Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown

Highlights

With the world on pause due to the latest pandemic, cultural institutions have gone online.

I myself fled Salzburg and decamped home to Vienna before the authorities ended freedom of movement, so that for what looks like will last at least one month on lockdown, I can be more comfortable than I would be if crammed into my small Salzburg pad (my office is in Salzburg, and it’s just too far from Vienna to commute daily – all I really need in Salzburg is a place to sleep, with a reasonable kitchen, bathroom, and balcony for when I do spend Summer weekends there).  In Vienna, I have a good kitchen stocked with sufficient food, a cellar full of Georgian wines, and my private library (including my CD collection – and good external speakers for my laptop), so can survive more than a month if necessary.  My own day job goes on remotely, so it’s also good to have a home office with a desk and printer.

My ticket for a new Vienna production of Rigoletto was refunded – that show won’t go on.  A chamber concert of music by Moishe Weinberg in Salzburg will, I hope, be rescheduled (no refund yet – but I’d rather hear the concert so happy to wait to see about the new date).  My April trip to the US is off, so I lose a chance to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra in its annual concert in memory of my father (would have been Beethoven’s Ninth this year – but not only my trip but also the concert itself is anyway canceled).  We will see when and whether concerts resume this Spring, or indeed for the Festival this Summer (I got my applications accepted for 19 tickets, and since I usually manage to add new ones during the Summer this would have meant my most performances ever at the Festival, surpassing last Summer’s final total of 19).  We will see.

At night, after work, I have been able to take advantage of the new offerings available online.  I am not going to pretend this is the same as hearing music live, but it’s nice to get some variety I might not have otherwise had.

Every evening the Staatsoper releases a new video available for that night.  New York’s Metropolitan Opera does the same (but with the difference in time zones, this comes after midnight here – thankfully I am nocturnal).

I am now halfway through the Staatsoper’s current production of Wagner‘s Ring cycle, which they have spread out over two weeks (so far just Rheingold and Walküre).  The staging is blah – I am not sure that the vapid German director Sven-Eric Bechtholf had a concept.  If he did, it’s not remotely clear.  Thankfully, it’s not Regietheater, so nothing offends.  But I hope the Staatsoper did not pay him for this lack of imagination.  The cast consists mostly of Staatsoper ensemble members or frequent guests, and does not need to have any star names to succeed dramatically.  I have especially liked the edgy-voiced Thomasz Konieczny as Wotan.  He apparently has sung more Alberich than Wotan, and his voice indeed would be well-suited for Alberich, but the two characters are almost alteregos (“Schwarz-Alberich” and “Licht-Alberich”), so it can work with intelligent singing as Konieczny provides.  In the big roles so far, Evelyn Herlitzius has disappointed as Brünnhilde, her voice is expressive enough but not big enough.  Siegfried (my favorite opera as a child) is tomorrow, and Götterdämmerung (my favorite opera since I was a teen) next weekend.

I actually realized I have not sat through an entire Ring cycle in a while, so even with the faulty staging this is quite a positive outcome of the global pandemic.  Next week, I will also sit through the entire Ring Cycle on four successive nights, courtesy of the Met.  And the Royal Swedish Opera has provided Walküre (just the audio in this case) – in another dramatic reading with only one big-name star, Nina Stemme, as Brünnhilde (a shame she wasn’t contracted by for the current Vienna set!), and a supporting cast that generally held up.

  • [Recording tips: since I am cooped up at home, I do get to tap into my archive to listen to comparative performances.  For Rheingold, the 1958 Solti set with the Vienna Philharmonic made for Decca works for sake of drama thanks to John Culshaw’s brilliant audio engineering; but since George London’s portrayal of Wotan lacks dynamism, I tend to favor the 1953 live recording from Bayreuth conducted by Clemens Kraus, with Hans Hotter as Wotan and a cast otherwise up to the same standards as the Vienna one (in some cases the same singers).  For Walküre, I’ve never found a recording that really does it for me.  There are two conducted by Erich Leinsdorf a couple of decades apart, the first with the Metropolitan Opera has the better cast – there are actually a few of these from the same period, of which I favor a 1940 recording the Metropolitan Opera made while on tour in Boston, with Lauritz Melchior and Lotte Lehmann as a heroic Siegmund and Sieglinde, Marjorie Lawrence as Brünnhilde, and Friedrich Schorr as Wotan; the second Leinsdorf record came with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1962, with Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde and a much better George London as Wotan, and has the more thrilling reading from the pit (indeed, from the orchestral standpoint, this 1962 Leinsdorf version may be the best Walküre available).  For sake of being unusual, I might also suggest seeking out the hard-to-find audio from the 1983 Bayreuth Festival with Georg Solti conducting a Ring cycle that was rightfully panned, but out of which came a surprisingly good Walküre.  Siegmund Nimsgern’s Wotan is similar in style to Konieczny’s in the recent Vienna cycle, Hildegard Behrens is at the hight of her career as Brünnhilde, and Siegfried Jerusalem and Jeannine Altmeier made an excellent pair as Siegmund and Sieglinde.]

Of course, there is plenty of non-Wagner in the Staatsoper’s offering.  In an effort not just to be popular, the Staatsoper also included one 21st-Century opera in its mix: Three Sisters by Peter Eötvös.  That was worth a listen – Eötvös’ music is intelligent and edifying.

From the Met, the highlight so far has been a 2010 performance of Bizet‘s Carmen, with a sultry Elīna Garanča in the title role, overwhelming poor Roberto Alagna as Don José (he was great, but could not compare to her).  A very young-looking Yannick Nézet-Séguin (this production came even before he was appointed Music Director in Philadelphia) provided a perfect spark in the pit.  (Among the other performances the Met streamed was Dmitri Hvorostovsky‘s final public performance, when he returned to the stage for one set of Verdi‘s Il Trovatore, after he began his cancer treatment and before he died.)  The sad side-story from the Met, however, is that this week they fired all members of their orchestra, chorus, ensemble singers, and stage staff and it remains to be seen if the best opera house in the US will be able to survive the pandemic.

