Operatic Rarities Highlight Early Summer in N.Y.

Dan Davis

[August 2003.]

Rare and rarer best describes a trio of operas performed in June and July in three New York venues. They may never win great popularity — not a Bohème among them — but they provided three evenings of great music strikingly performed.

Ermione

Leading off was a Rossini gem, Ermione, in a concert performance at Carnegie Hall. New York won’t see a staged production until 2004, when it’s due at the City Opera. The June 3 performance by the Manhattan Philharmonic and a cast of bel canto standouts led by Peter Tiboris whetted the appetite for again seeing a neglected opera with the potential to force its way into the repertory.

For a change, even the plot outline promises fireworks: Pyrrhus wants to marry his captive Andromache for political reasons. Oddly, this doesn’t sit well with his current wife, Ermione, who gets Orestes to kill him. When Orestes shows up with the bloody dagger with which he killed Pyrrhus at the wedding, Ermione goes ballistic. “Didn’t you understand I still love Pyrrhus?” she screeches. Orestes is dragged away by the Greeks pursuing him for murdering his mother and stepfather (Clytemnestra and Aegisthus — remember Strauss’ Elektra?).

Along the way, we get fascinating music, innovative choral sections, striking arias and duets for all the main characters, and one of the juiciest parts in all opera for the stressed-out heroine, Ermione. She gets to implore Pyrrhus, berate him, be nasty to Andromache, seductive to Orestes, and then display her conflicting emotions in a long scene whose remarkable recitative encompasses grief, love and anger, switching to revenge in the cabaletta and the final duet with Orestes, where she goes over the top.

Rossini’s music was enterprising for its time. The overture includes an offstage prisoner’s chorus. There are numerous other daring touches throughout as arias are interrupted by the chorus or other singers, and recitatives hearken back to earlier times in their great length, and modern times with further interjections by other characters and with tempo fluctuations. And he outdoes tradition as Ermione’s great scene trumps a long line of predecessors in its marriage of text and music and its dramatic intensity.

Perhaps because of that experimentation and shattering power, the opera wasn’t a success at its Naples premiere in 1819, despite an all-star cast and Rossini’s eminence. He refused to allow further performances in his lifetime, despite recalling it fondly as his “little William Tell,” i.e., a masterpiece. It lay dormant until an Italian performance in 1987 featuring Montserrat Caballé and Marilyn Horne. Since then, it’s been performed in several major venues, but unless I’m wrong, this was its first New York performance, albeit in concert.

It had its rough spots. The orchestra’s playing was far from the polished sounds we hear at the Met; conductor Peter Tiboris won’t be mistaken for a Chailly or an Abbado in this music, and some of the singing wasn’t up to snuff. Mezzo Victoria Livengood’s Andromache had too many vocally rough spots to be convincing, and Bruce Ford, who usually excels in music that demands wide range and bel canto style, had an off-night, sounding woolly as Pyrrhus. But Barry Banks’ Orestes was outstanding, peeling off brightly lit high notes and matching the Ermione in intensity. He was also one of the few to make even a pass at acting his role, although much of that was limited to shooting his cuffs and sneering.

But Ermione stands or falls on its Ermione, and the evening was an unalloyed triumph for Irina Tsirakidis, who sang with power and hair-raising passion reminiscent of an earlier Greek soprano. Her big scene was Callas-like as she prowled the stage like a tigress, generating sparks with her enormous voice and spectacular coloratura. Hers was a titanic performance. Perhaps it simply reflects my ignorance, but I’d never heard of the lady before. I have now and fervently hope she’ll be back soon, for she’s a singer with real star power.

Les Boréades

Rameau’s Les Boréades was the next rarity on offer, in a short run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s lovely old Opera House. It was brilliantly staged and performed in a Paris National Opera production with the American specialist in the French Baroque, William Christie, leading his period instrument band, Les Arts Florissants, and a fine cast.

Les Boréades was Rameau’s last opera, written in 1763 but not premiered until a 1982 performance at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. The composer’s death during rehearsals supposedly led to cancellation of the 1764 premiere but that’s unlikely since it was rehearsed over a year earlier. More likely, it was suppressed since the libretto contained subversive elements that included Masonic symbolism and the rebellious Act II cry: “Nothing is more precious than freedom,” among other no-nos in autocratic Bourbon France. Like Ermione, Les Boréades also marked a break with the past, disrupting traditional formulas for lyric tragedies with more sophisticated dramatic devices like ariettas and expanded parts for key protagonists.

