bit raw, and the pacing from conductor Kirill Tikhonov uneven at times, but the opera never dragged (unlike at the Bolshoi).  I think much of the Gelikon Opera had come down with illness, since no fewer than six of the cast were replaced – and not with the B or C cast, but with people whose names had to be literally written into the programs by pencil (I recognized one of the substitutes as a regular member of this company, but obviously tonight performing a role not in his current repertory).  Under these circumstances, the cast did fine, but nothing outstanding – however, when not singing solo but rather in ensemble they blended very well with each other.  Two of the best solo performances came, not surprisingly, from the regularly-scheduled cast: Andrey Bilegzhanin as Grigory Gryaznoy and Mikhail Guzhov as Sobakin.

The Gelikon’s temporary premises during the renovations of its theater remain inadequate.  Nevertheless, the simple but suggestive staging was, under these circumstances, sufficient.  Not many props are needed, so a lavish staging such as at the Bolshoi is not strictly necessary (and I still much prefer simple to silly – such as the staging at the Novaya that made the opera impossible to follow).  However, the director added a non-singing character – a bell-ringer – who started prancing around the stage during the overture for no apparent reason other than to distract the audience, and continued making odd appearances throughout.  Not only did this new character add nothing, but by doing his thing front and center the bell-ringer remained in focus and forced the actual plot to the background.  Indeed, it is telling that the bell-ringer got to take the final individual curtain call, as the supposed star of this production.  Why?

Stanislavsky Opera

Rimsky-Korsakov, The Tale of Czar Saltan

When I bought a ticket for today’s afternoon performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Tale of Czar Saltan at the Stanislavsky Opera, I was warned it would be full of children.  The 2 p.m. start time, the fairy tale storyline by Pushkin, and the accessible music by Rimsky-Korsakov would combine to ensure it.  However, from my experience in Moscow, the children who attend such performances are usually very well-behaved and their parents, who probably would not attend the opera if not dragged there by the kids, are the real problem.  I bought the ticket anyway, for the same reason kids would see this opera, plus for the chance to see a rarely-performed opera (usually only known on account of its orchestral suite) in what was supposed to be a good setting.

The audience was indeed about 80-85% children.  Unfortunately, these were not the well-behaved children I’ve seen at other performances, and they had about as much interest in the opera as their parents.  In fact, I suspect that the theater must have been full of kids from the Moscow equivalent of the alternative hippie-inspired elementary school I attended as a child in Philadelphia – with the philosophy to expose children to culture but not to manners, because behaving in public might be too restrictive on their creativity.  In this case, though, there was one discernible difference: the parents of the children were probably not as stoned as the parents (and teachers) of most of the kids at my elementary school.  That makes it worse, because this means there is no way they did not notice that neither they nor their kids wanted to be there – leaving the question as to why exactly they all bought tickets in the first place.

The child of indeterminable sex directly behind me chattered incessantly with its adult minder in a street voice the entire afternoon.  The adult woman to my right spent half the performance on her mobile phone, and for the other half joined her friend and their kids (strewn about in the next several seats) in finding more of interest inside their handbags and attempting to determine the inner workings of the folding theater seats than what was being performed on stage (that is assuming they were even aware that a performance was going on – this was not clear to me).  The rotund kid to my left snored loudly.  Meanwhile, I think middle-school soccer matches periodically broke out on the balcony, since I could hear lots of little feet scurry from one side of the balcony to the other every so often, with intermittent cheers.

From what I could hear of the opera, it was indeed quite nice, and should be performed in front of an audience that might actually want to be there.  The staging, like many at the Stanislavsky, was simple but suggestive, and captured the fairy tale nicely.  Lavish sets are not necessary when the director gives thought to the production.  The orchestra, under Yevgeny Brazhnik, sounded crisp, although the unruly crowds destroyed any mood it might have produced.  What struck me above all, though, were the voices.  The Stanislavsky sent out its A cast, and despite the nonsense their voices had to contend with in the theater, they penetrated the crowd and gave an extravagant portrayal of this opera.

Highlighting the cast was Dmitry Styepanovich, overmatched and not dark enough as the Demon in October, but with a voice much better suited for Czar Saltan.  Mikhail Vekua, the diminutive Georgian who performed Siegmund in the Russian National Orchestra’s production of Walküre last month, presented a lively Prince Gvidon.  Irina Vashchenko and Yevgeniya Afanasyeva gave striking characterizations of Empress Militrisa and of the Swan-Princess, respectively.

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.

