Gergiev, Valery


SadkoNikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - Sadko

Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, 1994 | Valery Gergiev, Vladimir Galusin, Valentina Tsidipova, Marianna Tarassova, Bulat Minjelkiev, Alexander Gergalov, Gegam Grigorian, Sergei Alexashkin, Larissa Diadkova | Philips - DVD

Opera can take many forms, but apart from Wagner only the High Romantic Russian composers have really exploited its potential to elaborate on the epic power of myth, legend and folklore. Even then, there can be few composers who have had such an affinity for this type of subject as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. So grand are the extravagant displays of such works as The Golden Cockerel, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and Sadko however that they’ve been regarded as troublesome and costly to stage and largely neglected in the west. As a result, Rimsky-Korsakov’s reputation as a composer has suffered, or he is at least not held in the same high regard as he is in Russia.

If you really want to appreciate the nature of Rimsky-Korsakov’s work then it’s best seen in Russia, and a perfect example of that is this magnificent 1994 recording of the rarely performed Sadko at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg conducted by Valery Gergiev. Musically and in terms of singing it’s an impeccable performance and authentically Russian, which means big strong voices of power and precision. Gergiev conducting of the Kirov orchestra draws out all the lush textures, folk rhythms and the sheer orchestral majesty of Rimsky-Korsakov’s wondrous score, which recognises and fully expresses the power and the importance of legends and mythology and their ability to transform our view of the world.

The opera itself, first performed in 1898, is an utterly enthralling fusion of epic storytelling with music and theatre. Sadko is a ‘bylina‘, an epic medieval folktale that recounts the creation of the river Volkhova that connects Lake Ilmen to the Okian sea, bringing prosperity to the merchants of Novgorod. That’s brought about by Sadko, a clever merchant, adventurer and musician who woos the Sea Princess Volkhova through his playing of the gusli. Rather than having traditional operatic Acts, Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera breaks the story down into seven beautiful, lyrical scenes, with a great deal of spectacle and ballet sequences to enrich it. The story calls for the transformation of swans on a lake into the Sea Princess and her maidens, huge village scenes and festivals for choruses, the catching of three golden fish, an ocean crossing and the creation of an undersea kingdom, so Sadko is quite a challenge to stage.

The Mariinsky’s production, in this video recording dating from 1994, is accordingly very bold and colourful, as well as traditionally theatrical in the Mariinsky style. Painted backdrops create the impression of vast scale as well as the fairytale picturebook nature of the story, with plenty of room left in the foreground for the huge choruses, the choreographed movements of the chorus and the beautiful ballet sequences. A “wonder of wonders” and “marvel of marvels” - to use a phrase used often in the libretto - Sadko could hardly look more spectacular, the colourful theatricality and the medieval costumes fully living up to the larger-than-life context of the work and the extravagantly rich orchestration that Rimsky-Korsakov has composed for it.

There’s a recognition however of the importance of the smallest details in the grander scale of the composition of the work that is reflected in the attention to detail on the part of both the stage direction and the musical performance. Within all the spectacle are wonderful lyrical moments and demanding singing passages that require great stamina as well as beauty of expression from the singers. Considering he is not just the central figure, but a minstrel who charms the Sea Princess, you would at least expect a strong Sadko and Vladimir Galusin gives a commanding and charismatic performance. He’s matched well with Valentina Tsidipova’s Volkhova who deals well if not always perfectly with the considerable challenges of the role.

Sadko however also offers a variety of dramatic roles and some colourful set-piece cameos. In the former category Marianna Tarassova stands out as Sadko’s neglected wife, as does Larissa Diadkova as another gusli-playing minstrel narrator. In the latter category Sergei Alexashkin is suitably impressive as the booming and formidable Sea King, but there are also wonderful moments from the other Novgorod merchants, from the three representatives of foreign lands (Viking, Indian and Venetian), and of course from the chorus. The Kirov Ballet provide further colour and movement that maintains a wonderful energetic flow to the work in several beautiful dance sequences.

The 1994 performance was directed for the screen by Brian Large, who captures the occasion with his usual professionalism and alertness to the rhythms of the work itself. It’s clearly not filmed in High Definition as you would expect of a more modern recording, but the widescreen image nonetheless looks good on this 2007 DVD from Philips that gets across the colour and magic of the production design as much as it is able. Audio tracks are in Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and German.