  • [Recording tips: I will be a bit zany here, and instead of suggested a “best” recording I will instead suggest one that will make the listener hear Carmen differently.  Carmen‘s international success derives from a production done in Vienna a few years after its Paris premiere.  So how about a German-language version?  The best one of those is a 1961 version from the Deutsche Oper Berlin under Horst Stein, with Christa Ludwig (Carmen), Rudolf Schock (Don José), and Herman Prey (Escamillo).  From a standpoint of drama, it is worth getting over the clumsy German that does not always pass with the music, and just enjoying some fantastic singing actors.]

The most disappointing production I have seen this week, though, was a new one.  The Theater an der Wien (Vienna’s third major opera house) was supposed to open a new production of Beethoven‘s Fidelio this week.  When it was clear a couple of weeks ago that this would not be able to go ahead – and indeed the entire run would be canceled – Austrian television rushed in to film it in front of an empty seats, so that all the work that had gone into producing it would not go to waste.  That was classy.

The problem, though, was the terrible production.  Beethoven’s first attempt at writing an opera did not go well and he gave up.  But he was still under contract, and the impressario was paying his living expenses while he wrote, so he was actually in debt to the impressario – Emanuel Schickaneder – and had to write something to fulfill his obligation, so he grabbed a French play he thought he could set as an opera: Leonore.  It went very badly.  A year later, he revised it.  The second version (now called Fidelio) survived two performances before being canceled.  Beethoven gave up.  About eight years later, with the help of another dramatist friend, he did yet another revision.  This third attempt worked and is the version of Fidelio that became a fixture in the operatic repertory.  Beethoven swore off writing any more operas.

Why anyone would think to stage the first or second versions of Fidelio is beyond my comprehension.  Actually, the music is Beethoven, so it’s great music, and certainly worth the curiosity factor to program selections for concerts.  But it’s lousy opera: there’s no drama (this got fixed in the third version, especially Act Two, which Mahler later augmented by adding the brilliant convention of inserting the Leonore Overture #3, which Beethoven himself realized was not a proper opera overture but a stand-alone piece in its own right, into the scene change).

The staging was blah here too – apparently they hired an architectural firm, which is not who should be doing stagings.  The construction of the stage indeed succeeded aesthetically, and I suppose it worked with this performing version – it, too, lacked drama.  The cast of no-names was mediocre – although it probably did not help that they had to perform this deficient version of the opera.  The Vienna Symphony Orchestra was in the pit (they are world-class, but when I have heard them live in the last couple of years I have noticed they have slipped a bit from where they were a few years ago) under the baton of Manfred Honeck (I like him – he’s certainly the best Austrian conductor working in the US, currently music director in Pittsburgh, and I never understand why his adequate but undistinguished countryman in Cleveland has a higher profile) – but again, the score of this version has no drama, so it’s really hard to make it do anything.

  • [Recording tips: Nothing has yet surpassed the 1969 Otto Klemperer recording of Fidelio with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Christa Ludwig as Leonore, which continues to be my go-to recording.  However, for something different, there is an excellent 1991 version from the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester under Kurt Masur, with some of the same folks who made the 1983 Bayreuth Walküre so compelling: Jeannine Altmeyer as Leonore, Siegfried Jerusalem as Fidelio, and Siegmund Nimsgern as D. Pizarro.  Fun fact: this was the very first CD I owned.  When I bought my first CD player, the electronics shop had a very small collection of classical CDs in the store and I bought this one so I could play something as soon as I got home.]

For non-operatic selections, I have to defer to the Philadelphia Orchestra.  When the City of Philadelphia banned large gatherings due to the virus, this orchestra was supposed to open a series of concerts to celebrate the 250th year of Beethoven’s birth.  That entire series is now canceled.  But they did perform the first concert in the series in front of an empty hall, and posted it on Facebook.  This concert included Beethoven’s Symphonies #5 and #6 plus a world premiere of a work the orchestra commissioned from Iman Habibi, Jeder Baum Spricht, inspired by Beethoven.  Nézet-Séguin’s tempi were far too fast for my taste, but the playing was sublime (they left the concert up online without a clear expiration date, so I recommend searching for it from the Orchestra’s webpage).  This orchestra is by far the best in the US right now (Nézet-Séguin is also one of the best conductors of his 40-ish generation, but he seems to be in a horrible rush here.)

As I write this, I have just finished enjoying a Philadelphia Orchestra concert from one year ago, added free for streaming on their website, with Nézet-Séguin conducting Mahler‘s Ninth, which highlights many of the complex interior lines, played virtuosically by this Orchestra.  Overall a pensive performance, and perfect for an uneasy period in which the world is locked down by a Chinese virus.  The European orchestra Philadelphia is most similar to is the Concertgebouworkest Amsterdam, in terms of having a lot of virtuosi players with fantastic individual lines but who also understand how to blend those thrilling lines into an ensemble whole. Most of the first chairs in Philadelphia are every bit as good as the first chairs in Amsterdam (the Concertgebouworkest is better, as it has more virtuosic depth after the first chairs).

Speaking of the Concertgebouworkest, when Mariss Jansons died last year, they posted for free a nice selection of live concerts he had conducted with them over the years.  Although I have not re-listened to them this week, they remain up on the orchestra’s website.  From the available selection, I’d recommend in particular Tod und Verklärung by Richard Strauss and Mahler’s Symphony #4, but you really cannot go wrong with any of them.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Verdi, Requiem

A lot of hype preceded the decision this year to have Riccardo Muti lead the Vienna Philharmonic for Verdi‘s Requiem at this summer’s Salzburg Festival.  So much so, in fact, that they added an extra concert to handle the perceived sold-out crowd (indeed achieved).

Was this the definitive performance of this mass this evening?  Certainly it was an excellent one in all aspects, but I suppose a matter of taste whether it was definitive.  It was not the fire-and-brimstone version I experienced in the Musikverein with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and Philippe Jordan the last time I heard this work in 2016.  Of course, it did not need to be – just a different valid interpretation.

Muti generally kept the performance quite contained (although it got loud when it needed to).  He emphasized the drama more subtly, whether the plaintive opening with Verdi in mourning for the poet Alessandro Manzoni, or the lyrical choral (and orchestral) music of the “Sanctus.”  Muti gave great attention to little details often overlooked, emphasizing the flutes in the “Dies Irae” providing infernal flames every bit as edgy and in the forefront as the brass; or the plucked double basses (augmented by the bass drum) mimicking the death bells tolling for the “Lux Aeterna.”

