Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 5)

Highlights

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

Strauss: Rosenkavalier (Staatsoper)

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

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

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

Rossini: L’Italiana in Algeri (Staatsoper)

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

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

Wagner: Parsifal (Staatsoper)

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

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

Lortzing: Undine (Staatsoper)

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

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

Dvořák: Rusalka (Metropolitan Opera)

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

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

Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov (Metropolitan Opera)

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

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

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

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

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

Tschaikowsky: Queen of Spades (Mariinsky Theater)

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

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

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

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

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Schostakowitsch, Prokofiev

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

Boston Symphony Orchestra: Schostakowitsch, Hindemith, Martinů, Copland

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

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 4)

Highlights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strauß II, Zigeunerbaron (Volksoper)

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

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

Strauss, Elektra (Staatsoper)

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

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

Verdi: Aida (Metropolitan Opera)

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

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

Janáček: The Cunning Little Vixen (Staatsoper)

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

Rimsky-Korsakov: The Golden Cockerel (Mariinsky Theater)

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

Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina (Mariinsky Theater)

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

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

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky

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

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 3)

Highlights

When this pandemic is all over, I will either need to rush out to hear live music, or I may never want to see another opera again for the rest of my life.  But in the meantime, I continue to take advantage of the opera (and symphonic) archives being opened up on line during the lockdown.

Wagner: Tannhäuser (Metropolitan Opera)

This week began much as last week ended: with Wagner from the Metropolitan Opera.  A classic Otto Schenk production of Tannhäuser was undermined by Johan Botha in the title role, who basically could not act so stood there while other characters bounced off him, trying to get him to move.  This production has been around for decades, and with better casts.  James Levine has probably been in the pit for many of those as well.

  • [Recording tip:  Of the recordings I own, my go-to version remains the one by Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic, with René Kollo as Heinrich von Tannhäuser and Victor Braun as Wolfram von Eschenbach.  No other version quite captures the drama and elevates the authenticity of the characters the way this one does.]

Poulenc: Dialogues of the Carmelites (Metropolitan Opera)

This mystical opera – about nuns who are martyred by barbaric French revolutionaries – is one of those exceptions that prove the rule that the French do not understand music or drama.  Several French composers (beyond Berlioz, who was pretty consistently good and whose countrymen never properly understood him) could sometimes manage to churn out one decent opera per composer (and maybe one additional work that has withstood the test of time).  Gounod had Faust, Bizet had Carmen, Massenet had La Navarraise (my obscure choice for Massenet may surprise people, but have another listen: it really is his best opera by far), Saint-Saëns had Samson and Dalilah, and Poulenc had Dialogues of the Carmelites.  A suggestive minimal staging by John Dexter was in general sufficient to convey the meaning of this opera (except the final scene, which was supposed to depict the nuns getting guillotined, did not work at all – even without showing them all being executed, Dexter’s timing of the action did not go with the music, which undermined the drama).  Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted in full idiom.  I do not own a recording of this opera, having only heard it periodically on radio broadcasts (possibly all of them over the years from the Met), and this may be the first time I have seen the opera.

Rossini: Barber of Seville (Metropolitan Opera)

The Met’s staging of Rossini’s Barber of Seville seemed a bit odd at first but it grew on me.  I was not sure if it was trying to be realistic or fantastical.  But the concept was to accentuate the farce within this opera, and it ultimately succeeded in doing that.  The extremely tall Peter Mattei as the factotum Figaro hammed it up sufficiently.  Maurizio Benini let the performance from the pit – but with the stage built out around the front of the pit as well, he and the orchestra ended up right in the middle of it all.

  • [Recording tips: I am going to agree with conventional wisdom that the best recording of this opera is the 1958 one with Tito Gobbi as Figaro, Maria Callas as Rosina, and Luigi Alva as Count Almaviva, with Alceo Galliera conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra.  But for sake of being different, I may use this space to point out two unusual recordings worth looking for – not because they are better (they are not), but only because they have excellent acting casts that have a certain charm of their own.  One is a Moscow Radio recording from 1953 conducted by Samuil Samosud, sung in Russian.  I think I originally bought it (when I lived in Russia) solely because I was trying to collect recordings of Mark Reizen (who sang Basilio here), but I ended up enjoying the whole thing.  Another is a 1966 live recording from Vienna, sung in German, which gives the opportunity to hear Fritz Wunderlich as Almaviva just a few months before his untimely death.  The remaining roles are filled out by stalwarts of the Staatsoper ensemble under the baton of Karl Böhm.  Rossini doesn’t really work in Russian or German per se, but these recordings in local vernacular do provide a chance to hear the opera differently and have some additional fun with it.]