DestinoGiuseppe Verdi - La Forza del Destino

Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg 1998 | Valery Gergiev, Elijah Moshinsky, Grigory Kaasev, Galina Gorchakova, Nikolai Putilin, Gegam Grigorian, Marianna Tarasova, Sergei Alexashkin, Georgy Zashavny, Lia Shevtsova, Yevegeny Nikitin, Nikolai Gassiev, Yun Laptev | Arthaus Musik

The principal attraction of this recording of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino is that it’s a performance of the rarely heard original St Petersburg version, written by the composer for the Imperial Opera in 1862. It was subsequently revised in 1867 for Milan and it’s the later version that has become the more commonly performed or at least better known principally for the famous extended overture that Verdi added. In reality, although there is clearly an attempt by the composer to bring a better musical and dramatic integrity to the piece, the differences between the two versions aren’t all that significant, but in addition to having a rare opportunity to compare them, there is the pleasure alone of seeing a fine performance of the earlier version actually being performed in St Petersburg in 1998 at the Mariinsky Theatre under Valery Gergiev.

If there’s still a lack of coherence to the drama in both versions, and a failure to conform to the expected romantic models (up until the tragic denouement of the opera Don Alvaro and Leonora only meet briefly in the short Act 1 and not in circumstances best suited to a romantic duet) - which may be considered a point in its favour - Verdi’s musical motifs bring a sense of that force of destiny that directs the course of three lives and draws them together. After Alvaro’s accidental killing of her father, the Marchese di Calatrava, as they prepare to go against his wishes and elope, Leonora (like many of Verdi’s opera heroines by no means a straightforward virtuous character) casts herself into the hands of fate and becomes a hermit. Alvaro, fleeing from the disaster, bemoans his fate not to be a noble of ancient Inca blood, but a man forced to run from the horror of the death he has unwittingly caused, and the love of Leonora that he has lost. Leonora’s brother Don Carlo di Vargas meanwhile is forced to strive to find his father’s killer and restore the honour of the Calatrava name.

Destino

Although it remains imperfect in both versions, Verdi’s later attempts to add characterisation and musical refinement still not being enough to compensate for a dramatic structure that remains disjointed with some implausible twists of fate, there’s some interest certainly in seeing the original version played out with a little more of that punchy earlier Verdi style. Not being quite so concerned with a dramatic flow, but being made up more evidently of a variety of little scenes and choral set-pieces, the St Petersburg version of La Forza del Destino follows the Italian aria-cabaletta opera model a little more closely. These are reduced in the later version, with some arias cut through the restructuring of the drama - notably Don Alvaro’s ‘Quel sangue sparsi’, delivered at the end of Act III when Carlo is believed dead in a duel that is not interrupted by troops as in the later version - and through attempts by Verdi to bring a sense of reconciliation, or perhaps accommodation with one’s fate in a manner that is slightly less harsh than the original, Alvaro throwing himself from a cliff at the conclusion here.

Despite the revisions made to the Italian version, the essential dramatic arc and the fate of the characters however remain largely unchanged. The coincidences that tie these figures are still not entirely convincing, but they are made compelling - in both versions - by the strength in Verdi’s musical writing that aligns character so beautifully not just to Wagnerian leitmotifs, but to melodies that are expressive of their condition. It might have a mid-eighteenth century setting, but it’s clear that Verdi doesn’t have to look too far beyond his own time to relate in some meaningful way with these figures who in better times might have been friends and lovers, but whose lives have been torn apart by greater forces beyond their control - the tides of war, fate and the demands of honour.

Destino

Directed for the stage by Elijah Moshinsky, this 1998 recording at the Mariinsky Theatre is a very traditional period staging, but the theatricality of the painted backdrops that set the scene for the Seville locations, army camps and monasteries suits the punchier, melodramatic style of the earlier version of the work, the dark lighting of the stage working also with the dark tones in Verdi’s score. That’s brought out wonderfully by Valery Gergiev in this production, finding nonetheless a romantic sweep and sensitivity within the score that works hand-in-hand with the heavier dramatic colouring. I’m not familiar with any of the Russian singers here but they are well cast and handle the Italian phrasing well. Galina Gorchakova is a fine Leonora, carrying the nature and interior conflict of her character well, her singing strong and consistent. Gegam Grigorian is a lovely lyrical Don Alvaro, but doesn’t always seem to be dramatically involved. His ‘Della natal sua terra’ aria at the start of Act III is beautifully sung, but he’s not as strong in ‘Quel sangue sparsi’ by the end of the act. Nikolai Putilin is a solid, earnest Don Carlo, but I didn’t find Marianna Tarasova made such a strong impact as Preziosilla.