The Vienna State Opera Chorus again showed itself in fine form, with superb diction and nuance.  The four soloists made for an excellent ensemble: Bulgarian Krassimira Stoyanova (who sang in that Musikverein version three years ago), Georgian Anita Rachvelishvili, Italian Francesco Meli, and the Bashkurt from the Russian Federation Ildar Abdrazakov (who dominated a production of Gounod’s Faust here at the Festival in 2016, and whom I also heard sing Verdi’s Requiem in Moscow back when I lived there).  Of that group, I was most curious to hear Rachvelishvili, who made news last Winter as she took the Metropolitan Opera by storm and whom Muti has essentially declared to be the best voice of the next generation.  She lived up to her hype: she opened with a full, round, dark lower register the likes of which I don’t think I have ever heard an alto produce – and then moved effortlessly to an upper register which had a different more subtle character but which was every bit as full (rare to have such presence in both top and bottom).

My one complaint on the evening: the concert was dedicated to the memory of committed Nazi Herbert von Karajan, who died thirty years ago last month.  While his artistic talents deserve to be remembered (not all worked, and he got even more peculiar and self-absorbed with age, but he added thought to the mix), they should be in a purely artistic context.  Giving concerts in his memory (or naming a square after him outside the Festival House – or outside the State Opera House in Vienna, for that matter) is poor taste, unless they also present who he was (the concert program did not, and the name plaque on Karajanplatz glosses abstractly).  The man joined the Nazi party not once but twice: the first time when it was illegal in Austria (demonstrating he was willing to risk jail to be a Nazi), and the second time after the Anschluss as the records of underground Nazis such as Karajan were misplaced and he needed to be sure he was fully-inscribed.  He may not have committed any war crimes himself, but his loyalty to Hitler and his barbaric ideology was not in question.  Salzburg has of course never been fully denazified, even by poor Austrian standards.  Salzburg never wanted the Festival, when it considered it as too “Jewish” at its founding in 1920 – indeed the city feared an international Jewish conspiracy designed to undermine Salzburg – and perhaps never fully embraced until 1938 after the Nazis took it over (and Karajan himself led it from 1956-1989).  I might normally leave this out of a musical review, but if the Festival did not wish to mention it, then I must.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Verdi, Requiem

My second unplanned concert of the weekend, for which when realizing I would be in Vienna this weekend I managed to score late-returned tickets for an otherwise sold out performance of Verdi’s Requiem in the Musikverein this afternoon.

Albeit a setting of a mass, Verdi’s is a theatrical work, with operatic drama, and the forces assembled on stage certainly understood Verdi’s intent. Conductor Philippe Jordan deftly crafted all aspects of the performance. I’d say he practically staged the work, except that the fire and brimstone may have consumed the Musikverein, and the gentler plaintive moments may have caused the remnants to melt, and we need this hall intact.

The Wiener Symphoniker, of which Jordan is the chief conductor, shone, with bright and open tones. Behind them, the Singverein, filled the hall with strident sound. Enunciating each syllable with clear diction, they got the message across.

To match such a performance would require four expressive and large-voiced dramatic soloists, and that is indeed the line-up they achieved this afternoon, with Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, Russian alto Elena Zhidkova, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, and Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto. Never outgunned by the orchestra and chorus, they projected clearly with bold – yet still sympathetic – voices which also blended well with each other (also not an easy feat).

La Scala Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Cherubini, Verdi, Rossini

Rousing visit by La Scala Philharmonic of Milan to the Salzburg Festival this evening.  Befitting an orchestra whose musicians mostly play in the orchestra pit of an opera house, this group understands drama, and adds to that an Italian passion.  Chief conductor Riccardo Chailly, who began his tenure in La Scala in the middle of last season, knew precisely how to maximize the talents of this orchestra, with big gestures (to compensate for his small stature, perhaps) but fully under control to harness their exuberance.  

The program’s first half showcased the rarely-performed music of Luigi Cherubini.  Actually, it was the inclusion of Cherubini on this program that made it most interesting.  A contemporary of Beethoven, the two of them knew each other’s music and each informed the other – Cherubini being more known for drama and liturgical music, Beethoven for his instrumental output.  Beethoven was the more original composer, but Cherubini’s sense of theater did allow him to inject a certain verve into the orchestral pieces on the menu tonight: the Concert Overture in G and the Symphony in D (Cherubini’s only symphony).  These were italianate updates on classical form, rather than reflecting Beethoven’s masterful innovations, but in keeping with Cherubini’s style and true to himself.  Chailly and the orchestra had fun with this opportunity.

They had more fun after the intermission, though.  The second half of the program led off with Giuseppe Verdi‘s ballet music The Four Seasons.  The convention at the Paris Opera required ballets to be inserted nonsensically into operas, and Verdi complied – but in composing a ballet for the Sicilian Vespers, Verdi decided to write one that not only could be deleted when performing the opera outside France, but for which the music would not go to waste as it could stand on its own.  The resulting half-hour work demonstrated Verdi’s ability to write evocative music for the dance – and as interpreted here by the Milanders and Chailly we could almost feel the weather change as the seasons progressed.

The scheduled part of the concert closed with another overture: from Giachino Rossini‘s William Tell.  Although a warhorse, this performance had a balance to it, with the orchestra not going through motions but drawing out the lines excitedly under Chailly’s direction.  We would have galloped off into the night at its conclusion, except that this audience wasn’t going anywhere.  The crowd demanded and got an encore: Verdi’s overture to the Sicilian Vespers.  This music did belong with the opera (unlike the ballet we heard earlier) and in the ten-minute span we went through the key points of the drama, concluding with the Sicilian rising.

