While its wonderful neo-Persian Opera House is still undergoing renovations (after almost four years since it closed, the renovations are almost done by the look of it), the Tbilisi State Opera continues to perform in other venues. Tonight it did a fantastic concert version of Puccini’s Tosca in the Tbilisi Conservatory.
Tosca‘s music alone has enough drama to survive unstaged, but it certainly helps to have a team like tonight’s that could make the drama unfold without the benefit of a staging. The State Opera Orchestra produced a full sound under the steady baton of Giorgi Zhordania. The climax of the first act nearly blew the roof off the Conservatory, whose main hall really is not that large, all the while keeping a very fine sound, swelling and ebbing as required to enunciate the plot. I’d love to pack them up and take them back to Yerevan with me.
From the cast, Giorgi Oniani as Mario Cavaradossi and Nikoloz Ligvilava as Baron Scarpia excelled. Oniani’s piercing tenor also effortlessly switched over to mezza voce as often required in this opera but not always achieved by many singers, although sometimes his voice lapsed into dry patches. Ligvilava gave a menacing portrayal of the villainous Scarpia, in control of the plot right up to the point that Tosca murders him (but then, of course, getting his revenge beyond the grave). Both probably speak Italian, or at least have sufficient familiarity to act their roles convincingly in the absence of a staging – they did not merely sing the notes, but also demonstrated they knew what they sang.
Unfortunately, Maqvala Askanidze did not do the same justice to the role of Floria Tosca. Her voice failed to hit notes cleanly, wobbling around each note instead. To overcome this failing, she often resorted to screaming, which had the benefit of lacking the wobble but simply became unpleasant. We got stuck with her right to the end: Tosca has the last line. Still, the title role aside, the stars shone for tonight’s performance.
My season opened in the Conservatory with a concert performance of Daisi by Zakharia Paliashvili, the father of Georgian classical music. The Tbilisi State Opera House is under renovation, so the State Opera is performing in other venues. I saw this opera staged, with a similar cast, in Spring 2009, but since Paliashvili is virtually unknown and never performed outside Georgia, it is worth hearing live again and again (I have Soviet era recordings of this and another one of his operas – Abesalom da Eteri – stored on my iTunes, so I do get to listen to recordings of this wonderful music even in Moscow). Truly beautiful music, combining traditional Georgian modes with Western Classical structures.
In the intimate confines of the Conservatory, the cast came off very well. The lead tenor, Armaz Darashvili, and especially the lead baritone, Sulkhan Gvelesiani, even more so, were particularly strong, and the audience reaction nearly forced Gvelesiani to sing every one of his arias twice (certainly, from the looks he and the conductor, Revaz Takidze, kept giving each other, I think they seriously considered it – and since it was not a staged performance, reprising an aria would not have disturbed the drama). The strings got off to a slow start with a very student-like sound, but once fully warmed up did fine. Bizarrely, it looked like they handed out string instruments based on the age of the performers – violinists looked like they were about 20 years old, violists averaged about 35, cellists averaged about 65, and double bassists were around 50. That cannot be a way to set up an orchestra. Winds were of all ages and were very good, particularly the solo oboe.
I went to closing night at the Tbilisi State Opera: Daisi (“Dawn”) by Paliashvili. Good cast and beautiful music, but unclear what the title had to do with the dark plot. Nevertheless, very pleased to hear this music and to get to know this composer, apparently (and unjustifiably) unknown outside his homeland.
Mozart, Don Giovanni
Back from Mozart‘s Don Giovanni at the Tbilisi State Opera: not a bad performance on the whole. The cast was obviously having fun, which helps. The hall was packed and generally well-behaved.
Except for Don Ottavio, who rasped throughout, the performers (including the orchestra) got better as the night wore on.
Staging was simple but tasteful. The only problem came at the end. When I read the synopsis in the program, I thought it must have been a poor translation. But it turned out the synopsis matched the staging: the Commendatore’s statue did not come to dinner but was instead a haunting figment of Don Giovanni’s imagination (the voice coming from off-stage). This did not work because from the text it is clear that Donna Elvira and Leporello see the statue arrive too, so without a statue this makes no sense. On the other hand, the singer who portrayed the Commendatore in the beginning of the opera (and sang the statue’s part from off stage) was the only person in the cast who could not act to save his life. So I was glad not to see him return.
The other conceptual problem arose from a sudden ending. The final scene of the opera is anti-climactic and plain silly. It has always seemed to me (and to many commentators) that the opera would have a more dramatic ending if it simply stopped when Don Giovanni gets sucked into hell, omitting the final scene. I’ve never understood why Mozart and DaPonte included the last scene. But as much as people talk about omitting the final scene, no one actually performs it without that scene, since it is there. Except tonight the opera ended without the scene. But since the curtain did not drop when the opera did end (at Giovanni being sucked into hell), and the conductor remained at the podium, and the house lights did not budge, it was not clear that the opera had ended until the conductor wandered off, the orchestra started cleaning its instruments, and cast members started appearing on stage for their bows. If they were going to end the opera there (because they obviously agree that this is the dramatically-sensible place to end), then they needed to end instead of leaving everyone hanging, which ruined the drama they were seeking to restore by ending where they did.