Verdi: Don Carlo (Metropolitan Opera)

The Met’s confused staging (by Nicholas Hynter) of Verdi’s Don Carlos could not decide if it wanted to be traditional or modern and failed miserably at both.  Roberto Alagna was nowhere near in his best voice as Carlos, sounding strained and often off-pitch.  The Met likely has many versions of this opera in its archives, with better casts and better stagings, so it is a mystery why they chose to put this one up.  Nézet-Séguin did his best to be dramatic in the pit, but he can’t do everything.

  • [Recording tip: This is another one of those operas where one recording far exceeds everything else.  In this case, it is the comprehensive concept thoroughly thought through by Carlo Maria Giulini for the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, with Plácido Domingo as Carlos, along with a truly dramatic cast including Montserrat Caballé, Shirley Verrett, Ruggiero Raimondi, and Sherrill Milnes.]

Saint-Saëns: Samson and Dalilah (Mariinsky Theater)

I realized that the Mariinsky, by far Russia’s best opera house, is putting up a cross-section of performances (not just operas – in fact, actually not many operas) during the lockdown.  So over it was electronically to St. Petersburg for Saint-Saëns’s Samson.  As I said above (and often enough before), with the exception of Berlioz, the French generally seem to lack any understanding of music or drama, but Saint-Saëns showed some talent (not that he used it much) and wrote one complete opera that passes muster.  I had seen a staging by the French-trained Greek director Yannis Kokkos before (at the Staatsoper: a production of the original – rejected for good reason by the composer – version of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov), which was dark, static, and totally missing drama.  That must be his way of doing things (presumably his French training), because this production of Samson was also dark, static, and totally missing any drama whatsoever.  Ekaterina Semenchuk as Dalilah held up her end of the bargain as much as she could in this staging, but Gregory Kunde as Samson did not, with a voice that lacked sufficient dramatic heft, particularly in the lower register.  Valery Gergiev, in the pit, is usually a better judge of casting in his house.

  • [Recording tip: since I don’t think I have ever heard a recording by a French opera house that passes muster either musically or dramatically, I default to a non-French recording of this opera.  In this case, I revert to a 1948 Bavarian Radio recording conducted by Hans Altman, with Lorenz Fehenberger and Res Fischer in the title roles and Fred Destal as the High Priest.  I’d recommend people have a listen to this dramatic version even if they do somehow find French productions satisfying in ways I never seem to.]

Tschaikowsky: Yevgeny Onyegin (Mariinsky Theater)

I suppose I could not resist hanging around on the Mariinsky’s site to see what other operas were available.  Tschaikowsky’s Onyegin should not have been unexpected.  But this production, conducted by Gergiev, did not match up to the Met’s production, also conducted by Gergiev, that was streamed last week.  Andrei Bondarenko did not make as dashing an Onyegin as Hvorostovsky.

Schreker: Der Ferne Klang (Royal Swedish Opera)

I decided to finish the week with an unusual choice: Franz Schreker’s The Distant Sound, an opera rarely performed.  I have actually owned a recording of it for many years (a 1990 Berlin Radio recording with Gerd Albrecht conducting a cast headed by Thomas Moser and Gabriele Schnaut), but do not remember when I last listened to it, so thought this was as good a time as any to see if I could remind myself what was up here.  Schreker’s polychromatic musical palette – somewhere between Richard Strauss and Erich Wolfgang Korngold – is on full display in this opera, composed over several years in Vienna during the first decade of the 20thcentury.  There is no particular reason this opera could not be performed more often (it apparently was performed frequently enough in Germany until the Nazis banned it because Schreker’s father was Jewish), but it is probably destined to remain a curiosity.  The Royal Swedish Opera has dusted it off, with a simple but straightforward staging that did not try to do too much.  Daniel Johansson was good as the main male lead, the composer Fritz.  As part of the simple concept by Christof Loy (a German opera director who seemed to have a concept and tried to set the actual plot of an opera!), the chorus morphed among different roles in each scene, much like a Greek chorus, but that worked here.  What may not have worked was that many of the singers doubled up in roles as named characters – so not the Greek chorus – and since they stayed in costume this was often confusing.  Was it cost-saving that made the Royal Swedish Opera double cast members up, or was this part of the director’s concept to portray different characters as alter-egos of the same persona (and if so, why?)?  In the pit, Stefan Blunier maintained a good sense of the drama.