The orchestra does not always have the most beautiful sound – it’s obvious they play to be heard from the pit.  But their joy with the notes shows.  I hate to harp too much on the Cleveland Orchestra, whose performance here on Friday was so disappointing, but it is precisely this that the Clevelanders do not seem to ever understand: music is passionate, it is emotional, it is dramatic.  The Bartók and Strauss works on Friday may be quite different from Cherubini, Verdi, and Rossini, but they still required emotion, that Cleveland despite its more gorgeous playing simply could not produce.  That was precisely von Dohnányi’s criticism of the Cleveland Orchestra.  The La Scala orchestra just appears to understand music better than Cleveland, and shares one approach with the Vienna Philharmonic (albeit nowhere in the league of the Vienna Philharmonic): its musicians, like the Philharmonic, spend most of their time in the orchestra pit.  It was Claudio Abbado’s idea during his tenure at La Scala to pull this orchestra out of the pit and put it on stage (no doubt influenced by his time in Vienna), and Chailly sees himself following in the late Abbado’s steps.  It made for an exciting concert tonight.

Salzburger Landestheater, Haus für Mozart

Verdi, Rigoletto 

The Salzburg Landestheater put on a musically-excellent performance of Verdi‘s Rigolettoin the Haus für Mozart, for a rare Sunday afternoon show.  The production showcased two young stars, Ramë Lahaj (from Kosovo) as the Duke, and Eri Nakamura (from Japan) as Gilda.  Lahaj’s voice was big and lyrical, as he inhabited his role.  Nakamura’s voice, large enough to fill the hall, nevertheless came across innocent and almost delicate.  The Italian Ivan Inverardi’s experienced Rigoletto nuanced but bold baritone portrayed a tragic court jester, despite having to act around some atrocious staging (more on which below).

Young British conductor Adrian Kelly drove the orchestra along to depict the dark tragedy of this opera, setting the mood right from the overwhelming introduction.  In the draft, Verdi had originally titled this opera “The Curse” before settling on naming it after the court fool, but despite the opera’s lighter tuneful moments, it remains dark, permeated by evil.  Kelly’s musical direction never let this concept slip.

Unfortunately, the Landestheater contracted a German director to stage this production.  Nothing good ever comes from German (or German-trained) opera directors in the last half century, and today’s production was no exception.  Amélie Niermeyer explained in the program notes that since the censor forced Verdi to change the setting of the opera (based on a real-life jester and his king from early 16th Century France) to a fictionalized Italian town which could have been anywhere (in this case, Verdi chose Mantua), she saw no reason not to make this an opera about anti-Fascism, and move the setting to the 1940s and Salò, Italy (capital of the Italian Social Republic, a puppet state established in German-occupied northern Italy from 1943-1945).

Niermeyer set the action on the elevator landings of different floors in an apartment building.  It is unclear who the Duke was supposed to be – the program notes suggested he might be the building’s owner.  At any rate, the setting was impossible to pull off with the plot.  There was no “outside” and characters had to remain on the landing where they were on set with action they should not have been in the same room for.  This made some scenes especially difficult, which the director resolved in strange ways (such as having Gilda, and then Rigoletto after her, get into the middle of the Duke’s love scene with Maddalena; or even the abduction scene where Rigoletto somehow does not realize he is in his own apartment – or at least the elevator landing where he sleeps with Gilda – and yes, there was a suggestion that maybe he does sleep with his daughter).  The final scene took place on the roof, with the Duke sleeping in a deck chair while the rest of the action took place (and somehow he never got wet in the storm), exiting via the elevator after patting Rigoletto on the shoulder.

None of this made much sense, but it also destroyed the tragic character of Rigoletto, who is very much the product of his time in history.  Put him into the Salò Republic and he becomes a willing accomplice of the Duke and really rather despicable.  His tragedy is that he is stuck as a court jester who knows too much and tries to stay alive and protect his daughter from an evil world, an unenviable situation.  This Rigoletto was just ridiculous, and a caricature of a bad man.  Inverardi was brave to try to give him back some of his character development.

However, this was not the worst of the staging.  During the first scene, in order to demonstrate the depravity of the Duke, Niermeyer populated the stage with prepubescent boys and girls in various stages of undress.  This was not artistic license.  This was child pornography.  Normally I favor deporting German opera directors; this time I’d suggest arresting her.

Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Walton, Dvořák, Berlioz, Verdi, Tschaikowsky, Prokofiev

The Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra came to town today with a program of music inspired by Shakespeare in love.  The renowned Austrian actress Senta Berger introduced each selection with a mix of biographical information of Shakespeare (and his loves and loves lost), period history, readings from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets (mostly in German translation), literary commentary on Shakespearean double-entendre in English, and some stories of later generations inspired by Shakespeare.

This program concept was good, but they could have thought it through more fully.  There was nothing wrong with Berger’s reading, but the mish-mash of texts came across as disjointed.  She also made no effort to connect the readings to the music in the program.  For example, she could have dramatized the scenes set by the composers, or explained the music in the context of the selections – if these composers were inspired by Shakespeare, the link should be obvious.  Or multiple actors could have acted out the scenes.  And while she alluded to the big delay between Shakespeare’s death and when people started setting his work to music, she could have explained more (as it was, she just said that opera, a natural medium for Shakespearean drama, did not exist yet in his lifetime and so it would take some time – problem was that all but one of the musical selections had no connection to opera, so that could not explain the delay).

The Nuremberg Symphony, though perfectly competent, did not make up for this disjointedness.  The playing was workmanlike.  They hit most of the notes.  They concentrated so hard to do so, that the music came out with little emotion, which essentially defeated the purpose of this concert.  Young English conductor Alexander Shelley kept these forces together with a smile.

The concert opened with an arrangement of music by William Walton for the 1936 film of As You Like It starring Laurence Olivier and continued with Dvořák’s Concert Overture to Othello.  Both compositions, seldom heard, displayed drama (not always communicated by the orchestra).  A selection of music from Berlioz’s “Dramatic Symphony” Romeo and Julietwas not dramatic – at least not this selection and not with this orchestra.  The ballet music from the third act of Verdi‘s MacBeth (the one nod to opera) jumped out a little better, possibly because Berger had been rather raunchy in her introduction.  Tschaikowsky’Romeo and Juliet Fantasy could have fantasized more.  The encore, the fight scene (not a love scene) from Prokofiev’Romeo and Juliet ballet, actually allowed them to let it all loose.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Verdi, Rachmaninov, Tschaikowsky

Before tonight’s concert of the Armenian Philharmonic, the Italian Ambassador, on behalf of his country’s president, presented conductor Eduard Topchjan with the Order of Merit, making him a Cavaliere, bestowed for his services to music.  This honor he well deserved.

