Valery Gergiev brought the orchestra and singers of the Mariinsky Theater back to Washington this weekend, to help celebrate the Kennedy Center's Focus on Russia program. It is a sign of the times, unfortunately, that the two-week visit features only two staged performances, of Prokofiev's War and Peace (March 6 and 7). Concert performances have generally been a part of the Mariinsky Theater's programming here, but this time four of six performances are not staged.
During the 2007 installment of the Mariinsky (Kirov Opera)'s residency at the Kennedy Center, Gergiev was conducting performances here while shuttling back and forth to the Met to conduct their production of War and Peace. The indefatigable, some might say overstretched conductor has not slowed down one bit: the date of the first concert performance, Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, had to be moved up by one day to accommodate Gergiev's trip to Vancouver, to conduct at the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics.
If this particular concert performance of Tchaikovsky's masterful opera seemed a little familiar, it is because Leonard Slatkin conducted the work in a concert performance at the end of his tenure with the National Symphony Orchestra. In fact, his two female leads were the same as those cast by Gergiev: the beautiful if somewhat vocally wan Irina Mataeva (Tatyana) and the molten, gutsy mezzo of Ekaterina Semenchuk (Olga). Both were essentially as I remember them in that performance, Semenchuk a vocal revelation especially at the bottom of her voice and Mataeva lovely but lacking that last bit of vocal oomph to make a great Tatyana. Here she seemed to be intentionally under-singing in the first two acts, either to characterize the younger Tatyana's voice as more girl-like or simply to conserve her strength, and had a much fuller, rounder sound in Act III, still a little strained and unpredictable at the top.
Anne Midgette, An "Onegin" with flashes of brilliance (Washington Post, March 1)
Tim Smith, 'Onegin,' 'Boris Godunov' performed in concert by Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra (Baltimore Sun, March 1)
Joe Banno, Mariinsky, sans Gergiev, offers a lean, mean "Boris Godunov" (Washington Post, March 1)
In many ways, the best part of this performance was the conducting of Gergiev, giving delectable shape to the melodic lines and always gauging the balance of the orchestra, positioned on the stage rather than in the pit, according to the heft of each singer. He captured the melancholy of Tanya's recurring theme, with that quicksilver, baton-less hand flutter, giving each statement an independent identity. The Mariinsky Theater's orchestra played exceptionally well, especially in the brilliant dance music of the second act, following Gergiev's mercurial tempo and rubato changes with only a few disjunctions of the brass and violins, as in the ball scene that opens the third act. The vocal performances were so good, with a few exceptions, that one may have wished for a staging, but sometimes concert opera, which allows that perfect production in the listener's mind to unfold as the imagined visual component, has a definite appeal.
We had to miss the second performance, of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, but the Mariinsky Theater's visit continues this week with concert performances of excerpts of Russian operas (March 3 and 4), including the Mariinsky's one-time product and now superstar, soprano Anna Netrebko, as Iolanta on Thursday. There is a special offer, two tickets for the price of one, to the Wednesday concert: mention offer number 48074 if you purchase over the phone.