Rimsky-Korsakov: Tsar’s Bride (Bolshoi Opera)

I should have known better.  One night this week I tried to watch the Tsar’s Bride by Rimsky-Korsakov streamed from Moscow’s Bolshoi Opera.  I decided to do this purely on the strength of the opera itself, which is rarely performed but really should appear more often.  I saw it four times when I lived in Moscow, with four different opera companies, including this same staging at the Bolshoi (the other performances I saw were by the Novaya Opera, the Gelikon Opera, and a visiting opera company from Rostov-on-Don performing in the Stanislavsky Theater).  But the Bolshoi is an absurd place, which lives entirely off its reputation.  It has not been a good opera house for 40 years, ever since the Communist Party fired longtime general director Boris Pokrovsky (apparently – the story I have heard – because, during one of the all-too-regular waves of official Russian antisemitism, he refused to reduce the number of Jews playing the Bolshoi orchestra), and when I lived in Moscow it was the worst of the seven different opera companies I attended (yet due to prestige – all-important in Russia – it was nevertheless the most expensive).  This performance was, as I should have expected, mediocre.  But not only that.  The Bolshoi fails at almost everything, so it probably should not have surprised me that they could not even succeed in streaming this properly: the stream cut out shortly into the third act (suddenly went off-line to “private” setting).  Since I couldn’t exactly walk away at that point, I threw on a much better recording from the Bolshoi in 1973.  I won’t be going back to the Bolshoi’s streamings again during this crisis – or probably not ever, they’re just a mess.

  • [Recording tip: That 1973 Bolshoi recording may be the best available, with Galina Vishnyevskaya in one of her final performances before she was expelled from the Soviet Union along with her husband Mstislav Rostropovich for their opposition to the regime and support of other dissidents (I suppose that was a better penalty than being sent to the gulags, or being executed).  The cast is from the Bolshoi’s ensemble of singers under the baton of Fuat Mansurov.  I am willing to guess, however, that there may be an even better unpublished version somewhere in the Bolshoi’s archives.]

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Tschaikowsky

In addition to Onyegin, the Mariinsky posted a fair amount of Tschaikowsky.  My objection to Tschaikowsky is that much of his music tries too hard to be western, when western Europeans wrote much better material.  His music is pretty enough, but so over-performed – particularly his 4th, 5th, and 6th symphonies – as to have become tiresome.  Where he most succeeded in saying something lasting were in his psychodramas (particularly Yevgeny Onyegin and the Queen of Spades) and in his truly Russian-inspired masterpieces such as the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd symphonies, which are sadly underperformed.  In taking advantage of the archive made available on the Mariinsky website, a performance of the Second Symphony stood out, with Gergiev again conducting.  This may be my favorite work by Tschaikowsky, and Gergiev did it justice with his orchestra.  The performance was recorded on tour in Moscow in the Zaryadye Concert Hall, a hall I do not actually know since it was constructed sometime after I lived in Moscow.  The hall stands in a large lot near the Kremlin which, when I lived there, contained a handful of partly-restored historic buildings which had decayed during the Soviet period and a bunch of tractors whose only reason for being there seemed to be to move dirt from one place to another.  Apparently they subsequently decided what to move the dirt for.

Berlin Philharmonic: Sibelius, Weber, Bartók

I continue to search through the archival materials that the Berlin Philharmonic has made available for a month on its website.  The late Mariss Jansons, who died last November, periodically guest-conducted this orchestra over the years, and a number of his concerts appear.  I would highlight this concert in particular, featuring the First Symphony of Janne Sibelius, the Clarinet Concerto #1 by Carl Maria von Weber (with the Berlin Philharmonic’s principal clarinetist Andreas Ottensamer as soloist), and the suite from the Miraculous Mandarin by Béla Bartók.  It never really mattered what Jansons conducted – there was always some new way to listen.  My own go-to recording of the Sibelius first is also by Jansons, when he was music director in Oslo earlier in his career.  Although he was responsible for raising the standard of the Oslo Philharmonic, it still did not reach the level of the Berlin Philharmonic, and here we have his tremendous interpretation taken to the highest level.

