Stanislavsky Opera

Rubinstein, Demon

I suppose it was fitting to use Anton Rubinstein’Demon as my final performance in Russia: the opera is set in Georgia.  Also, Rubinstein was a Jewish pianist of international acclaim (even Liszt refused to take him as a student because he was too good and reminded people of Beethoven back when Beethoven had performed publicly on the piano), composer, and conductor whose greatest contribution to music was probably that he introduced higher musical education to Russia.  He founded the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and then sent his younger brother Nikolai to Moscow to open a branch there which later became the Moscow Conservatory.  The system he set up in St. Petersburg was copied all over the Russian Empire, and is directly responsible for the level of music education that has continued to this day (with periodic interruptions so the Russians could purge the over-representation of Jews in music).  This means that I owe to Rubinstein, more than to any other person, my enjoyment of the music scene here for the last two-plus years.

I actually saw this same production of the Demon at the Stanislavsky in October 2010.  However, that was a poor performance, so I went back to the Stanislavsky again tonight with a different cast.  I enjoy this opera (I also saw it at the Novaya Opera in 2009), but it is almost never performed outside Russia, so I figured it was worth hearing one last time even in a substandard production.  That said, tonight was a huge improvement on last year.  The problem then was a weak-voiced cast which required miking.  Tonight’s cast was full-throated.  Not only did this allow for better tone (and no feedback from the tinny loudspeakers), but it also meant that the cast did not have to constantly move to the front of the stage (where the microphones were last year) but instead could sing from further back.  The result of this was better acting.  The dark fairy-tale staging, which did not seem fully thought-through last year made more sense this year without the singers constantly coming forward for the mikes.  Although I am not sure this staging fully convinced me even now, it did make some more sense than it did last year and had a certain charm.

Aleksey Shishlyayev, whom I have seen perform an energetic Scarpia on this stage, gave the same amount of dark energy to the title role here tonight.  Mariya Lobanova was a sympathetic Princess Tamar.  The singers in the secondary roles also came across stronger than their counterparts last year, now both audible without miking and with pleasant voices.

Wolf Gorelik conducted again this year.  Like last year, I did not find his reading particularly idiomatic, missing the tension between good and evil that permeates this opera.  But with a better cast to work with this time, he did not get in their way at all.  While I might hope to see an even better performance sometime in my life, with a true A-list cast and a mystical conductor, this time through did mark an improvement and provided a satisfactory conclusion to my musical program in Russia.

Advertisements

Stanislavsky Opera

Puccini, Madama Butterfly

The Stanislavsky Opera decided to showcase some of its new young talent in Puccini’Madama Butterfly tonight.  In Moscow, there seems to be no shortage of good young talent, so that was the evening’s entertainment.

The problem tonight was not the cast, however, but a conductor who must have been on drugs.  Vyacheslav Volich started out the overture at such a high speed that the orchestra could not keep up with him, making the start of the opera sound like a damaged CD that kept skipping all over the place.  And somehow they did this at high volume, which made life very difficult for the singers.  During the course of the first act, Volich slowed down, got things together (the orchestra actually sounded good, once they could follow the music), and modulated the volume, and we could begin to hear the singers properly by the final duet of the First Act.  Once we could hear them, the singers across the board sounded fully adequate.  Irina Vashchenko as Butterfly turned out to be a real treat, with a warm full voice and secure stage presence.

The staging was typical Stanislavsky minimal, with a few objects meant to suggest Japan (including Butterfly’s house, bizarrely shaped somewhat like Mount Fuji).  The director seemed to want to make up for the lack of scenery by overcompensating with the costumes, but these came off in part Chinese and in part silly.  She would have been better off keeping the costumes simple.

Two of her touches might have worked, if she had followed through properly.  The first was to have Butterfly become Americanized in both dress and movement in Act Two – including sitting in a Western-style chair (reverting in Act Three after she realizes Pinkerton has betrayed her).  But the whole tragedy here is that Butterfly never actually crosses over into Pinkerton’s world.

The other alternative touch came at the very end.  Butterfly stabbed herself not in the traditional Japanese way but instead by thrusting the knife downwards into her chest while standing.  The director had her drop the knife, but not collapse immediately.  This set up a dramatic ending, in which she would collapse dead just as Pinkerton came on stage, which would have made for a nice interpretive twist.  However, that is not what happened.  Pinkerton never arrived on stage, and she never collapsed dead.  Instead, the small boat she had climbed onto in order to commit suicide (an odd prop that had appeared in all three acts), gradually drifted across the stage, as Butterfly extended her arms.  So instead of having a nice interpretive twist, we got instead a heavily confused ending.  Close curtain.

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.

Stanislavsky Opera

Rubinstein, Demon

Disappointing night at the Stanislavsky Opera, which I can usually count on for good performances, but obviously not today.

On the program was Anton Rubinstein’Demon, an opera almost never performed in the West (except for a couple of arias sometimes) which I first saw a little over a year ago at the Novaya Opera.  Since the Novaya’s staging was odd, as most stagings at the Novaya are, I thought I’d see it again somewhere else.  The music was fantastic, so I was also glad to have the opportunity to hear it again.  The story is based on a mystical poem by Lermontov set in Georgia.