Directed for the screen by Brian Large, the production comes across well giving a good impression of the whole stage while capturing all the little details in the drama without any excessive editing trickery or close-ups, although there is one awkward edit at the end of Act III. A 1998 recording, it is not filmed in High Definition, so there’s no Blu-ray release, but the quality of the 16:9 widescreen image for DVD is excellent nonetheless, as is the quality of the PCM 2.0 stereo audio track. Other than notes on the opera and the production in the enclosed booklet, there are no extra features on the disc itself, the 2 hours 45 minutes of the opera on a dual-layer disc in NTSC format. The disc is compatible for all regions. Subtitles are in English, German, French, Dutch and Spanish only - there is no Italian for anyone wanting to read the original libretto.

TroyensHector Berlioz - Les Troyens

Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Valencia, 2009 | Valery Gergiev, Carlus Padrissa, La Fura dels Baus, Lance Ryan, Daniela Barcellona, Elisabete Matos, Gabriele Viviani, Giorgio Giuseppini, Stephen Milling, Eric Cutler, Oksana Shilova, Zlata Bulicheva | Unitel Classica - C-Major

In principle, I’m all for the approach and the use of new technology that the experimental Catalan theatre group la Fura dels Baus bring to opera productions. In practice however, I can never get past the dumb ideas that they sometimes base their concepts upon. Although I have avoided it myself, a lot of people like their Valencia Ring cycle, and I can see how their approach to total music theatre would work with Wagner (a recent production of Tristan und Isolde was handled very appropriately) – much as it suits, in principle, the dramatic theatricality of Hector Berlioz (they’ve done La Damnation de Faust in the past). In practice however, I’m afraid it just doesn’t work for me in the case of Les Troyens.

I’ve seen Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte destroyed by la Fura’s “concept” of the split in the hemispheres of the brain that could be seen as marking the divisions between enlightenment and obscurantism in that opera taken to the extreme of putting inflatable brains on the stage with the singers hanging suspended over them – a wooly concept taken over-literally that added nothing to Mozart (I won’t even get into them removing the recitative and replacing it with poems read out by French actors). The same sense of facile concept not thought-through in any meaningful way and taken over-literally applies also to the approach taken in this Fura production of Les Troyens. Thinking of the notion of a Trojan Horse in modern computer technology parlance, they apply the concept to the computer network of ancient Troy being the victim of a computer virus. Seriously.

What genius (that would be Carlus Padrissa) though it would be a great idea to take the metaphor of the Trojan Horse virus back to its source and make it literal? The phrase, “Beware of Greeks or other outside hostile agencies bearing gifts of laptops carrying viruses that may compromise the integrity of your system”, doesn’t really have all that great a ring to it. Even if you were to find this feeble concept worthy of more than a minute’s consideration, there’s little to support it in this staging, which is an impressive spectacle certainly (you are always guaranteed that at least from la Fura dels Baus), but it’s also a complete hotchpotch of ideas and concepts that look a complete mess and don’t come across particularly well on video. There’s little sense of and physical location of Troy in the first part of the opera (presented here in its entirety as originally intended as a 5-act opera, rather than two operas), but I suppose in this version it is supposed to be a virtual world. Quite why the cast are dressed in sports padding, hockey helmets, Tae kwon-do outfits and what looks like Stormtroopers costumes from Star Wars is however anyone’s guess.

Troyens

There are nonetheless impressively staged scenes mixing projections and live action – and inevitably, much wire work, hanging singers and acrobats from cables – which enhances the nightmarish visions of Cassandra and representing the death of Laco’on well in the first half. The idea of designing Carthage as a particle accelerator to represent the idea of a modern technical paradise in the second half of the opera (Acts III to IV) at least carries the concept through, the Trojans spreading their virus before leaving for an ideal (in Mars!) and it looks impressive – but really, does this bring anything meaningful out of the work, or is it just half-baked concepts and Cirque du Soleil spectacle? More often however, the spectacle doesn’t really come to life, failing to find anything meaningful to do in the ballet sequences – a boxing match? a fashion parade of warrior fetish costumes? – and it is actually quite static, particularly when compared to the active, inventive and always impressive production at the Châtelet.

