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Summer Opera: Tristan in St. Petersburg

This was not on my list of summer opera productions to watch (Opera in the Summer 2005, June 2), but it sounds interesting. The Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg is mounting a new production of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, which premiered on May 27. Valery Gergiev is conducting, of course, and the staging and costuming were designed by up-and-coming director Dmitry Chernyakov. George Loomis reviewed a more recent performance in an article (Helping restore Wagner to Russia: A forceful 'Tristan und Isolde', July 6) for the International Herald Tribune:

In the new production of "Tristan und Isolde" at the Maryinsky Theater's White Nights Festival, the action takes place entirely indoors. Rather than the deck of the ship transporting Isolde to her would-be husband, King Mark, Act I is set in a modern warship's officer's quarters, equipped with computer terminal and exercise machine. Instead of a garden with tall trees, the Act II curtain rises on an upscale hotel room as a maid vacuums. And in Act III, the garden of Tristan's castle defers to a large but shabby living room with faded wallpaper.

Until recently, the Maryinsky has tended to resist provocative, interpretive productions. But with his stagings of Stravinsky's "A Rake's Progress" for the Bolshoi and Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh" for the Maryinsky, Dmitri Chernyakov has emerged as Russia's young opera director of choice, and Valery Gergiev tapped him for this latest installment of the Maryinsky's yeoman effort to restore Wagner to Russia. If Chernyakov emerges with his image somewhat tarnished, it is more because of misguided details than a distortion of the essential drama, which indeed registers with considerable force. Possibly wary of introducing Russian audiences to an opera that has little action, Chernyakov invents characters representing Tristan's parents (wife welcomes husband home after a long day, so it appears, and removes his shoes). People are forever fiddling with the hotel television's remote. And Isolde and her maid, Brangäne, carry on like roommates; indeed, there are hints (in the rather masculine costumes by Chernyakov and Irina Tsvetkov, for instance) that their relationship goes further.

But there are striking moments too, as when the lovers step from their hotel room into a more cosmic arena, only to return to find the room populated by Mark and his entourage. Of the sets (designed by Chernyakov and Zinovy Margolin) only the first misfires, because it lacks space for Brangäne and Tristan to converse away from Isolde (they do so offstage); otherwise, the sets stand for constraints on the lovers. And the sheer simplicity of Isolde's Liebestod - she sits leaning against a wall with Tristan's body propped next to her - allows the music to work its magic without distractions.
For a little history on Wagner's operas in Russia, there was a preview article (Wagner love, May 27) by Galina Stolyarova for the St. Petersburg Times, translated into English. Here's an interesting snippet:
Vladimir Lenin, the first Soviet leader, admired the vision of art for the people that Wagner had promoted, but he also happened to like the sound of his music. Siegfried's funeral march was played at the memorial concert after Lenin's death in 1924.

Joseph Stalin, Lenin's successor, was a Wagnerian enemy, and his era changed all that reverence, making Wagner's name taboo. This was mainly because German dictator Adolf Hitler was known to have a craving for Wagner's music. The composer's works accompanied the German army during World War II. So, when the German army lost the Battle of Stalingrad, radio stations played the funeral march from Wagner's "Twilight of the Gods." Predictably, the composer's works were pitilessly expelled from the repertoire of Russian theaters under pressure from Stalin's ideological machine.
Now Gergiev appears poised to reverse that expulsion. Follow the links above for some pictures of the production.

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