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The Arts

The Opera Season 2005-06
Glenn Walters

Thanks the restoration of the main stages of both the Bolshoi Theater and the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater, the Moscow operatic season of 2005-2006 may well be best remembered as the one in which the number of seats available to opera-goers was reduced to a mere third of the normal 6,000 or so (not counting the completely unsuitable Kremlin Palace, at which the Bolshoi chose to give its Boris Godunov and Eugene Onegin a handful of performances). Despite dire predictions last September of a severe surplus in demand over supply, there seemed in the end to be no unusual clamor for seats. Part of the reason, perhaps, was that Moscow’s opera theaters largely failed to generate much in the way of new productions and new talent that might have set its opera-going public afire.

Things certainly got off to a rocky start with the season’s first premieres, Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma at Novaya Opera and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Bolshoi.

Norma featured some remarkably stylish singing. But it was undermined by the unidiomatic conducting of usually excellent young maestro Felix Korobov and the staging and decor of a much-heralded team from Germany whose decision to set the opera in the world of 1950s neorealistic Italian cinema played havoc with Bellini’s supremely lyrical score.

The season’s lowest point of all came in October, when the Bolshoi allowed its first production in a century of The Magic Flute – an advance tribute to last January’s 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth – to be thoroughly trashed by a noted British production team and, with the exception of a guest baritone from Vienna, performed by a disgracefully inadequate cast of singers.

Both theaters, however, did much to redeem themselves in December. In the case of the Bolshoi’s new production of Sergei Prokofiev’s War and Peace, the opportunity was nearly missed. Less than two weeks before the scheduled premiere, the production’s centerpiece, legendary maestro Mstislav Rostropovich, chose to quit the proceedings, under somewhat murky circumstances that seemed to involve both disagreements with the theater and the conductor’s state of health.

But the show went on, with Bolshoi chief conductor Alexander Vedernikov taking over the podium and producing a truly brilliant account of Prokofiev’s massive score. This time the Bolshoi also came up with a cast to match the music and a staging by Macedonian director Ivan Popovski that impressed with its straightforward telling of Lev Tolstoy’s classic tale.

The remaining months of the season were marked by a string of novelties: a brand new opera from Russia at the Pokrovsky Chamber Musical Theater; a rare chance to see and hear Dmitri Shostakovich’s sole venture into operetta, Moskva, Cheryomushki, which served to inaugurate the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich- Danchenko’s newly constructed Small Stage; and, at Helikon Opera, two works all-but-unknown in Russia, Antonin Dvorak’s Rusalka and Umberto Giordano’s Siberia.

First off the mark, in February, was the Pokrovsky’s world premiere of a musical setting by veteran Dagestan-born composer Shirvani Chalayev of Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca’s tragedy, Blood Wedding. The score, which seemed to combine echoes of music from both Spain and the composer’s native Caucasus, proved eminently listenable and effectively served to reinforce Garcia Lorca’s powerful drama. The Pokrovsky, as usual, brought more-than-adequate voices to every role and Olga Ivanova gave the work a dynamic and lucid staging.

Moskva, Cheryomushki, which also premiered in February, took a wonderfully ironic look at the move by Muscovites in the late 1950s from communal apartments in the center of town to their own individual dwellings in the then remote district of Cheryomushki. In a lively staging by journeywoman director Irina Lychagina, a pair of alternating casts – one of students from the Russian Theater Academy, the other from the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko’s own roster of singers – each acquitted itself with enormous energy and skill, though the theater’s own professional cast understandably had the edge when it came to singing Shostakovich’s light-hearted score.

Unfortunately, I was absent from Moscow at Helikon’s April premiere of Rusalka. But a month later I did catch the theater’s new Siberia and found it a mostly happy surprise. Though Giordano’s score, dating from 1903, hardly equals that of his acknowledged masterpiece, Andrea Chenier, it has in it many moments of gorgeous, full-blown Italian lyricism. Director Dmitri Bertman treated the opera’s somewhat absurd story, set in the luxurious surroundings of 19th-century St. Petersburg and the salt mines of Siberia, with both wit and respect, in a colorful production that made no attempt at historical realism. The cast proved generally first-rate, with a particularly outstanding performance in every respect by long-time Helikon lead soprano Nataliya Zagorinskaya.

Otherwise, the second half of the 2005-2006 season brought a quite reasonably well sung and staged version of Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky’s enchanting final opera, Iolanta, at the Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Center and two further birthday tributes to Mozart, in the form of The Magic Flute at Novaya Opera and Cosi fan tutte at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko.

If the Bolshoi’s version of The Magic Flute marked the season’s nadir in terms of new productions, then Novaya Opera’s March staging of the same opera can almost certainly be counted as its closest approach to perfection. Taking the work on for his fifth time, the noted German director Achim Freyer brought it splendidly to life in a circus-like atmosphere punctuated with darker moments that recalled the creations of Berthold Brecht, the legendary dramatist with whom Freyer once collaborated. And Novaya Opera’s cast brought to it singing, as well as German diction, which put to shame the Bolshoi’s earlier effort.

To round out the season, Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko opera artistic director Alexander Titel came up with the idea of setting Cosi fan tutte in the unlikely, but surprisingly effective surroundings of a Soviet military hospital during time of war. The real war on stage, of course, was that of the sexes and the battles there were carried out in a nicely convincing manner by several casts of young singers, most of whom also displayed voices of superior quality. The theater’s orchestra, placed on a platform above the audience at the Small Stage, backed them up with a spirited account of Mozart’s delicious score.

For all of their efforts and successes, however, Moscow’s own operatic theaters were more than a little outclassed by the visiting troupe of St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater, which brought to town its Golden Mask-nominated, and later awardwinning, productions of Gioacchino Rossini’s The Journey to Rheims and Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.

The Rossini proved a thoroughly delightful romp from start to finish, stylishly sung and acted by a cast drawn from the Mariinsky’s Academy of Young Singers, while Moscow’s first acquaintance with a fully-staged Tristan and Isolde since before the Bolshevik Revolution, despite certain vocal deficiencies, brought with it a magnificent orchestral performance under the leadership of Mariinsky artistic director Valery Gergiev and a modern-dress staging by Dmitri Chernyakov that told its story with remarkable clarity.

Back on the local scene once more, the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko is at long last due to open its reconstructed and technically re-equipped main theater early in the coming season. The Bolshoi, on the other hand, must wait at least another two years before it can again play in the historic premises that are its principal home. Considering the apparent ease with which local opera-goers survived the past season’s seating deficit, however, both theaters, in returning to full action, may well face an uphill task in enticing audiences to fill their again numerous seats.  

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