Conducted by Valery Gergiev, the Valencia production at least remains hugely entertaining from a musical viewpoint, although I wouldn’t put it above the John Eliot Gardner version. The singing is mostly of a good standard, particularly the two female leads Elisabete Matos (Cassandra) and Daniela Barcellona (Dido), but again, personally, I prefer the performances of Anna Caterina Antonacci and Susan Graham in the Châtelet production. Gregory Kunde is however certainly a better Aeneas than Lance Ryan here, who I thought delivered everything in a dreary declamatory fashion and in a tone that becomes unpleasantly nasal on the high notes. His poor diction moreover painfully murders the French libretto.

The quality of the Blu-ray itself – the entire opera on a single BD50 disc – is reasonably good, the image as clear as it can be on a dark stage that uses a lot of back and front-screen projections. The audio tracks – PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 HD master audio – are both fine, if there is little to choose between them. Overall, if you don’t think too much about the terrible concept and are able to simply just enjoy the spectacle of the staging, this isn’t a bad version of Les Troyens, and it’s certainly well performed – but there is a much better version out there already on Blu-ray in terms of production values, spectacle and overall quality of the performance.

Benvenuto CelliniHector Berlioz - Benvenuto Cellini

Wiener Philharmoniker, Salzburg Festspiele, 2007 | Valery Gergiev, Philipp Stölzl, Burkhard Fritz, Maija Kuvalevska, Laurent Naouri, Brindley Sherratt, Mikhail Petrenko, Kate Aldrich | Naxos

I’m in two minds about Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini but I don’t think it has anything to do with Philipp Stölzl’s extravagant and somewhat eccentric direction of the composer’s lesser-known opera produced here for the Salzburg Festspiele in 2007. A huge colourful cartoonish spectacle, with a Metropolis-like retro-futuristic city populated by clunky robots standing in for 16th century Rome, it’s surely far from what Berlioz would have imagined for a staging, and one wonders whether it best serves the subject of the Florentine sculptor working on a commission for Pope Clement VII who becomes embroiled in a romantic tug-of war with a rival over the daughter of the papal Treasurer.

On the other hand, Benvenuto Cellini is hardly a serious opera, written principally for entertainment, seeming to play with all the tools of operatic composition. It shows some of the sense of playful academicism that you would find in Rameau, particularly something like Les Indes Galantes (the William Christie production is a must-see) – a huge colourful pageant that delights in showing off its over-the-top dramatic situations with elaborate staging and extravagant musical flourishes. So while Stölzl’s outrageous production seems to go out of its way to irritate those who like their opera done in a period traditional manner, it perfectly suits the tone of the musical and dramatic content and serves it well. Done any other way, taken more seriously, one would imagine that the whole enterprise would end up looking and sounding dreadfully self-important.

Where I really have doubts however is in regards to whether the opera is actually any good, or whether Berlioz indeed doesn’t really go over-the-top in his scoring of the huge dramatic swathes of music, with big arrangements that underscore everything, self-indulgent singing that is close to bel canto, and huge raucous, rousing choruses dropped in at every available opportunity. The same approach applies to Les Troyens, where, not being one to do anything by halves, Berlioz throws in everything and stretches it out to two brilliant full-length operas. Even his cantata La Damnation de Faust attracts big-scale operatic productions from the likes of La Fura dels Baus and, at the time of writing, no less than Terry Gilliam is directing a production for the English National Opera.

The subject in Benvenuto Cellini does however seem to demand such an extravagant approach. Teresa, the daughter of the papal treasurer Balducci, is to be married to Fieramosca, but she is in love with the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini. Teresa and Cellini plan to use the confusion and fancy dress of the partying to elope, but Fieramosca has got wind of their plans and intends to take his place disguised as a Capuchin monk. It’s a dramatic situation that seems to conform to the stereotypes of Latin passions, religious fervour and artistic licentiousness and, having resided in Italy prior to writing the opera Berlioz, although professing a dislike of the Italian style, certainly seems to have absorbed the nature of the Italian temperament here. Setting the first act of the opera on Shrove Tuesday during a Mardi Gras parade is all the justification that is needed to indulge in extravagant displays of orchestration and singing.

