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Borscht Belters

The Met's new guest conductor, Valery Gergiev, is already the toast of the town, but his visiting Kirov Opera turns out to be a mixed bag.

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The Metropolitan OperaÕs love affair with Valery Gergiev has now, it seems, reached high noon. A week before the Russian maestroÕs current visit to New York with his Kirov Opera, the Sunday supplements were awash in Gergieviana, and each article made his most-favored status as the MetÕs newly appointed principal guest conductor abundantly clear. And why not? No other podium personality today generates a comparable aura of tantalizing mystery, the sort of magnetism that conductors of yore exuded the moment they came into view. Like those high priests, Gergiev and his mesmerizing powers elude precise analysis. Even wondering American journalists were at a loss to explain exactly what it is that makes him so special or the most charismatic figure to emerge from St. Petersburg since Rasputin.

That said, the Met has apparently found several weeks of unfamiliar Russian opera a bit of a hard sell -- even GergievÕs potent powers could not guarantee full houses for a repertory of GlinkaÕs Ruslan and Lyudmila, BorodinÕs Prince Igor, TchaikovskyÕs Mazeppa, and ProkofievÕs Betrothal in a Monastery. Some of us, though, were eagerly anticipating all four, important works scarcely known here and unlikely ever to be staged by the Met itself. Beyond that, there was an opportunity to experience the Kirov up close and in depth. The report at midpoint is mixed, but a company that can triple-cast opera productions with ease is not to be lightly dismissed, further testimony to GergievÕs ability to create communities and command loyalties in an art form that long ago lost its sense of national identity.

After a lengthy and rather leaden opening-night Ògala,Ó the Kirov unveiled a new production of Prince Igor that turned out to be a weak calling card. If any opera mandates old-fashioned pageantry, it is this sprawling epic of ancient Russia, basically a concert in costume that can be grand fun when presented in style, even if the action never makes much sense. This Igor frankly looks appalling. Yuri KharikovÕs sets and costumes, mostly Mylar, evoke the cheap glittery spectacles one used to see at the Ice Follies circa 1950, and Georgi IsaakianÕs traffic-cop stage direction is not much more inventive. Great voices to sing BorodinÕs luscious tunes would have helped, but Galina GorchakovaÕs soprano sounded worn and colorless in YaroslavnaÕs laments, Nikolai PutilinÕs rough-edged baritone drained Igor of his heroic vigor, Yuri MarusinÕs in-and-out tenor did no favors for the lovelorn VladimirÕs music, and Vladimir VaneevÕs drab Khan Konchak lacked both suave menace and low notes. Only Larissa DiadkovaÕs sensuously sung Konchakovna was a consistent pleasure.

After this depressingly provincial exercise, the KirovÕs sophisticated production of Betrothal in a Monastery came as almost a shock. Some Prokofiev specialists maintain that this adaptation of SheridanÕs The Duenna is the composerÕs finest opera, and after seeing the work so wittily presented IÕm inclined to agree. Written during the early forties, around the time of Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella, the score shares the grace and bittersweet lyricism of those two great ballets along with their harmonic pungency and rhythmic élan. Alla KozhenkovaÕs sets are a delicious fantasia of Spanish motifs, dominated by a huge fan at the rear that occasionally rises and falls as if in loving benediction on all the frantic intrigues that make up Vladislav PaziÕs brilliantly observed direction. Diadkova is again the vocal standout, and she proves herself a comic actress of considerable resource. But then, all the voices respond eagerly and expertly to ProkofievÕs inviting vocal lines, while Gergiev and his orchestra positively scintillate. More about the Kirov next week.


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