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Concerts from the Mariinsky Theater

Valery GergievThis year's visit by the performers of the Mariinsky Theater to the Kennedy Center features more concert performances than staged ones, but as remarked of their opening concert of Eugene Onegin, a good concert performance of an opera can allow the listener's imaginary perfect staging to unfold in his mind. That is less true of the least satisfying kind of concert opera performance, the hodgepodge of excerpted scenes, which is one step above the gala opera concert with a few arias slapped together. Rather than the two concerts of Russian opera scenes offered by conductor Valery Gergiev this week, on Wednesday and Thursday night, how much better would it have been to have two more complete operas, say, Prince Igor (or Khovanshchina) and Iolanta?

There was much to enjoy at both of these concerts in the Kennedy Center Opera House, but the excerpts of the operas just mentioned stood out for the particular beauty of their scores and the feeling and shape that Gergiev gave to them. On Wednesday it was Borodin's Prince Igor, from which we heard the entire second act after intermission. Ekaterina Semenchuk, the ravishing Olga from last week's Onegin gave another sultry performance as Kontchakovna, matched by the gorgeous, exotic music of the Polovtsian Dances and chorus of the handmaidens. Tenor Sergey Semishkur sounded in much better form as Vladimir than he had as Lensky on Friday night, rounding out the duet with Semenchuk in a beautiful way. Mikhail Petrenko, who had been a patrician Gremin in Onegin, showed a more aggressive side of his voice as the imperious Khan Kontchak entertaining his prisoner. Mikhail Kit, replacing the originally announced Evgeny Nikitin, was an appropriately proud Prince Igor.

Edem Umerov stood in for Nikitin as Shaklovity in the excerpt from Khovanshchina, switched from the probably more satisfying scenes from Act III and IV (which would have stretched out this already long concert even longer) to a scene from the second act. While Umerov's voice had a satisfying roar to it, especially in a resonant top, it was the chorus that stood out in the other two excerpts, especially the men as the drunken Streltsy in Khovanshchina and in the hushed prayers to the Virgin Mary, in the Rimsky-Korsakov rarity The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya, to protect the city from the advancing Tartar army. The opera is kind of a snoozer, but Gergiev brought out the master orchestrator's shimmering colors from his orchestra, especially at the conclusion, some magical instrumental effects to evoke the golden fog that rises to shroud the city. As heard on both nights, Gergiev's violins especially and the strings in general have an impressively unified sound for the most part, while the brass, potent and clear, have a tendency to lag behind his beat and the woodwinds have some intonation issues, especially in the flute and piccolo, while the English horn solos were outstanding.

Ekaterina Semenchuk (photo by Sheila Rock)
The second concert was given over to three scenes from Tchaikovsky operas, which did not add up to all that much, a concert that ended much earlier and, although it was lovely to hear at the time, seemed a little light on substance in retrospect. Part of the second act of Mazeppa, conducted recently by Gergiev at the Met, was a dramatic opening, with Edem Umerov, perhaps overly taxed by Gergiev, sounding large but a little shallow in the title role. The lovely soprano Victoria Yastrebova had a pleasant enough turn as Maria, sounding sweet and warm but a little thin at the top. Mezzo Elena Vitman was no match for the demanding part of Lyubov, although she flung her voice at the high notes with reckless daring. Nikolay Gassiev gave a hilarious character tenor rendition of the drunken Cossack in the execution scene. After the memorable staging of The Queen of Spades by the Mariinsky Theater at the Kennedy Center a couple years ago, it was slightly disappointing to be offered only the pastoral entertainment from the second act. Tchaikovsky's skillful evocation of Mozart was airy and delightful certainly, especially the soft second section of music played by the orchestra, but also the pairing of the voices of Irina Mataeva and beefy mezzo Zlata Bulycheva.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Anna Netrebko brings the Mariinsky to life (Washington Post, March 6)
Ultimately what had drawn most people in the hall, which was still somewhat surprisingly not sold out, was a rare appearance in Washington by superstar soprano Anna Netrebko. She entered the stage, in a striking turquoise Valentino gown, at the appropriate point in the final selection from Iolanta. Some of the best singing we have heard from Netrebko was on her Russian Album, made with Gergiev and the orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater, which included a section of this gorgeous opera, not well known outside of Russia. Indeed, Netrebko scored a big success in the Mariinsky production of it, and it was disappointing to hear only a rather short section of it. She was seconded brilliantly by Alexey Markov, the fine Onegin from Friday night, as Robert and less so by tenor Sergey Skorokhodov as Vaudémont -- an earnest sound, slightly indistinct of pitch because of a nervous flutter but overall a pretty, light sound. In short, Netrebko's appearance felt like little payoff for a lot of build-up.

The real climax of the Mariinsky Theater's visit is this weekend's staging of Prokofiev's epic opera War and Peace (March 6 and 7), in the Kennedy Center Opera House. This is the recent production directed by Andrei Konchalovsky for the Mariinsky Theater, featuring a cast of two hundred, with all of the sets and costumes brought from St. Petersburg in a coup of advance planning and transportation rivaling the Napoleonic invasion itself. Tickets are sold out, but call the box office directly to inquire about cancellations.


Carlos said...

Thanks for your report about the Mariinsky concerts at the Kennedy Center. I can figure out that people would have liked to get the full performance of Iolanta... I was at the Netrebko's debut as Iolanta in Baden-Baden last summer and she was absolutely great

Akimon Azuki said...

Thursday performance was a blast, especially the Mazeppa bit, and Netrebko was SO sparkly, and sounding rich and focused. However, it needs to be said that the printed program was horrible: someone was told to copy the description of the operas' acts from another source, without bothering to check what was actually performed on stage that night. Having seen the Queen of Spades at the Met recently, I managed to grok the "Tchaikovsky does Mozart" piece, but no such luck with Mazeppa and Iolanta. According to the program, Iolanta was to be performed in its entirety, so I was surprised when Trebbs took the bows and walked out after 15 mins or so. I guess anyone not thoroughly familiar with these three operas would have a hard time figuring out what was going on. A big Russian posse sitting next to us was just as confounded and talked - loudly- throughout the whole set. Mariinsky win, PlayBill fail.

Charles T. Downey said...

Hahaha -- I agree about the program, which was indeed largely worthless. However, I am less inclined to blame this on Playbill than on the Mariinsky's notorious tendency to leave these kinds of decisions to the last minute. The program likely had to be printed before final decisions were made about some of the excerpts. Who is performing and what is being performed are susceptible to change up to and probably including the last minute with this organization. I have gotten used to not knowing what the press folks are going to tell me has changed when I arrive at the hall. Playbill probably did the best it could with the information it had at press time.