I had gotten sick of hearing this mediocre orchestra flail under guest conductors, and so the return of Topchjan meant an extra mark in the calendar.  The orchestra sounds remarkably different with Topchjan on the podium, and tonight’s concert showcased his ability to keep his orchestra in working order.  The concert actually began with an encore – I suppose, if Topchjan received an Italian knighthood, he needed to quickly program some Italian music in addition to the two Russian pieces already scheduled.  So he treated the ambassador to a spirited overture from I Vespri Siciliani by Verdi.

The scheduled portion of the program began with Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto.  This concert actually marked the conclusion of the “Return Festival” (other than this concert, the Festival programmed mostly chamber music), in which Armenian-born stars who have settled elsewhere return to Armenia to perform.  Tonight’s piano soloist, Vag Papian, now based in Israel, began his international professional career as a conductor before settling in with the piano, and he at one point was the principal conductor of the Armenian Philharmonic in the late 1980s (succeeding Valery Gergiev).

Papian’s piano technique was curious – he set the bench rather high, and then hovered over the key-board as though he were short-sighted, bent over at 90 degrees with his nose practically jabbing at the tops of his fingers.  Papian handled the awful piano in the Khachaturian Hall by keeping his touch light, a softly-softly approach that hit all the notes without allowing too much of the tinny sound of this poor instrument to escape.  Topchjan kept the orchestra appropriately modulated, and an enraptured audience listened intently.  The strategy worked as well during the encore (which I could not identify), for solo piano and thus without any other instruments to cover if the piano should make its usual false noises.  Papian was rewarded by warm applause.

Oddly, half the audience did not return after the intermission for Tschaikowsky’s Symphony #4.  They missed a solid performance.  Despite a disastrous opening by the horns (especially sad, since the horns otherwise sounded great all night), Topchjan had the orchestra dancing its way through this exciting symphony, with an extra lilt in the second movement, some wonderfully-delicate play from the woodwinds in the third, and a boisterous brass finale.   Bravo, Maestro.

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.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Verdi, Wagner, Bellini, Glinka, Rachmaninov, Rubinstein, Bizet, Khachaturian, Pakhmutova, Dunayevsky, Babzhanian, Orbelian

Tonight’s concert by baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky and the Armenian Philharmonic was peculiar long before it started.  Ostensibly part of the annual Yerevan Perspectives Music Festival, it appeared neither on the Festival’s published program nor on the Armenian Philharmonic’s schedule.  But when posters went up around town, tickets sold out.  Only cheap seats were available when I got to the box office, and in retrospect that was a good thing because this concert was not worth more than a 10-dollar ticket.  After the concert sold out (or over-sold out, since some people were literally sitting on every available stair in the aisles and standing to fill every other empty space), black market tickets were going for well above face value.

A list of composers was published on the concert flier, so presumably they knew what they were performing in advance.  But to tell us what was being performed, they hired a master of ceremonies.  Sometimes he was too slow to announce the next selection.  Sometimes Hvorostovsky beat him too it.  Sometimes we just had to guess.  A program would have been a nicer idea.

The first half of the program contained a mix of arias and orchestral overtures.  Hvorostovsky is clearly more comfortable in the Russian repertory, and Aleko’s lament from Rachmaninov’Aleko and an aria from Rubinstein’s Demon remain signature works, combining loving sensitivity with drama.  His singing style may be less suited for German and Italian repertory, at least for tonight’s selections, since his voice can sound somewhat bitter and not subtle in those languages, and this undermined the portrayal in Wolfram’s Ode to the Evening Star from Wagner’Tannhäuser and in another aria that sounded (I’ll guess) like it came from Bellini’Puritani.  It worked better for Escamillo’s bullfighting aria from Bizet’Carmen, as Hvorostovsky ostentatiously made his appearance in the middle of the orchestral introduction, and then gave a swashbuckling portrayal quite appropriate for the scene (this may also have worked better since French is already an ugly enough language, and a biting Russian baritone will not make that worse).

The orchestra mostly kept pace, under the baton of the Armenian-American conductor Constantine Orbelian, but Orbelian does not have the same control that the orchestra’s music director Eduard Topchjan has.  Topchjan is perhaps the only one to make this orchestra sound good.  Tonight, they reverted down several levels, missing notes and entrances, and failing to allow natural phrasing in the music to flow, making the performance somewhat disjointed.  When Hvorostovsky sang, they thankfully stayed in the background (with some glaring exceptions).  When performing the overtures to Verdi’NabuccoGlinka’s  Ruslan i Lyudmila, Bizet’s Carmen, they just served to keep the audience entertained while Hvorostovsky took a breather.  Likewise for a Khachaturian dance in the concert’s second half.

When I worked in Russia, someone told me that someone famous (unfortunately, I forget who) once quipped that if the Russians have ever done anything cultured, they learned it from the Jews, the Armenians, or the Georgians.  The second half of the concert seemed designed to prove that no matter how well they have been trained, Russians remain tasteless underneath.  I suppose Hvorostovsky selects his own programs, so I will blame him.  His selections in the second half converted the hall into a Russian nightclub, but with the accompaniment scored for full orchestra to ensure it could become as tacky as possible.  He sang a string of Russian-language songs by Russian and Armenian composers (according to the flier: Pakhmutova, Dunayevsky, Babzhanian, and Konstanin Orbelian – the last being the uncle of the conductor and who came on stage personally to accompany Hvorostovsky and the orchestra on a miked piano, and whose music is as cheesy as it was when I last suffered through it in 2011).  Hvorostovsky used a microphone for these songs (he correctly did not use one in the first half of the program).  Why someone with his voice needed amplification is a mystery, but it just made the sound more seedy and defeated the point of paying to hear him sing live.  His gold chain glittered under his half-unbuttoned shiny black shirt.

Audience reaction was mixed.  Some – presumably the Russified Armenians, of whom there are far too many – clearly loved it and applauded madly.  But a sizable minority had expressions of disgust on their faces similar to mine.  After politely sitting through the scheduled part of the concert, and sitting on our hands during the applause, we waited to see what Hvorostovsky would do for encores.  He began with two differently-scored versions of the Russian nightclub favorite “Dark Eyes.”  When it became clear that the encores would continue in the same manner, lots of us got up and walked out.

