Russian Roulette

Love is a battlefield: The Kirov Opera performs Prokofiev's Semyon Kotko, a story of romance and counterrevolution. Photo: Valentin Baranovsky

The Kirov Opera of St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre is an anomaly, surely the last major opera ensemble on earth with full-time resident singers performing a repertory grounded in national work. That fact alone creates a festive spirit wherever it appears, and the company’s twenty performances of six different works at the Metropolitan Opera House automatically made the Kirov the centerpiece of this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival.

The opening salvo was the North American premiere of Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko, first seen in Moscow in 1940 and the composer’s earnest attempt to portray real people in a human drama that could also satisfy the political and populist dictates of Soviet art. Not so long ago, Western audiences would have routinely sneered at any Russian opera that tried to cater to the commissars, but apparently we’ve moved on since then. The Kirov’s 1999 production of Semyon Kotko, a subsequent Philips recording, and the work itself have already received some extravagant compliments, although after seeing the opera at last I can’t help feeling that the praise is to some extent based on revisionist wishful thinking.

The libretto deals with a simple soldier who returns to his Ukrainian homeland after World War I to join the Bolsheviks in defending his village from evil counterrevolutionaries, including the father of the girl he loves. Granted, that doesn’t sound like a very promising scenario, but great operas have been built on even clumsier premises, and by 1940 Prokofiev was an experienced stage composer at the top of his game. For those reasons alone, I wish Semyon Kotko had turned out better, but the piece seemed exceedingly stilted and self-conscious as the Kirov performed it, despite some gorgeous pages of love music, a few telling character strokes, and the apocalyptic Act Three finale (Act Two in this version) that shows the composer in one of his most thrilling motor-mad moods. Basically, though, the likable but wooden hero, his sorely beset neighbors, and the beastly enemies that threaten them never get under our skin, let alone come to theatrical life. Prokofiev did much better a few years later depicting an older Russian society when he tackled Tolstoy’s War and Peace and produced his operatic masterpiece.

Semyon Pastukh’s bleak, almost surrealistic single set, with its railroad ruins, bombed-out central crater, and signs of general havoc, rather worked against the opera—there seemed nothing left for the invading Germans to destroy—but the large Kirov cast gave one of its typically disciplined ensemble performances under Yuri Alexandrov’s lucid stage direction. Victor Lutsiuk’s firm tenor and appealing presence was especially welcome in the title role, and conductor Valery Gergiev’s impassioned commitment to the opera made the best possible case for the music.

The Kirov’s 1960 production of Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina came next. It’s a classic by now, a respectfully traditional approach that both honors the score’s gritty integrity and leaves little unsaid about the intricately interwoven political clashes and human conflicts that animate this grand Shakespearean folk epic. Every moment of an eloquently poised performance was absorbing under Gergiev’s stately musical leadership. It says much for the Kirov that company-nurtured singers who have gone on to important international careers still return from time to time, and it was a special pleasure to re-experience Olga Borodina in the key role of Marfa. Few mezzos sound more luscious in the music or more subtly convey this intriguing character’s fatal confusion between sex and religion.

The one non-Russian offering by the Kirov was a recent production of Verdi’s Macbeth, a feeble affair that should have been left at home. Perhaps David McVicar (director) and Tanya McCallin (set and costume design) were called in to lend an authentic Scottish touch, but their minimalist efforts amounted to little more than a bald concert presentation. A pair of hanging bodies, a large suspended metal sheet, a naked lighting grid, and a vast expanse of black nothingness made up the permanent stage picture, while character definition was practically nonexistent. Gergiev continues to demonstrate scant affinity for Verdi, rushing through the score with no feeling at all for the music’s colors or expressive shape. Irina Gordei might be an impressive Lady Macbeth under different circumstances; she certainly has sufficient vocal heft, cutting power, and technical security for the part, and she appeared to be struggling to break out of the production’s dramatic and musical straitjacket. Vassily Gerello, on the other hand, was a total cipher in the title role, and the rest of the cast seemed equally vague.

Verdi’s Macbeth was not the only Italian opera based on Shakespeare’s play to be featured in the festival. Salvatore Sciarrino began shaping his version in 1976, worked on it on and off for 25 years, and finally brought the work to the stage a year ago at the Schwetzingen Festival, a production staged by Achim Freyer and performed by the Ensemble Modern under conductor Johannes Debus. Running nonstop for 110 minutes at the John Jay College Theater, this distillation of the play focuses on just a few key scenes, italicizing the basic theme of how an obsessive thirst for power invariably unleashes an evil mechanism that runs berserk and crushes human lives.

Sciarrino’s disquieting, glitteringly hypnotic music is not for everyone, but those who can surrender to its incantatory vocal lines, diaphanous instrumental textures, spare gestures, and slow-motion symmetries are likely to find his take on Macbeth both compelling and terrifying. It certainly seemed that way in Freyer’s production, with five sumptuously costumed actors trapped in, and quite literally climbing the walls of, a chalk-lined, claustrophobic black-box set that all by itself emanated an eerie aura of evil. As the Macbeths, Otto Katzameier and Annette Stricker were mesmerizing and completely immersed in Sciarrino’s distinctive, strangely seductive sound world.

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Russian Roulette