Since everything about Berlioz’s scoring for Act 1 suggests over-the-top operatic conventions, Philipp Stölzl stages the drama accordingly. One can’t fault the performers who likewise enter into the spirit of the piece and they all sing well, even if the lines of the duets, trios and quartets don’t blend together all that well. Whether through the fault of imperfect scansion or the tone of the voices, I’m not certain – it’s certainly not as polished as Mozart’s ensemble work in the Marriage of Figaro, for example. Act II has a slightly more varied tone, much as the two parts of Les Troyens show different qualities in Berlioz’s writing, but there’s a sense that it is still rather pompous in its solemnity, particularly when Pope Clement arrives on the scene. Unable to play this with a straight face, Stölzl opts for the camp qualities that are inherent within the scene, which is certain to infuriate traditionalists.

It’s difficult to judge the qualities of the opera when it is played this way, when another interpretation might convincingly put another complexion on it entirely – not that we are likely to see too many productions of this work – but that’s what opera is all about. Regardless of whether this particular version is to one’s taste, it’s approached with genuine feeling for the work and launched into vigorously under the baton of Valery Gergiev. At the very least, it’s highly entertaining. Moreover, it looks and sounds terrific in High Definition on the Naxos Blu-ray. A word of warning however – it is one of those discs that takes time to load up into the player, a pointless practice that can introduce some player-related problems. Personally, I found it impossible to access the pop-up menu for chapter selection during play, but I didn’t come across anything more serious than this.

OneginPyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

Metropolitan Opera, 2007 | Valery Gergiev, Robert Carsen, Renée Fleming, Ramón Vargas, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Elana Zaremba | Decca (Universal Classics)

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is as Russian as they come - from an impeccable literary source (Pushkin), filled with all the classic situations of fatalistic romances, fabulous balls and a duel over a question of honour. The Met’s 2007 production, recorded for their HD-Live series, retains a strong underpinning in the casting and the sensitive conducting of the opera by Valery Gergiev that brings these elements brilliantly to the fore.

Perfectly in line with Tchaikovsky’s original intentions, Robert Carsen’s staging is straightforward and simple, the set uncluttered, with only the bare minimum of props required for the settings, while the all-important tone - primarily an emotional one - is set by the lighting and colouration of the stark backgrounds that tower over and enclose the performers. It gives the opera a truly unique feel, one that is perfectly in tune with the emotional chords struck by the music and the libretto, a tone that is dominated by the interpretation of Onegin here - cold, austere and aloof, calculating even, certainly with a touch of arrogance, but carrying within himself his own torments, distancing himself from others in a remote and self-involved manner that doesn’t take anyone else’s feelings into account.

It’s remarkable then how this chimes with Tchaikovsky’s own personal circumstances at the time, unable to bear the gossip surrounding him over his sexuality, entering unadvisedly into a marriage for convenience where he is unable to offer anything more than “brotherly love”. Accordingly the music in Eugene Onegin is often as heartfelt and emotional as anything Tchaikovsky has composed, but with that customary detached, intellectualised translation of it into pure, precise musical terms. Consequently, it’s utterly gripping when converted into the drama of Onegin, involving the heart as much as the mind.

One couldn’t ask for anything more out of the performers - the starkness of the sets allowing the audience to focus solely on the singing without distractions while the lighting supports the emotions and motivations lying behind them. The singers meet the demands of the roles and the action admirably, Dmitri Hrovostovsky indeed presenting a fine cold, aloof figure in Onegin, contrasted with the fiery passions of Ramón Vargas’s Lenski and the romantic purity of Renée Fleming’s Tatiana.

On Blu-ray, the staging looks magnificent in its colouration and tones. The audio is generally fine, but there are a few issues with microphone placements that don’t give adequate presence to the voices, neither in the LPCM 2.0 or the DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, though this is only an occasional issue particularly in the first act of the opera. A 16-minute Behind the Scenes featurette presents an interesting look at the rehearsals for the opera. Overall, this is a strong presentation of a magnificent performance of a wonderful opera.