Armenian National Opera

Verdi, La Traviata

Verdi’La Traviata tonight at the Armenian National Opera featured as Violetta Valéry soprano Anahit Mekhtaryan, who seems to be a bit of a celebrity here.  Her delicate voice matched the role well, on one hand, but proved big enough to fill the large hall on the other.  The upper registers tended sharp, especially at bigger volumes, but overall she was quite good.

As Alfredo Germont, Hovhannes Ayvazyan matched her well, although his voice sounded a tad tinny.  Arnold Kocharyan performed the role of Giorgio Germont as a sympathetic figure, rather than the necessary bad guy in many portrayals.  He was a character of his time, and meant well, but ultimately showed a human side and felt responsible for Violetta’s downfall (although her illness predated the events).

Staging was mostly traditional, except for some odd stone structures on the back wall.  Two stone figures appeared to be the couple from Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss.  Each scene, they moved further apart from each other.  Other rock figures moving around were a devil’s face (I presume), and a lot of detached hands, not to mention two stone columns which melted onto the floor during the final act.  Although weird, the back wall could be safely ignored.

The orchestra sounded quite good, under the able baton of Karen Durgaryan.  Unfortunately, as I have noted before, the huge concrete block that is the opera and concert house is poorly insulated from the outside, so noise leaks in.  This evening, a rock concert was scheduled for a square in front of the opera side of the building, and the floor throbbed with unwanted bass.  During the final act, as Violeta prepared to die, an unfortunately-timed and very audible fireworks display began in the square.  It seems odd that they could not have been bothered to wait ten minutes.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Verdi, Wagner

For the closing concert of the Armenian Philharmonic’s 2012-13 season, the orchestra honored the 200th anniversary year of the births of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, with a concert of selections (a “Gala,” as they refer to such concerts in the former Soviet space).  Hasmik Papian performed the soprano solos, and Eduard Topchjan conducted.

Papian, born in Yerevan but based in Vienna, has apparently made quite a career singing Verdi, and similar, heroines with her expressive large voice.  Although we only had arias, she clearly knew she had taken the stage and assumed the roles.  Verdi filled the program before the intermission (she sang arias from BalloDon Carlo, and Forza).  But she has recently added Wagner to her repertory, and we got that after the intermission.  Her voice certainly handled Senta in the 2nd Act ballad from Holländer and Elisabeth’s “Dich teure Halle” from Tannhäuser (that particular aria coming across in with a poignant twinkle, since she clearly showed she had made a triumphant return to her hometown’s large concert hall, where she got her professional start in the opera house on the back side of the same building).  When it came to Isolde’s Liebestod from Tristan, however, her voice may not yet have filled that role, especially if she had to sing for hours beforehand, but she made an excellent case as an Isolde for the not distant future.  For an encore, she treated the house to a rousing “Ritorna vincitor!” from Verdi’s Aida.  In this case, she herself had returned home triumphant.  The audience roared.

Papian aside, any concert with Topchjan conducting is worth going to.  In addition to the arias, the program also contained a selection of overtures.  The orchestra gave suitably spirited renditions of the overtures to Vespri Siciliani and Forza del Destino, which not only showed off some powerful chorales but also delicate solo work on the middle strings and winds.  I do not know how often Topchjan gets to conduct opera, but he certainly can convey a sense of the dramatic in the overtures.  The question on this hot night, though, was whether the orchestra would whither after intermission when the Verdi gave way to Wagner.  The Prelude to Lohengrin that opened the second half of the concert answered the question: the orchestra sounded even warmer and more lush.  But whereas it handled bits of Lohengrin, Holländer, and Tannhäuser, the next question was whether the Prelude from Tristan might not prove its undoing.  Yet here Topchjan had the orchestra sounding its best, effortlessly navigating the chromatics while keeping the full tone – another question with a good answer.  The thing is, this orchestra still has flaws, but when Topchjan conducts they sound completely different.

I hope they sound this good next season.

Belgrade National Theater

Verdi, Il Trovatore

In my trips to Belgrade a number of years ago, I never managed to catch an opera at the National Theater, whose stage also holds other types of drama.  This week in Belgrade saw me overlap with Verdi’Il Trovatore.  This opportunity seemed doubly novel, as I do not believe I have ever seen Trovatore live, despite it regular showing up in standard repertory as one of the most-popular operas not only within Verdi’s canon but in general.  Tonight I rectified both situations.

The music, as I already knew, was beautiful.  But I left the performance wondering why exactly this opera ranks so high in the canon.  It combines a silly plot (not unusual in opera, but maybe especially so in this case) with an idiotic libretto written by someone whose intention was to remove all drama.  Many operas survive silly plots, few can survive poor books.  Verdi’s wonderful music attempted to inject the drama, but utterly failed to do so.  What a pity Verdi had not met Boito earlier (although Boito was only about ten at the time Trovatore premiered, he still could have done a better job fixing up the text).

Belgrade’s National Theater, as a building, did live up to its billing.  The theater is a gem.  It has a surprisingly tiny stage and auditorium.  Although not very large, the auditorium is tall, with four levels, making the upper gallery rather high.  This does allow, however, the music to rise, giving a fuller tone than I would have normally expected in such a small place.  Yet the cast did not have to labor to project into the hall, nor even over the orchestra, whose position (spilling into the first boxes) was exposed and might in another house overwhelm the singers.

Ana Jorana Grajovic also deserves some of the credit on the podium.  She conducted a clean and clear performance, using a precise but nuanced stick technique.  Her orchestra sounded much better than I had anticipated, and clearly she kept them together.  The chorus, also taking its visual cues from her, never missed anything, although they looked generally bored on stage, and the choral singing came off so precisely as to sound blockish.

The cast was also mixed.  Many of singers in the smaller roles, but also Manrico (sung by Dusan Plazinic) had tired out their voices somewhere, as though they had spent the week yelling into a canyon hoping the echo would reflect a pleasant sound.  It did not.  Dragana del Monaco stood out as Azucena, clearly the star of this performance (she is the ex-wife of a son of Mario del Monaco, one of the greatest all-time Italian tenors; she perhaps understandably appears to have kept the name in her divorce despite a subsequent re-marriage).  Dragutin Matic (Count de Luna), whose elaborate hair braiding looked exactly the same as the conductor’s, and Jasmina Trumbetash Petrovic (Leonora) also had enough stage presence, at least in this small house.