To capture Lermontov’s moods, and for Rubinstein’s music to work, the performance needs to have real tension and passion, and to highlight the struggle between good and evil.  Conductor Wolf Gorelik brought absolutely none of this out, and the whole evening dragged as a result.

The staging, like so many at the Stanislavsky, was suggestive rather than realistic.  This tends to work in this house, and there were some very nice touches, turning the Angel’s cape into a river and adding a leaping fish to the special effects.  In this case, the production also turned the opera inside out by providing a suggestive staging which at the same time staged visions and dreams, thus blending reality and fantasy (actually, it’s fiction, so it is all fantasy, of course).  For this opera, such an approach also works, at least in theory.  The main problem was that the production did not seem to be fully thought through.  So, for example, the costumes were a complete mish-mash and did not represent any consistent concept or even style of dress.  When Prince Sinodal ascended to heaven, his dead body literally rose and went off-stage, but similar effects were not used for the death and apotheosis of Princess Tamara.  Throughout, I found no logic in the setting.  However, since the staging was generally minimal, it could safely be ignored, if only the musical performance were better.

In addition to the uninspired musical direction under Gorelik (who is one of the house conductors at the Stanislavsky, and although I have seen OK work from him before he was also the man on the podium for the dreadful Carmen I saw in the Sping), the singers were far from up to it.  In fact, the front of the stage was visibly miked (a row of microphones at intervals about a foot high along the stage rim), and the singers moved forward to sing for the microphones.  This could not be because they were recording (and why would anyone want to make a recording with this cast?), but because they really were amplifying the singers.  The Stanislavsky Theater is not large (actually, it is on the small size for an opera house), so if the singers are not able to project in this hall, then they need to find another profession.  Seriously – Moscow is full of talented vocalists who can fill a hall, so there is no reason to suffer through weak-voiced and wobbly-toned warblers.  To make matters worse, the amplification system was especially tinny.  If I want to hear a tinny performance, I won’t pay for tickets to see amplified singers live, but will instead listen to a recording of much better singers (that said, I am still searching for a good recording of this opera – there must be a historic one available somewhere with Mark Reizen, the greatest Russian baritone of all time, in the title role).

As the Demon, Dmitry Styepanovich acted very well, portraying the nuances of his character in a way that, if other aspects of this performance were better, would have carried the opera.  Sadly, he did not sing so well.  The voice was not unpleasant, but was simply neither dark nor round enough for this role.  Most of the rest of the cast was not even to this level.  However, as Princess Tamara, Amaliya Gogeshvili may have been the one member of the cast capable of singing her role (and the staging generally kept her further back and away from the microphones, which had the added benefit of not turning her voice to tin over the amplification system).

If the Demon appears again later this season back at the Novaya Opera – not at the Stanislavsky – I may go back to hear it properly one more time.  So, once again, the Novaya Opera, with its anonymous casting, managed to trump a larger opera house for quality of musical performance.  What a shame the people who stage the operas at the Novaya don’t seem to have a clue.  And what a pity the usually-reliable Stanislavsky managed to neglect this opera so seriously.

Stanislavsky Opera

Puccini, Tosca

Rousing performance of Puccini’Tosca at the Stanislavsky this evening.

Aleksey Shishlyayev, the weak-voiced Escamillo I panned last week in my Carmen review, turned into a strong-voiced and energetic Scarpia this week. Probably had something to do with a more sensible staging. The staging also allowed the other characters to sing and act, and we got an excellent performance from a very diminutive tenor (but not with a diminutive voice) as Cavaradossi, Mikhail Vekua.  Natalya Muradimova as Tosca also performed well, although a notch off the other two principals.

Wolf Gorelik, who conducted Carmen last week, was on the podium again. He too provided a good musical platform for the singers, and did not have to face down the audience this week (although the audience was a bit too quick to applaud long before the ends of acts, and there were conversations going on during the performance, it was not quite as random as at Carmen last week).

The staging reverted to the more normal suggestive stagings that the Stanislavsky usually puts out, without the director being on drugs as he appeared to have been for Carmen. These stagings do not detract from the performance, and merely provide a foundation if the cast is good (which it generally is at the Stanislavsky). That said, there were curiosities: some of the staging was inexplicably Japanese-inspired (furniture, paper lanterns, some costumes of random characters), although most was not. Most bizarre though was the shepherd boy at the beginning of Act 3. He appeared dressed as a sheep at the back of the stage, and lip-synched to a recorded version of the boy’s song, which was played from a speaker on the balcony. This made no sense, besides being musically disconcerting (the sound coming from a different direction than the character ostensibly singing it, the music over-amplification in a non-amplified live performance, and the lack of an obvious reason for it).

But on the whole it was a very satisfying evening.

Stanislavsky Opera

Bizet, Carmen

Carmen at the Stanislavsky tonight.