The plot is fairly simple: Alphise, queen of Bactria, loves a commoner, Abaris. But her position requires her to marry a descendant of Borée, god of the north winds, two of whose progeny woo her ardently. She rejects her pedigreed suitors and determines to abdicate and marry her beloved Abaris, which decision unleashes a huge storm, here brilliantly staged at a big dinner party whose plates and guests are literally scattered to the four winds. Finally, Apollo discloses that Abaris is actually his son by a Borean nymph and therefore qualified to marry the Queen. Happy ending. Curtain.

The night I saw the opera (June 9), the singing was less than enthralling; perfectly competent and sometimes a bit more than that, and certainly stylish, controlled passion the order of the day. Anna Maria Panzarella was the vibratoless Alphise, as per today’s “authentic” dictates, but effective despite often sounding vocally thin. Paul Agnew, the Abaris, started slowly but built the role nicely, singing more strongly as the evening went on. The others were fine, but the baritones, including Laurent Naouri, whom I have admired elsewhere, lacked ideal resonance. The musicians of Les Arts Florissants were admirable. While cracked horns at the first notes of the overture raised fears for a long evening, no cause for complaint followed and the perky winds and strings gave much joy.

All of Christie’s careful preparation and stylish performance of Rameau’s music might have gone for naught were it not for the brilliant staging of director Robert Carsen and the equally brilliant sets and costumes of Michael Levine. Apparently, this production was controversial when first given in France, and Christie’s been quoted as saying: “I loved it, but it’s pretty off the wall.” Well, it is off the wall and I loved it too, or at least most of it.

Why “off the wall”? There’s that dinner table taking up most of the stage, the guests entering carrying their own utensils and jockeying over the seating arrangements. The opening act is a gorgeous vision, Alphise alone on a stage-filled flower field, a riot of color set against a cloudless blue sky. Leaves later fell from the heavens, to be swept up by broom-wielding extras. Good guys in white, sometimes just in white skivvies, the baddies in dark outfits. The pair of Boradean suitors come equipped with a male retinue clad in corporate gray suits. Snow is released by upturned umbrellas gracefully spun by extras criss-crossing the stage.

It’s all superb, eye-filling spectacle. The only flaw was the dance sequences choreographed by Édouard Lock. Intended to reflect the human emotions in the opera, they consisted of edgy, motorized movements that subverted Rameau’s music and induced equally nerve-wracking responses from some in the audience, very much including myself. At first the dances seemed a clever response to the story, but after several such “dances” I had to avert my eyes from the stage when they took over.

Still, flaws and all, this satisfying production of Les Boréades was a highlight of the season.

The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh

Even more enthralling was the Kirov Opera’s production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh at the Metropolitan Opera House July 16, a co-production of the MET and Lincoln Center Festival.

Hardly a rarity in Russia, where the Kirov has performed it regularly, it’s not often heard in the West. It ought to be. Mitigating against it are three factors. It’s long, five acts and two intermissions taking over four hours; it’s static, with long periods when nothing happens, and it’s overburdened with a naïve religiosity that weds pantheism to heavy-handed Christian symbolism. Add to this the absence of any character that might conceivably engender audience sympathy, and finally, the general resistance to Russian (indeed, all Slavic) operas save for a bare handful of fans, and you can understand the reluctance of companies to stage Rimsky’s penultimate opera.

But the Kirov revealed what we have missed all these years — a work which, despite occasional longueurs, is a masterpiece, brimming with transcendent beauties.

The plot line concerns Fevronia, a nature girl who lives in the forest, talks to the animals (one of her buddies is a bear) and is an all-round goody-goody at one with God and Nature. During a hunt, Prince Vsevolod of Greater Kitezh winds up in her part of the woods, falls in love, and they determine to marry. When Fevronia and her Prince bring their wedding party to Lesser Kitezh, the ignorant louts there behave badly, especially the drunkard Grishka, who respects nothing.