Bolshoi Opera, Bolshoi New Stage

Rimsky-Korsakov, Tsar’s Bride

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

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

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

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

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

Moscow State Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Glass, Tschaikowsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Dvořák

Tonight’s concert of the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra was under the baton of Pavel Kogan, and opened with the Philip Glass Violin Concerto #1, my first time hearing this piece. The tone was nice, but – like most Glass – it never went anywhere. Glass should stick to movie scores, as his music makes good background music and portrays a certain tension, but should never be the focus of anyone’s attention.

As for the soloist, I could probably say the same thing about her as I have said about Glass’ music. She’s a 23-year-old Brit, Chloe Hanslip. Like the Glass concerto, her tone was good but did not go anywhere. Kogan did his best to keep the orchestra playing quietly, but she was still barely audible. What I could hear of her sounded fine.

For the second piece, the same soloist came out for Tschaikowsky’s violin concerto. I think between the pieces someone must have mentioned to them the problem with the dynamics, because Kogan was clearly making the orchestra play even more gently pianissimo than in the Glass piece, and she turned her own volume up a few notches. Unfortunately, when she turned herself up, she flailed at her violin and also lost her tone, making her playing now sound forced and unpleasant.

She came out for a solo encore. I did not hear her when she announced what it was, but it sounded like the Tschaikowsky again, but this time disfigured and rewritten for the Devil’s fiddle. She used the same forced technique she used for the Tschaikowsky concerto. Certainly her unpleasant tone was indeed appropriate for this ugly piece.

After the intermission, having thankfully dispensed with the soloist, Kogan could take the lid off the orchestra for Rimsky-Korsakov’Sheherazade. This may be a warhorse, but it is always fun to hear live performed by a good Russian orchestra. The solo playing was very good, particularly the extensive violin solos by the concert master (Gayk Kazazyan). They should have let Kazazyan play the solo parts in the concerti before the intermission rather than importing the British woman.

The concert concluded with a bunch of spirited encores: a Slavonic Dance by Dvořák and some ballet music I couldn’t quite identify.

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.

Stanislavsky Opera

Rimsky-Korsakov, May Night

A performance of Rimsky-Korsakov‘s rarely-performed early opera May Night tonight at the Stanislavsky Theater.  Musically, the Stanislavsky is excellent and as I mentioned in the Fall is regarded as better than the Bolshoi at the moment.  No stars, but with a good ensemble they don’t need to have any.  And so it was.

The opera itself is based on a 19th-Century fairy tale by Gogol, with the comedy played up by Rimsky.  Nothing special about that, but this production decided to make it political (although I am not entirely sure what the political drama was meant to indicate).  The scene was moved to the 1920s-30s, and during the overture a Soviet propaganda film (silent) of that period was shown, displaying Ukrainian farmers celebrating bountiful harvests.  Considering the Soviets starved the Ukrainians to death in the Great Famine at that time, this is not exactly a pleasant film to watch – and indeed, even those who saw the film at the time elsewhere in the Soviet Union would have noticed that they had none of this food on the shelves in the stores.

But by setting it in that period, the drunk Ukrainian peasants who form the main chorus in this opera – dressed in Ukrainian garb (as in the film) and dancing cossack dances (again, as in the propaganda film) –  come across also as the Nazi-sympathizers they were.  Having just returned recently from Ukraine and seeing how the existence of Jews has been mostly eradicated from memory (since Ukraine’s Jewish history did not fit into the Soviet narrative, nor does it fit into the Ukrainian nationalist narrative), this was certainly foremost on my mind (after the Great Famine, one can certainly understand Ukrainians welcoming the Germans as liberators, but that does not excuse their behavior, particularly towards Jews).

Anyway, after the intermission things toned down a bit.  But when the Mayor changed his outfit during the second act, the color of his new suit was notably the medium-blue of Yanukovich, with Soviet medals pinned to him.  At the end of the opera, some peasants were draped in the orange of the Orange Revolution and carried orange banners and post-1991 Ukrainian flags.  Who knows why.

Also interestingly, the announcements over the public address system before each act (telling people to turn off their mobile phones and that recording and filming were not allowed) were done not only in Russian and English (as normally at the Stanislavsky) but also in Ukrainian.  This was obviously done on purpose, but who knows what the purpose was.  The opera is not a Ukrainian opera (although Gogol was born in Ukraine and the opera is set there), and Moscow is not exactly full of Ukrainian tourists (who likely speak Russian anyway; the English is for the benefit of non-Russian-speaking tourists).  I can only imagine this was another political statement.

Ignoring the unclear politics, the staging was otherwise fine.  The music certainly was worthwhile.  Glad I went.