From Russia With Like

Its three-week visit to the metropolitan Opera House now over, the Kirov Opera and its charismatic conductor, director, and general factotum, Valery Gergiev, have packed up and returned to St. Petersburg, leaving New Yorkís ever-vigilant opera watchers with many questions to ponder. Will the rich Russian operatic repertory, largely unknown here and from which the Kirov has lately given us some tantalizing samples, now be explored even more vigorously by the Met? Will the ties between the two companies become ever firmer as the already considerable number of Russian singers on the Met roster increases and multiplies? Is Gergiev himself, now the Metís principal guest conductor, poised to play an even more influential role in New Yorkís musical future?

Barring any unexpected operatic plot twists down the road, the answer to all these queries is surely yes. New productions and revivals of several Russian novelties have already been announced by the Met, and to insure idiomatic performances it only makes sense to engage artists who have these operas in their blood. And while they happen to be in town, the same singers are bound to turn up in familiar works by Verdi and Puccini. Hereís where conspiracy theorists throw up their hands and issue dire warnings. Our premier opera company, they say, is rapidly being transformed into Kirov West, a cost-effective operation based on cheap imported labor and malleable singers more than willing to be controlled by those power-mad villains who rule the Met. Thatís an unlikely scenario, but I suppose it could happen – after all, the Met has a long tradition of foreign takeovers. Opera in German reigned exclusively from 1884 to 1891, the Italians dominated for years after Giulio Gatti-Casazza and Arturo Toscanini arrived in 1908, and in the fifties Rudolf Bing drew heavily on his Viennese contacts – why, the Met was even dominated by Americans during the World War II years, if only by default.

However it all turns out, the Russians are definitely here to stay, for a while at least, and in that respect the recently concluded Kirov Opera Festival has proved instructive. For one thing, we have just heard a large number of unfamiliar singers ìauditioningî under live-performance conditions, a process that was surely as useful to Met management in sizing up prospective talent as it was to an audience eager to discover new favorites. And some are sure to be back. I encountered most of the Kirovís leading singers over the course of the six performances, enough to ascertain that the companyís overall standard is respectable even if the ranks are hardly crammed with exciting vocal personalities. There were certainly no thrilling voices to equal those of tenor Vladimir Atlantov, mezzo Elena Obraztsova, baritone Yuri Mazurok, and bass Yevgeni Nesterenko, powerhouse Russian stars who drove the fans wild when the Bolshoi visited the Met in 1975.

The Kirovís male roster is especially nondescript – just from listening to the bland Prince Igors of baritones Nikolai Putilin and Mikhail Kit, I would be hard put to characterize their interpretations, let alone draw fine comparative lines between them. And if the Met was hoping to find spinto sopranos for the heavier Verdi and Puccini roles that go begging nowadays, the search goes on. Sounding worn and opaque as Yaroslavna in Prince Igor, Galina Gorchakova indicated that her brief usefulness in this repertory has passed, and her opposite number, Valentina Tsidipova as Gorislava in Ruslan and Lyudmila, was even more disappointing. The lighter sopranos showed more promise, in particular Anna Netrebko, whose agile, unblemished voice soared easily through Lyudmilaís roulades and captivated all ears in Betrothal in a Monastery. She also looks enchanting and creates real characters – in Lyudmilaís case out of practically nothing. Another singer with strong stage and vocal presence is Larissa Diadkova, whose creamy mezzo and assured acting gave vivid profile to such diverse parts as Prokofievís nosy Duenna, Glinkaís mysterious Ratmir, and Borodinís sensuous Konchakovna. Weíll soon see if Diadkovaís versatility extends to Verdi when she sings Azucena in Il Trovatore at the Met next season.

One hardly expects the Kirov to experiment with avant-garde staging techniques, but production styles back home are more varied and less conservative than one might suspect from the quaint theatrics so far seen in New York. The ghastly new Prince Igor I wrote about last week was a misguided compromise, an attempt to reinterpret an unwieldy historical spectacle by tarting up an old-fashioned representational approach with cheap contemporary glitter. Also a recent production, Ruslan and Lyudmila is more tasteful and modestly scaled, content to reproduce the adventures of two fairy-tale lovers in subdued storybook terms – no high-tech effects, just a charming fantasy delightfully told, complete with a gigantic singing head, a battle to the death in midair, and a palpable sense of magic in every scene.

The Kirovís fourth and last offering was Tchaikovskyís Mazeppa, an opera based on an unsuccessful revolt led by the legendary seventeenth-century Ukrainian hero-separatist. This work finds the composer in one of his blackest moods, dealing with a grim plot of political and personal betrayal, torture, execution, mass slaughter, and madness – a famous production at the English National Opera not so long ago rattled many British sensibilities by presenting the workís cruelties, a chain-saw massacre included, with gruesome relish. Not so at the Kirov, which performs the work as a hokey melodrama acted out against faded drops and musty flats, sets that must date back to the time of the world premiere in 1884. Ironically, the company prepared a new production of Mazeppa only last December – an effective contemporary interpretation, to judge from what I saw of it on a video, but apparently deemed by the Met as too startlingly original for New York audiences.

Of course, it could be that the fusty noninterventionist production New York saw is the sort in which the Kirov singers feel most comfortable. Even if he never quite succeeds in making the enigmatic Mazeppa a very plausible character, Nikolai Putilin sang far more vibrantly than he had as Igor; Yuri Marusinís precariously pitched tenor, a trial in the lyrical arias of Glinka and Borodin, sounded somewhat less bloodcurdling in Andreiís music; and Olga Guryakova went spectacularly mad as Maria, enthusiastically prodded by Lyudmila Shemchuk as the girlís equally unstable mother. Thereís more to this troubling opera than such scenery-chewing and loud singing would suggest, but the audience loved it – proving, I suppose, that the Met knows what New York operagoers like best.

From Russia With Like