The Tatars invade, pillaging and marauding as invaders tend to do. Grishka tells them how to find Greater Kitezh so they can plunder it, too. Fevronia, captured, prays to God to make Greater Kitezh invisible so the hordes can’t find it, and in an excess of goodness, frees Grishka from his bonds and they escape together into the forest. Cut to Greater Kitezh, where the chorus laments their impending doom. Prince Yuri, Vsevolod’s dad, adds to the gloom with a soliloquy about how the Tatars will kill, rape, and rob, not exactly a Churchillian call for a last-ditch stand. Vsevolod and his lads run off to fight and die. A mysterious fog settles over the city rendering it invisible. In the last act, Greater Kitezh is now a paradise of happy folk. Fevronia enters into this earthly heaven and finds the resurrected Prince Vsevolod. After writing a letter explaining what she sees to Grishka, denied entrance due to his unbelief and refusal to repent his evil ways, they marry, and presumably live happily ever after (actually, eternally).

To card-carrying cynics like me, this story is just a silly fairy tale. It’s the music and the staging that made it moving and presumably more meaningful to those with faith in an afterlife and in a paradise, whether earthly or heavenly. I must mention here that a woman in the row directly in front of me was in tears throughout the entire last act, constantly dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief. But belief wasn’t necessary to be moved; the music was indeed unearthly, transcendent in its gentleness and touching abundant melodies.

Rimsky has long had a reputation as a master orchestrator, and in this opera he outdid himself. It’s full of subtle effects and bursting with one irresistible melody after another. It’s hard not to mention obvious references throughout the score — Wagner (it’s been called “the Russian Parsifal”), Mussorgsky, folk music, and even premonitions of the Prokofiev of Alexander Nevsky and to The Firebird of Rimsky’s pupil, Stravinsky, among others. But it’s all Rimsky, producing a score that shimmers with brilliance.

The highlight of the opera was its Third Act scene of the assembled citizens of Greater Kitezh lamenting their fate. Director Dmitry Cherniakov had the chorus lined up in rows, a static stage picture whose very immobility mirrored the resignation of the people. It’s a scene almost 40 minutes long, the pacing slow, with little happening visually to divert attention from the music. But it felt like it zipped by quickly, so sustained was the intensity and enveloping the music. By spotlighting the chorus, Cherniakov also stressed the Kirov’s greatest glory, and its exquisite singing was matched by the only world-class solo voices heard during the evening, bass Gennady Bezzubenkov as Prince Yuri and mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk as the Page.

Soprano Mlada Khudolei was a Fevronia lovely to look at but not very interesting to listen to, especially when she overlaid high notes with the metallic edge that used to be more common among Slavic sopranos than it thankfully has become these days. The staging didn’t help — she did much of her singing from the prone position, but she didn’t make Fevronia a believable character or convince me that anyone could. Oleg Balashev was a sturdy Prince Vsevolod, and the key role of Grishka was well taken by Nikolai Gassiev, a character tenor whose character was onstage too long for my taste, though his descent to the depths and consequent inability to get a visa to the promised land are central to the plot line and to balance the otherworldly Fevronia.

Some of Cherniakov’s staging worked, some didn’t. Oddly the most effective scenes were the oratorio-like static third and fifth acts. His deconstruction of a forest to its bare essentials was barren but interesting. But the Tatar sack of Lesser Kitezh was a spectacular coup de théâtre as the city walls were ruptured by giant white horses with searchlights for eyes and menacing Tatar chieftains astride their backs as the hordes flung themselves upon the deserving citizens of the burg.

The costumes were modern nondescript, from Eurotrash clichéd raincoats to generic peasant garb to a last-act resurrected Kitezh populated by people apparently drawn from all of Russian history. If anything, this reinforced the fairytale atmosphere and made the story timeless.

Along with the chorus, the Kirov Orchestra covered itself with glory and Valery Gergiev conducted a performance paced and played to perfection. Fetching orchestral details sustained interest even in the dull patches, and in the two battle scenes (the sack of Lesser Kitezh and an Act III orchestral interlude depicting the Tatar destruction of Prince Vsevolod’s army) climaxes were thrilling and the brass section played with color and power to spare.

During the course of the evening, my pre-concert reservations were abandoned, replaced by the conviction that, flawed as it may be, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh is a great opera.

 

[More Dan Davis]