Daily life is now returning to normal in Austria, although certain restrictions remain on gatherings and travel. Live music has resumed, but the halls are not yet allowed to be fully filled (indeed, they are barely filled), so I have not yet gotten in myself. In the meantime, I still look around for worthwhile streamings being made available in the context of this crisis, but have reduced my frequency as life moves back along. I look forward to getting live music myself later this Summer at the Festival.
Rimsky-Korsakov: The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (Dutch National Opera)
Rimsky-Korsakov’s mystical masterpiece The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh somehow never managed to enter into the repertory – perhaps too Wagnerian for the Russians, and too Russian for the west. It is an opera I am aware of, but have not listened for many years to my only complete recording (a live performance from the Mariinsky in 1994 – confusingly stating “Kirov Opera” on the box even though it was published in 1999 and the Mariinsky’s Imperial-era name was restored from the Soviet-era “Kirov” in 1992). But the Dutch National Opera provided a stream of a 2012 performance, which gave me a chance to see it. Marc Albrecht led the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra. Standing out from the cast, Svetlana Ignatovich sang Fevroniya and Maksim Aksyënov sang Vsevelod.
I think I need to go back and listen to my recording from the Mariinsky. I won’t waste much time on the staging, by Dmitri Tcherniakov, the same person who so badly botched Prince Igor at the Met that I had watched in May. This opened well enough – in the wilderness, with the animals surrounding Fevroniya in human form but not altogether departing from the mystical atmosphere. But then came the modern updating, and as it got deeper into the opera this modernization became harder and harder to sustain. It’s not that he really deviated from the plot, but singing about a legendary time and set of events but setting the whole thing in a contemporary-ish context created its own discrepancies, and trying to act it out created more (not to mention little intentional nonsensical details like dressing a couple of the Tatars up as Santa Claus). And while Tcherniakov’s concept recovered a little in the minimalist final act, it came too late. His modern inclinations, without consistency, increasingly undermined the mysticism that was the entire point of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera.
Prokofiev: War and Peace (Stanislavsky Opera)
Another seldom-performed Russian opera, Prokofiev’s War and Peace, popped up from the Stanislavsky Opera. When I lived in Moscow, I found the Stanislavsky a reliable venue for my opera addiction. Most of the Stanislavsky’s productions tend towards the under-stated, which usually works just fine. In this case, not unusually for the Stanislavsky, its director Aleksander Titel provided realistic costumes but abstract staging. I suppose this worked, and it certainly gave the cast a chance to act (kudos to Natalia Petrozhitskaya as Natasha, Nikolay Yerokhin as Pierre, and Dmitry Zuyev as Andrey in this 2013 performance conducted by the Stanislavsky’s music director Felix Korobov).
In the end, though, the opera itself did not convince me. Not having read the underlying Tolstoy novel, I cannot say to what degree Prokofiev had simplified the plot, but on its own I came away feeling like his adaptation did not work. The gaps were too great to make a coherent opera – indeed, he might even have simplified more and just focused more narrowly so as not to try to spread so thin, or he might have extended the length in order to include more context and development. Or he could have taken a Tschaikowsky-style approach and made it into a psychodrama, concentrating on the mental state of the characters and forgoing much plot at all. Musically, too, Prokofiev’s idiom, so good in so many other symphonic works from symphonies to concerti to ballets to film scores, lacked drama, plodding along through the first act and disjointed through the second. Given that he had borrowed some of this music from earlier works, where it did fit better, I wondered if this was just laziness and failure to commit to thinking this work through originally. So I will not chalk this opera up as one of Prokofiev’s better efforts.
Strauss: Salome (Metropolitan Opera)
When I saw that the director, Jürgen Flimm, was German and looked him up to discover he was a pioneer of Regietheater, I assumed I was just going to listen to and not watch this performance. But I quickly realized that, wonder of wonders, he actually decided to stage the plot. The setting itself was odd and inconsistent but not inherently bad – it was a mix of styles from the turn of the 20th century, so Middle Eastern colonial uniforms for the guards, European high society for the royal family and their guests, Haredi for the Jews (that hasn’t changed), southern US black Sunday best for the Nazarenes, and John the Baptist in rags. The stage was split between an indoor part (looked like it could have been on a luxury liner) and an outdoor part (stylized Middle Eastern desert). The usual problem with updated the timeframe of an opera is that some of the references do not make sense, which requires either further changes to the plot to accommodate or else weird juxtapositions (like people carrying swords and spears in a contemporary context) – but with care a director can make Salome timeless yet consistent. I am not sure any of this particular early-20th-century framing made any sense, but it could safely be ignored because Flimm indeed focused on the interactions among the characters, which were slightly more hands-on than usual, and generally consistent with the words being sung (or at least within the realm of reasonable interpretation to elucidate the plot). The physical approach amplified and clarified the psychological. And that level of attention made this a highly enjoyable production.
Unfortunately, the cast was less good. They all pretty much acted their roles well, so again visually this all worked, but if I had only listened to this performance I would have come away disappointed. Karita Mattila gave a very large-voiced reading of Salome, but she also often avoided coming in on pitch, and seems not to have understood that the role – although requiring enormous vocal stamina and range – is of a 16-year-old girl, and she did not capture that element of delicacy (it’s enormously hard to sing a huge role delicately, but that is what is required). Juho Uusitalo (it must have been Finnish night) sang John the Baptist poorly. His voice simply did not resonate (nor was he on pitch, so some of his exchanges with Mattila became painful). Joseph Kaiser as Narraboth also could not sing to save his life (Narraboth commits suicide, so he did not save his life, but it’s a key role early in the opera and matching him up with Mattila and Uusitalo early just made me wonder what was going on there musically). Actually, Mattila’s pitch improved after Narraboth committed suicide and the Baptist returned to his cistern – although her tone still remained wrong. Yet all of them could act. And when Herod (Kim Begley) and Herodias (Ilikó Komlósi) came out, they had their roles down well vocally. The minor roles were all uneven. Conductor Patrick Summers tried to put this all together from the pit for this 2008 performance, and he mostly succeeded even if hampered by a strange-sounding cast.
The Concertgebouw Orchestra has posted a row of Beethoven Symphonies – #4 through #8 – recorded in 2013-2014 under the baton of Iván Fischer. These performances are fully charged, climaxing in the 7th. But I might instead focus on the last in the series. Fischer brought out an unusual degree of tension in the 8th, making this symphony appear much bigger than normal (if not in actual size then certainly in its stage presence). This lighter foil to the 7th is in Fischer’s interpretation almost its equal in impact, and in fact it was terrific to hear this interpretation immediately after listening to the 7th. If not quite as wild a dance as the 7th, it is still a dance. Fischer and the Concertgebouw made a strong case for this underperformed symphony to appear more often on concert programs (indeed, there are those of us who do admire Beethoven’s eighth, but even for us this interpretation expanded its potential).