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30.8.06

Summer Opera 2006: Betrothal in a Monastery

Other Reviews:

Tom Service, Betrothal in a Monastery (The Guardian, July 25)
"For a piece written in Russian in the early 1940s, what's weird about the music is that there is no political or creative ambition. The one passage of social commentary is a scene for a chorus of pissed monks in the second half, the easiest possible target in Stalin's Russia."

Warwick Thompson, 'Betrothal' Shines at Glyndebourne for Quality of the Singing (Bloomberg News, July 24)
"Theatrically it's another story. The level of acting falls into that 'not terrible but not very good either' category, with lots of generic arm waving and telegraphic mugging. In a serious piece, it might just about pass muster. In a comedy, it fails the crucial test. It doesn't give you the giggles."

Rupert Christiansen, A diverting confection (The Telegraph, July 25)
"Prokofiev just isn't interested in plumbing or expanding on human emotions: what engages him is the challenge of swift, lively story-telling and effective scene-painting, which could explain why his ballet scores seem so much more satisfying than his operas."

Peter Conrad, Laughing at Stalin (New Statesman, August 14)
"But Prokofiev's interest lay elsewhere - in the serenades, whispered trysts and nocturnal assignations of his four young lovers. Louisa, pining in Mendoza's house, complains that she is bored, with time at a standstill. The gently rocking sounds that steal from the orchestra pit cancel out her complaint: what she calls tedium is the enchantment of music, suspending time and reprieving us, temporarily at least, from history."

Hugh Canning, Opera: Your country needs you (London Sunday Times, July 30)
"Betrothal in a Monastery has not been staged professionally in this country during my opera-going lifetime. If the deadly new Glyndebourne staging is anything to go by, it won’t need to be staged again in the near future. Glyndebourne has a Russian-born music director, the outstanding Vladimir Jurowski, who has declared his intention to bring neglected Russian operas into the repertory. Two years ago, he programmed Rachmaninov’s The Miserly Knight, which was worth hearing once, and now he dishes up the Prokofiev, which, unfortunately, isn’t even that."
Is there anything better than discovering a new opera? I have listened to a lot of operas, some of them more than others, but I always enjoy hearing one for the first time. A number of people had that experience this summer at Glyndebourne Opera by seeing the first-ever British production of Sergei Prokofiev's little-known opera Betrothal in a Monastery (1940/46), which just closed this weekend. It's an unlikely combination, a Russian opera based on Richard Brinsley Sheridan's libretto for Thomas Linley's comic opera The Duenna. Jessica Duchen enticed us at her blog, when she wrote glowingly about getting to know the opera at the Glyndebourne dress rehearsal. However, as she also noted later, the press reviews were generally not very positive. One exception was Edward Seckerson's review (Betrothal in a Monastery, Glyndebourne, East Sussex, July 26) for The Independent:
Prokofiev's fertile score begins with one of his fabulous vaulting themes, heavy and heady with Russian ardour, while the setting is Seville - and an element of culture clash is apparent. But the musical style matters less than the speed of its reflexes. Prokofiev can turn an 18th-century minuet with the best of them - he'd been practised at doing so since the days of his "Classical" Symphony No 1. So his score bows and curtseys if not to the manner born then certainly to the manner well-schooled. But the musical language is weightier than Sheridan suggests, and it takes a while to adjust to the coarser, folksier nature of the themes.

That said, the romance of the piece is in good hands; no one does voluptuous quite like Prokofiev. The veiled shimmer of his orchestrations is as ever something else, and the way in which these gorgeous lyric flights are constantly interrupted by the mundane, the way the highly distinctive vocal writing breaks from song into speech into chit-chat, is one of the most characterful aspects of the score. It's a score that Vladimir Jurowski plainly loves, and he coaxes and cajoles a fabulous range of seductive and coquettish and downright bawdy colours from the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It can never have sounded better.
Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
Prokofiev, Betrothal in a Monastery, Anna Netrebko, Sergei Alexashkin, Larissa Diadkova, Kirov Opera, Valery Gergiev (released on September 13, 2005)
Most of the other reviews were more negative. I couldn't make it to Glyndebourne, but I have been getting to know this opera in the recently released DVD of a famous Mariinsky Theater production (recorded live at the sumptuous theater in St. Petersburg). This is the same 1996 production that the Kirov Opera brought to the Met in 1998 (and to San Francisco Opera in the same year), but with a different cast, other than the ravishing Anna Netrebko. The staging by Vladislav Pazi takes the story's setting, Seville in the 18th century during carnival, and plays it to the hilt, with dancers in the opening ballet costumed as outrageous, colorful parodies of commedia dell'arte characters (sets and costumes designed by Alla Kozhenkova).

Appropriately for an opera created under Stalin, most of the trouble in Betrothal is due to capitalist greed, the deal struck by two businessmen involving the exchange of one daughter, Luisa (Netrebko), for interests in the fishing trade. (It was an unfortunate decision to play off Jewish stereotypes by giving Sergei Aleksashkin as Mendoza, the greedy thug who wants to marry Luisa, a prominent hooked nose. The same singer was in this role at Glyndebourne, minus the nose.) The fish in the opening scene are portrayed by ballerinas in fish costumes, thus equating lust and greed. It's a charming opera, with lush orchestration and memorable set pieces (Antonio's serenade under Luisa's window being the best example, sung sweetly by tenor Yevgeny Akimov, which returns as a love theme throughout the opera) amid the flowing narrative. The central section of the Act I ballet, in the hot Seville night where masked lovers cavort during carnival, is a sultry score, with the heaving sighs of glissandi in the low strings.

The cast is generally strong. In particular, Nikolai Gassiev has a lot of fun as the suspicious and greedy father, Don Jerome. Mezzo-soprano Larissa Diadkova (also in the Mazeppa at the Met this spring) is a stitch as the scheming duenna of the title, smoking a pipe, grimacing, and corrupting her charge. (The color scheme of her costume and makeup -- orange hair, red lipstick, bright yellow dress -- will most likely remind American viewers of Ronald McDonald.) Netrebko, as usual, is competent vocally and then some, not good enough to justify a less attractive singer but certainly enough to make this visually pleasing performance possible. The secondary pair of lovers, Luisa's brother, Don Ferdinand (Aleksander Gergalov), and his beloved, Clara (Marianna Tarassova) have less interesting music but sing well.

At nearly four hours in length, the opera could probably benefit from judicious cuts. Just please, directors, don't cut the ballets, although I know that is probably the most tempting solution. As a Catholic, I am (only slightly) bothered by the anticlerical nature of the convent and monastery scenes, which play off stereotypes no less disturbing than those mocking Eléazar's greed in La Juive, but those beerhound monks are just so funny, with their false and hypocritical organum following on Prokofiev's raucous drinking song. You wouldn't want to do without the on-stage instrumental trio that Don Jerome is rehearsing while he receives messages from Luisa (the music is his "favorite minuet," which returns in the final scene). The part of the story I could most easily do without is the subplot involving Clara and Ferdinand, but it is probably impossible to disentangle from the opera. Fortunately, I am happy to watch four hours of opera, live or on this beautiful DVD, with sound that is quite good for a stage recording.

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