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#14 - JRL 7260
Wall Street Journal
July 22, 2003
The Pleasures of Russian Opera: Doleful Choruses and Gloomy Settings
New York

If a country's operas reflect its culture, the Kirov Opera's Lincoln Center Festival visit has presented Russia as a brutal, gloomy place, consumed with mystical religious fervor, in constant political turmoil, and regularly overwhelmed by marauding forces. In a tradition also embraced by the country's novelists, this all occurs at considerable length. Four of the national operas on offer during the three-week residency are rarely seen outside Russia. The fifth, Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin," is relatively popular in the West, and no wonder: Though certainly triste in its subject matter and execution, it is musical comedy compared to the rest.

Mussorgsky's "Khovanshchina" (1886; orchestrated by Shostakovich, 1960) is the most familiar of these works to non-Russian audiences. A dour, confusing tale of conspiracy by religious conservatives and opportunistic aristocrats against Peter the Great, it runs 4 hours, with many doleful choruses. But the Kirov forces sold it completely, thanks to the visceral energy generated by the orchestra and chorus under Valery Gergiev. The basses, trombones and horns grabbed the audience by the throat and the haunting choruses, sung with a resonant blend, were poignant expressions of national tragedy. When Mr. Gergiev conducts that well-oiled but sometimes impersonal machine that is the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, he gets uneven results, but here, conductor and performers were on the same page.

A few of the principal singers had similar vitality: As the Old Believer Marfa, Olga Borodina held her own with her lush mezzo and broad dynamic range, tenor Gegam Grigorian was a forceful Prince Golitisin who made his single scene count, and bass Vladimir Ognovenko, a vivid actor, captured Prince Ivan Khovansky's brutal self-assurance and uncertainty. The old-fashioned, naturalistic production designed by Fyodor Fyodorovsky was an unobtrusive background for the sumptuous period costumes.

By contrast, even the Kirov orchestra couldn't make Prokofiev's "Semyon Kotko" travel. In a desperate attempt to please the Soviet authorities, Prokofiev based the piece, premiered in 1940, on a novella titled "I Am a Son of the Working People." Set in the Ukraine, it features a soldier who returns home after World War I to face the reactionary forces of darkness, who include his beloved's father, Cossacks and evil Germans, and casts his lot with the Communists when these enemies do their worst.

The piece is a largely a text-driven stew of comic bits and conversations, with much of the musical interest coming from the orchestra. Only Act III, which begins with an idyllic love duet and goes on to a hanging and an Armageddon-like burning of the village, is really gripping. In best revisionist style, director Yuri Alexandrov tried to make the piece satirical -- at the end, the entire company dons Communist uniforms and lines up holding red books to sing a paean to the free Ukraine as their leader does a musical-hall turn reminiscent of Monty Python. But the satire seems imposed, and Semyon Pastukh's hideous set, with wrecked machinery, train tracks, and people popping out of holes in the ground, was no fun to look at. None of the singers in the large cast was especially notable.

Anton Rubinstein's "The Demon" (1875), presented in concert form, was not much better. In this traditional Romantic opera, which sounds like early Verdi without the climaxes, a demon, a cross between Faust and Mephistofeles, falls in love with a mortal woman who is tempted but finally rescued by the heavenly choir.

Many numbers feature soloist with chorus, so there's some lively interplay, but many of the arias could be trimmed. As Tamara, Marina Mescheriakova, who has sung some uneven Verdi at the Met, was in her element here and proved to be an expressive dramatic soprano. The Demon, bass Yevgeny Nikitin, had a nice instrument, but he sounded overstressed by the demands of the role and often resorted to yelling. A more pleasing experience came from the lyric tenor Yevgeny Akimov as Prince Sinodal, Tamara's suitor, who had some lovely tunes but was regrettably killed off by the Demon halfway through the opera.

Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia" (1907) fuses two Russian legends, those of a city that was magically hidden by mist when attacked by Tartars and of a girl with healing powers who marries a prince. There's not a lot of action in this 4 hour evening, other than the inevitable city-sacking and bad behavior by those Tartars, but Rimsky's score contains long stretches of ravishingly beautiful music that evoke both Fevronia's intimacy with the natural world and the miraculous transformations of the story. The religious fervor of this opera makes it an interesting companion to "Khovanshchina"'s political themes.

As performed by Mr. Gergiev's forces, the shimmering transparency of the music had its own mystical effect on the listeners. Despite a rather metallic soprano, Mlada Khodolei was a touching and expressive Fevronia; tenor Oleg Balashov was her ardent prince; and tenor Nikolai Gassiev was impressive as the disreputable drunk Grishka, who first attacks Fevronia and then is rescued by her.

Director/designer Dmitry Cherniakov did the transformations with light (by Gleb Filshtinksy), and offered minimalist, monochromatic stage pictures: At one point, the citizens of Greater Kitezh, costumed in pearly gray, filled the otherwise empty stage in motionless rows for over half an hour. He left it to the music to provide the color -- which it did, gloriously.

Ms. Waleson last wrote for the Journal about recent productions of early operas in Boston and New York.

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