I bought a program, as usual.  Nevermind that it was only in Serbian (this is Serbia, so fair enough), but it was recycled from 2011.  While recycling should be applauded normally, the cast reflected that of two years ago, which for the most part did not match tonight’s.  So the program was of no use.  If they are going to recycle programs, they should probably not print the cast in them but instead put the cast on a printed sheet insert (they had those sheets anyway hanging in the entrance displays, so people could see the cast when coming into the building).  I suppose they’ll learn this commonly-employed trick some day.

Staatsoper

Verdi, Rigoletto

Back to the Staatsoper this evening for Verdi’Rigoletto.  I saw this same production a few years ago, but a promising cast and an available ticket brought me back.

The British baritone Simon Keenlyside portrayed Rigoletto almost acrobatically – rolling a cartwheel to make his onstage entrance during the Prologue.  He did not stay still, although his actions never became hectic or frantic but rather measured, as a good court jester would understand. He also successfully navigated the two mutually-exclusive halves of Rigoletto’s tortured personality: the professional fool who is hated by the court for speaking truth and the doting father who tries, ultimately unsuccessfully, to protect his treasured daughter from an evil world.

Young Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko made her Staatsoper debut as Rigoletto’s dear Gilda.  Her voice and her demeanor graced the stages suitably delicately, as appropriate.  Her range impressed, but while her upper and lower registers produced the purest tones, her middle register wobbled quite a bit too much.

As the Duke of Mantua, American Matthew Polenzani cut a dashing figure – a one dimensional character played to the fullest. Kurt Rydl, a menacing Sparafucile, and Elena Maximova as Maddalena rounded out the main ensemble roles.  Sorin Coliban, in the minor role of the Count of Monterone, deserves special mention, in that his character, although having only two brief appearances on stage, curses Rigoletto, thus driving the plot and sending Rigoletto into ultimate despair.  Without a strong curse, the whole plot can collapse.  Coliban’s commanding voice projected from the back of the stage, hitting and devastating poor Rigoletto.  Keenlyside picked up the plot from there.

Jesús López-Cobos conducted the State Opera Orchestra from the pit, but appeared to have a smile on his face as he looked over the orchestra to the active and fully-engaged cast.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra and Chorus, Mariinsky Concert Hall

Verdi, Aida

In 2003, the Mariinsky’s set warehouse, a few blocks from the Theater, burned down, leaving only parts of three walls from the historic building.  Valery Gergiev decided this was an opportunity to build a completely new concert hall inside those walls, and the Mariinsky Concert Hall duly opened in 2006.  Gergiev has boasted to me that the acoustics are as good as those in the Moscow Conservatory, which has some of the finest in the world and certainly sets the standard for Russia.  Until today, I had not yet had the opportunity to have a listen.  I am pleased to report that the acoustics did not disappoint, although today’s performance may not have been the best way to judge.

The Mariinsky’s new production of Verdi’s Aida has been designed for the Mariinsky Concert Hall.  The front part of the stage submerges an entire level (a full floor down, rather than the usual lesser amount for an orchestra pit) to allow for an otherwise non-existent orchestra pit, leaving the rest of the stage clear.  I must say that the disembodied sounds coming from the submerged orchestra floated clearly into the theater in full sonority.  So, although this is not perhaps how the hall was designed to showcase orchestral acoustics, obviously the architects and acoustical engineers thought of even this detail.  Well done.

The singing from the stage was clear.  Some of the soloists sounded a tad tinny, but this may not have come as a result of the acoustics and may just be their actual voices.  As is usually the case in Russia, the male singers were stronger than the females.  Dmitry Polkopin, whom I have enjoyed in Moscow as part of the ensemble from the Stanisklavsky Opera (he provided a wonderful German in the Queen of Spades there last year), sang a strong-throated Radames.  His two unattractive female suitors, Zlata Bulycheva as Amneris and Yekaterina Shimanovich as Aida, had pleasant enough voices, when they could be fully heard (Bulycheva was more expressive, but less audible than Shimanovich – I was sitting in the second row, and only really heard her clearly when she was singing stage front and center, which could not have been an acoustical problem since I could hear everyone else).  Perhaps the two best-voiced cast members represented the clergy: Mikhail Kit as the High Priest Ramfis and Irina Vasilyeva as the Priestess.

In the pit, Andrei Petrenko, the Mariinsky’s Principal Chorus Master, conducted.  His reading ironically worked best with purely orchestral passages, particularly the lighter moments.  The singing was not always altogether in time with the orchestra.  He also provided no interpretation: good, bad, or otherwise.  Where the singers provided some, then the plot moved.  Where the singers did not, then the performance dragged.  The chorus, which in this production remained on stage the entire time, often looked bored.

Staging a performance on a concert hall stage obviously placed limits on how elaborate the sets could be.  In this case, Daniele Finzi Pasca, the stage director, is a circus clown (quite literally – the man’s profession is indeed a circus clown).  Finzi Pasca is also a Swiss peace activist, which may actually also be synonymous with “circus clown.”  In the program, he explained that he intended to stage Aida as an anti-war drama (“if only the Pharaoh and Amonasro could have sat down and talked.”)  Even knowing what his concept was, I could not discern it from the staging.  If the idea was in his head, he never managed to convey it.  The sets were minimal (because of the stage), and the costumes looked like they had been design leftovers rejected from a production of Zauberflöte (at least that made them mock-Egyptian, at any rate).  He presented nothing offensive, so in that respect he did better than every stage director working in Germany today.  However, he may wish to keep his day job.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra and Chorus (St. Petersburg), Tschaikowsky Hall (Moscow)

Kruglikov, Verdi

Tonight’s special concert of Verdi’Requiem with the Mariinsky under Valery Gergiev was for the benefit of victims of the disaster in Japan.

This was an extremely dramatic operatic reading of the Requiem.  This piece is already rather operatic, but tonight it was so expressive that the Mariinsky almost acted it out.  The Tschaikowsky Hall was absolutely packed, standing room only, but the orchestra’s sound managed to fill the hall.  I suppose that since they are used to playing in an orchestra pit, they know how to project up and out.  What I liked about this performance, however, was the way in which Gergiev drew out the woodwinds, who have some fascinating and dramatic parts that often get obscured by the strings and brass.  Tonight, I could clearly hear these interior lines.