Dolidze, Keto da Kote
A farce at the Tbilisi State Opera this afternoon, on two counts. First was the opera itself, Keto da Kote, a hilarious romp by Victor Dolidze. Second was less fortunate: I now know to avoid Sunday matinees which are part of school subscriptions with thousands of children.
I went to another Georgian opera at the Tbilisi State Opera: Mindia, by Otar Taktakishvili. I assumed this would be another obscure Georgian opera, but it seems to be quite popular and not at all obscure here, and was practically sold out with a very enthusiastic audience (which stopped talking and paid attention, unlike at Aida).
The opera dates from 1961. In style, it was similar to the Paliashvili opera I saw last month, but with four-plus additional decades of development under Soviet eyes (Taktakishvili was director of the Tbilisi conservatory, and deputy head of the Soviet composers’ union). So mood was “Georgian” (inasmuch as Paliashvili is the father of Georgian classical music), including underlying tonality (modal, actually), with a bit of Soviet monumentalism. To that was added a style which repeatedly made me think of William Walton’s music written for various films of Shakespeare plays (the 20th-century monumentalized reinterpretation of music meant to be reflect an earlier era).
The plot was simple, and had as an agenda the opposition to blood feuds. The hero has wandered for many years and learned to understand and speak the language of mother nature. Returning home, he is expected to take part in a blood feud to avenge the murder of his brother, but refuses since this is against his – and nature’s – beliefs. Although he demonstrates bravery in vanquishing his village’s enemies in battle (which apparently is allowed), he continues to refuse to kill his brother’s murderer inside his village. The murderer takes offense that the blood feud is not being honored, and ultimately forces the hero’s hand. After that, the hero is no longer able to commune with nature, and seeks to apologize. At the end of the opera, mother nature forgives him, and welcomes him back.
Staging was minimal, but not necessary to convey the plot, which was more psychological than action-oriented. Picture a classical Greek play, with characters interacting with the chorus more than with each other, and the main action taking place off stage and being referred to.
The lead tenor was the same one who also sang the lead tenor roles in the previous two operas I saw in the house. The villain was excellent (I don’t think I’ve seen him before). Otherwise, cast and orchestra remain quite creditable.
What a shame the performance of Verdi‘s Aida at the Tbilisi State Opera tonight interfered with the audience’s conversations, mobile phones, coming-and-going, and general overall rudeness. The audience members were so determined to chatter, they even had to talk louder to hear each other over the louder sections of the music. Then they probably thought that lots of inappropriate clapping would make it all better, rather than being further disruptive. And the standing ovation at the end also didn’t help (the cast must have also noticed the rude audience, since despite the standing ovation they did not even bother to come out for a bow at the end).
The performance itself (or what I could hear) was OK. Orchestra was once again good, cast was mostly fine if not special. The Amonasro was excellent. The Radames was the same person who sang the tenor lead last Sunday – he has a good voice, but funny Italian pronunciation (and at one point obviously forgot the words and just sang la-la-la-la, not that anyone was likely to notice other than me).
The mock Egyptian staging was dumb – it was not clear that the director understood Italian or even read the libretto in any language, since the action on stage often had little relation to what was being sung. Some of these were just details, but some were not explicable: for example, in the final scene, Radames (and Aida) were not enclosed in the tomb until the final moments (when the whole scene is supposed to take place already in the tomb – that’s the whole point). When Radames sings that not even his strong arms can move the rock away from the entrance to the tomb (which, again, makes no sense if they are not inside), the director had Radames, and then Aida, sip water (or was it poison?) ostentatiously from a ceremonial dish.
Paliashvili, Abesalom da Eteri
Considered the masterpiece of Georgian classical music, Zakharia Paliashvili‘s opera Abesalom da Eteri from 1919 combined Georgian polyphonic modes with Western operatic traditions. Gorgeous, moody, raw music – I wish it were performed outside Georgia (and that there were a reasonable-quality recording available on CD).
The music was sort of like Rimsky’s Kitezh, but with the rawness of Mussorgsky. I have no idea if it has ever been performed outside Georgia – the Georgian language being somewhat obscure, I am not sure it would be performed by non-Georgians except in translation.
This is my first performance at the Tbilisi State Opera, which has an ornate neo-Persian theater. The quality of the opera company is better than in many eastern European houses, most of which seem to have had their talent drained to higher-paying western houses. This was quite a good performance. Staging was minimal but sensible. Costumes were appropriate for the mythical setting.
I think the house saved its money by not installing lightbulbs. The lobby, hallways, and bathrooms were all mostly dark. But the building itself was floodlit from the outside – I presume that comes from the city’s budget and not from the opera house’s.