I suppose even the Stanislavsky is allowed to have off days. Musically it was fine if not special. The Micaela (Natalya Petrozhitskaya) and José (Dimitry Polkopin) were both very good. The rest of the cast was mostly middling. The Escamillo (Aleksey Shishlyayev) was rather weak-voiced. And although I find French an ugly enough language as it is, I have discovered that it is even worse when sung and spoken with thick Russian accents.

The orchestra was fine. However the audience seemed fond of clapping inappropriately. It clapped not only when the conductor came out, but also after the first note of each act. And it clapped whenever there was a fermata. And it clapped randomly at other points for no apparent reason. The conductor (Wolf Gorelik) was obviously annoyed and kept turning around on the podium to stare down the audience every time it started clapping. Oddly, he continued to conduct when he did that, with his back to the orchestra. If he had guts he would have just stopped conducting and waited for people to behave before carrying on.

The Stanislavsky does not usually do elaborate stagings, but suggestive ones. I find that their suggestive stagings generally work. However, the only explanation I have for tonight’s staging is that the director was high, and kept doing more and more of whatever drugs he was taking as he moved from act to act. For a suggestive staging, I have no idea what he was trying to suggest.

In the first act, the girls from the cigarette factory all came out wearing 19th-century undergarments. I do not think that is how even gypsies dressed to go to work in Seville back then. There seemed to be some sub-plots going on which do not appear in the text, but were put front and center. I was not sure what was happening.

The second act tavern scene cannot really be described. The (male) tavern keeper flirted with Don José, apparently to warm him up for Carmen. Then he got onto the bed (bed!?) with them, but seemed more concerned with fondling José than making it an actual threesome.

The third act is supposed to be set in a smugglers’ hideout in the mountains. This one was set at a building with a big colonnade. The smugglers appeared to be smuggling hay, which was handed down from the roof of the colonnade in bales throughout the act. Goodness knows why. The smugglers themselves were dressed like monks. This act also contained perhaps the worst-choreographed knife fight (between José and Escamillo) I have ever seen on stage. Seriously, if they want to have the two jumping around the stage and stabbing at each other for five minutes, then there must be better ways to arrange this.

In the final act, someone should explain to the director that at bullfights, the male spectators wear normal clothes (for their period in time) and the bullfighters wear bullfighting costumes, because this director had it backwards. The stands were filled with men dressed like bullfighters and women who had obviously just stepped out of a pre-revolution Goya painting. Then Escamillo and the other bullfighters arrived to fight bulls in street clothes. Then Carmen showed up dressed like a slutty secretary (a sort-of off-white business suit with lots of cleavage and a mini-skirt), and José came wearing a black suit with a white shirt and no tie. When he finally killed Carmen, he draped her over the railing. And since no one else came back out on stage, as they are supposed to at this point in the opera, I suppose his plea to be arrested was addressed to the audience. Or maybe to the conductor. Who knows.

Throughout the entire opera, they left a wind machine on in the back of the stage. This caused parts of the back of the set to blow around. The wind machine was also clearly audible whenever the music was even moderately quiet.

Oh, well. Beats sitting at home.

Stanislavsky Opera

Tschaikowsky, Queen of Spades

Sunday night was back to the Stanislavsky Theater, this time for Tschaikowsky‘s Queen of Spades. This performance came up an ace.

Excellent ensemble cast, excellent orchestra under the baton of Feliks Korobov, and overall good balance. The staging was suggestive – not quite minimalist, but not fully traditional either (except traditional costumes). This particular stage production debuted in 1976 and obviously has held up to the test of time. I would not say it added any insights, but that is fine – it allowed the plot to remain clear and the singers to perform. That is what it a staging is supposed to do. And as a result, the cast could shine, especially the main character, German, sung by Dmitry Polkopin.

As I have mentioned previously, the Stanislavsky is more highly-regarded than the Bolshoi at the moment, and for good reason. The Bolshoi is in the midst of a reconstruction worthy of a major Italian opera house, with all the passion and politics without the primacy of the music. The Bolshoi house has been under reconstruction for years and no one knows when it will be done, so they are using the small rehearsal stage. It is still the Bolshoi, but lacks luster and the most serious people have left. On the other hand, the Stanislavsky performs in a beautifully-renovated theater up the street, and has solid artistic leadership and resources without all the bickering. This results in enjoyable nights at the opera.

I found the Stanislavsky’s unclear politicization of May Night (which I attended on 28 February) distracting from an otherwise good performance. But this Queen of Spades was on a par with the Onegin I saw there in the Fall. Just get on with the music.

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.

Stanislavsky Opera

Tschaikowsky, Yevgeny Onegin

I tried out a new opera house this evening – and the Stanislavsky has a better reputation than the Bolshoi these days.  A moody production of Tschaikowsky‘s Yevgeni Onegin was especially appropriate, since Fall is in the process of giving way to Winter here in Moscow.

The young enthusiastic cast (good Onegin and Lensky) was supported by a good orchestra, with the conductor struck the right sound balance and reflected the moodiness of the work well.  It’s a nice theater, too: I liked the space.

I enjoyed it… but why do people in Moscow opera houses talk so much during performances?