The soloists all came from the Mariinsky roster.  Of them, only Olga Borodina (alto) is internationally known.  The other three were the sort of relatively young singers that Gergiev likes to showcase.  In terms of drama, stage presence, and beauty of voice, they all matched up to Borodina, particularly Viktoriya Yastrebova (soprano) and Ildar Abdrazakov (bass).  The fourth soloist, Sergey Semishkur (tenor) had a very beautiful voice, but came from the Russian school of dramatic tenors that I don’t personally like.  In Russia, dramatic tenors tend to have lighter (although not weaker) voices that tend towards the counter-tenor range rather than with supportive lower registers like European dramatic tenors.  This is purely a stylistic issue, and he certainly sang beautifully and dramatically.  All four easily projected over the orchestra and chorus.

The concert opened with the world premiere of Mourning Music by Feliks Kruglikov, a Russian who defected to the US in 1979 and became Zubin Mehta’s assistant at the New York Philharmonic.  The piece was sort of post-Schostakowitschian, although it did not really say anything.  Not unpleasant, just uninteresting: had Schostakowitsch lived longer, he would have had something to say.

Armenian National Opera

Verdi, Aida

An unexpectedly good performance of Verdi’Aida at the Armenian National Opera this evening.  Unexpected, I suppose, only because I did not expect anything going in, but came out quite pleased.

The program was only provided in Armenian tonight, and since I cannot even read the alphabet, I do not know who sang except for Amonasro, who received star billing on the English-language website: Zurab Bukhradze from Georgia.  He certainly had the largest voice (and was taller than everyone else in the cast, so literally stood out).  The rest of the cast were not exactly at his level, but all turned in solid performances.  Their voices were generally pleasant, although each of the cast members had dry moments.  The Aida also had a pleasant voice, not dry but with a warble in her upper register when she sang at volume.  Radames was the smallest of the cast members, and had the smallest voice, which did not always project quite as well.

The best performance, though, emerged from the pit.  Eduard Diadura, a guest conductor from Russia, led a very sensible musical production.  On one hand, he knew when to modulate the orchestra in order not to overwhelm the singers, making the orchestra almost unnoticeable to allow the audience to focus on the singing, but on the other he had the orchestra playing very well and providing passion.

The staging generally allowed all of this to happen.  The enormous sandstone sets (or made to look like Egyptian sandstone, but still solid enough to make the motors which move the sets around the stage groan loudly) essentially provided a backdrop, in front of which the cast could act, and it indeed responded with dramatic acting (albeit the director did not think some items through – such as at the very beginning Radames and Aida are still supposed to be hiding their love and not meant – as here – to be openly holding hands in front of Amneris and everyone else).  The costumes looked like Renaissance paintings of the way people in the Middle East were thought to have dressed in the time of Jesus; ancient Egyptians probably did not dress like that.  But the odd costumes were not offensive.  The stage direction could have used more people in the chorus (or at least extras – the chorus actually sounded large enough), since we were left to believe that the Egyptians defeated the Ethiopians with four battalions of six men each, plus a couple of dozen openly homosexual ballet dancers each carrying a phallus (I may not know my ballet very well, but the choreography throughout was so bizarre that the audience kept laughing, which cannot be an endorsement).

I explained last month how the theater itself actually has three stages – the main one in front of the audience, and then smaller ones to the left and right of the audience.  This innovative opera house architecture has potential, and tonight’s stage director made the most of it.  Oddly, he seems to have run out of ideas at the final scene – this last scene would be a perfect opportunity to use one of the side stages as the tomb – it is actually a difficult scene to stage in a normal theater (since not only is a dark tomb supposed to be visible, but Amneris is supposed to be in view outside the tomb).  But the director put this scene entirely on the main stage.  When the curtain opened, Amneris (who had thrown herself to the ground at the end of the previous scene) was in the same place but going up on a riser, while Radames walked down the steps into the tomb underneath.  However, when he sang his lines that the tomb had closed over him, he was standing outside the tomb looking at Amneris.  He then wandered out of the tomb part of the set to the front of the main stage, which itself was too large to be left dark, so the tomb was essentially the whole stage, with Amneris lying on an elevated slab in the back.  When Radames lamented that his strong arms could not move the rock blocking the entrance of the tomb, there was no rock (just a big empty front of the stage).  So I don’t really know what happened to the director’s brain in this scene.

Still, a very enjoyable evening.

Incidentally, regarding my complaints about the opera house building last month, it is still the same on a second look.  However, the deafening heating units in the lobbies are no longer turned on.  And I could also not feel the throbbing disco beat coming mysteriously out of the basement, so I assume I was right that that throbbing was caused by the motors powering the absurd industrial heaters.

Novaya Opera

Verdi, Rigoletto

Tonight was Verdi’Rigoletto at the Novaya Opera.

Musically, it met the standards I have come to expect from the Novaya. Conductor Yevgeny Samoilov drove the performance, and had an excellent sense of theater.

On stage, there was less of a sense of theater. The staging was simplified traditional, but the director had no sense of drama. Characters essentially stood around, or moved around the stage independent of events. This is possibly because the production was originally a co-production with an Italian festival, and since Italian opera singers tend towards the obese, perhaps it was designed to have minimal motion. However, Russian opera singers tend towards the starving artist look, and are much more agile, so they should have adapted the stage directions accordingly.

Singing was musically good, but it is hard to act with such lousy blocking. As a result, some of the cast did not even try (the Gilda, for example, seemed comically incapable of knocking on Sparafucile’s door in time with the knocking sound in the score).

Rigoletto was an exception.  Vasily Svyatkin, a big bear of a Russian baritone, acted with his voice, even when the stage director gave him odd blockings. He was the highlight.

Nurlan Bekmukhamvedov, as the Duke, also had a very pleasant voice, but it was a tad too high: he had absolutely no trouble hitting all the high notes beautifully, but without the lower register his voice did not fully resonate. Volume was fine, just not so much depth.

That may be my last performance in Moscow until the Fall. June is a thin month, and then I won’t be back here until October.