Berlin Philharmonic: Bach, Stravinsky, Mahler

The Berlin archive only has one concert led by Vladimir Jurowski, and this from back in 2011.  Jurowski has always been one of the most exciting conductors of his generation (he’s now 48), and his concerts often provide intelligent combinations of music designed to make listeners think.  The concert available here was no exception.  It opened with Johann Sebastian Bach’s chorale “Von Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her” as arranged by Igor Stravinsky – starting with a brass chorale and moving through the text with Bach’s mathematics and 20th century harmonics.  Jurowski followed this with an altogether stranger work by Stravinsky, his Requiem Canticles – parts of the mediaeval requiem mass reset in a very modern structure – scientific, perhaps, but not necessary with musicality in the forefront.  It’s not that it had to have a tune, per se, but maybe a little less formula and a little more music would have helped.  Still, as an intellectual exercise it worked as a bridge to the main work in the program, Gustav Mahler’s giant student work Das Klagende Lied, in which the young composer, still at conservatory, imagined new musical ways forward (partly under the influence of his neurotic apartmentmate Hans Rott, when they were both studying with Anton Bruckner).  Like with Stravinsky, there is a reverence for the past, the history and building blocks of music, but also a desire to strike out in a new direction.  I own one recording of Das Klagende Lied: a 1997 performance by Michael Tilson-Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.  Jurowski’s interpretation with Berlin is rather more angular and strident than Tilson-Thomas, and the Berlin Philharmonic’s playing more robust than San Francisco’s.  The San Francisco Symphony in that recording (indeed in that period generally) did not sound as muddy as it does now (Tilson-Thomas has been there too long), but the superior virtuosity of the Berliners simply allows for more fine tuning.

Berlin Philharmonic: Wagner, Liszt

Riccardo Chailly brought two Faust-inspired works to Berlin for his guest stint.  The logical pairing (since the composers themselves encouraged each other) of Wagner’s Faust Overture and Ferenc Liszt’s Faust Symphony graced Chailly’s contribution.  Chailly grasped the strengths of this orchestra, which can sound clinical but can also have its technical precision unleashed in nuanced ways for a fulness of sound and excitement.  While every recording I am familiar with of Liszt’s Faust Symphony is missing a little something here or there (my favorite is the one with Leonard Bernstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra), this performance with Chailly and the Berliners may be close to definitive.

Boston Symphony Orchestra: Sibelius

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, historically one of the best in the United States (and I believe also the best-endowed orchestra in the world), suffered a long, slow, painful decline.  Seiji Ozawa, who may have been an inspired choice to lead the orchestra in 1973, stayed far too long in that post, leading to stagnation by the time he finally departed in 2002.  The orchestra replaced him with James Levine, who had done so much to improve the pit orchestra at the Metropolitan Opera and was looking for a top symphony orchestra to lead alongside his duties as music director at the Met.  Unfortunately, Levine did not have the health and vitality at this point in his career to handle both roles, leaving the BSO rudderless.  By the time he resigned in 2011 (they never bothered to terminate him early, which was another huge mistake), no one could speak of the BSO as a top-flight orchestra.  In that climate, the choice of Andris Nelsons to take over as music director in 2014 was inspired – a young dynamic conductor at the top of his game.  During the lockdown, the BSO is putting up one selection per day from its archives (which then remain on their website – not clear how long they will stay there beyond the end of the lockdown).  As I listened to the selection they provided this week, I found one of the first performances Nelson conducted as music director featured the Second Symphony of Sibelius: here it is possible to listen to the relief the orchestra must have felt, that finally they would be restored to their rightful place.  It’s a moody symphony, but performed here with so much hope.  The excitement is palpable.

  • [Recording tip: I own several recordings of the Sibelius 2nd, but for sheer other-worldliness nothing comes close to the one with Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.  It is the most recent one I have purchased, and since I added it to my collection I have pretty much stopped listening to the other versions.]

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.