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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Opera Review: Primitive Cool

Four Nights at the Mariinsky Ring.

Brunnhilde in Act II of Die Walküre.
Photo by Valentin Baronovsky © 2006 The Mariinsky Opera.
Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Opera brought their innovative, iconoclastic approach to Wagner's Ring cycle to the Metropolitan Opera House in July. This production presented the Ring as a combination of proto-civilized pagan ritual and multifaceted family drama, set against the backdrop of primitive standing menhirs and gigantic, mummified figures suspended, god-like over the mostly bare stage.

The whole was bathed in Gleb Filshtinsky's creative, polychromatic lighting design that recalled the "color organ" ideas of Russian composer Aleksandr Scriabin. This four year old production, by Gergiev and designer George Tsypin, both enthralled and befuddled the Lincoln Center audience.

Throughout the cycle (I chose the Friday-Saturday/Friday-Saturday option) Gergiev led his  forces in compelling readings of the four massive scores. But the performances were marred by an odd orchestral balance, a few flubbed solos and strange editorial decisions made during the conductor's preparation of the score. Wagner's Ring does not benefit from editing, and it benefits even less from editorial enhancements to the music.

The quality of the soloists varied from night to night. The kudos start with Brunnhilde, sung by Olga Sergeeva. Following a shrill opening "Hojotoho!", she settled down into a gorgeous, lyrical performance, not a knock-em-dead powerhouse but a singer who valued tone and placement of notes over stentorian blasts of sound. That sometimes made it a little hard for Brunnhilde to get over Gergiev's orchestra, but led to some lovely singing in the score's lyrical moments.

She was well complemented by Mikhail Kit's Wotan, who anchored Die Walküre. As Siegmund and Sieglinde, Avgust Amonov and Mlada Khudoley were a compelling pair of Walsung lovers. Amonov brought heroic tone to the role of the doomed Siegmund, Khudoley sang Sieglinde with sexual intensity.

Wotan enters Mime's cave in Act I of Siegfried.Photo by Valentin Baronovsky © 2006 The Mariinsky Opera.
Kit's Rheingold/Siegfried counterpart, Alexei Tanovitsky was a little shaky in the first opera, but rebounded as The Wanderer in the latter opera. He sounds more comfortable with the lower-ranged role. His riddle scene was a highlight, as was the confrontation with Erda (Zlata Bulycheva) at the start of that opera's third act.

Sergeeva was well matched on the third night of the cycle by Leonid Zakhozhaev, a magnetic and ringing Siegfried that only faltered (for one moment) in the final bars of his tenor-killing duet with Brunnhilde at the end of this five-hour marathon opera. Unfortunately, he was replaced for Götterdämmerung by Victor Lutsuk, who had plenty of energy but a voice that grated. However, Lutsuk plled it together to deliver a powerful death scene, singing Siegfried's final vision of Brunnhilde with lyric grace.

Brunnhilde's final scene in Götterdämmerung--a half-mad solo piece sung alone on the stage to Siegfried's corpse--made the whole cycle worth the price of admission. That said, the decision to keep her in boots, black leather gloves and a goth-style Valkyrie dress throughout the cycle undermined her appearance as a captured bride in Act II of Götterdämmerung. I half-expected Gunther (Evgeny Nikitin) to announce: "Fellow Gibichungs! I have brought home the dominatrix!"

And then there's Mikhail Petrenko's highly original take on Hagen. Possessed of a smaller bass voice than most Hagens, Petrenko skulked across the stage, whispering his plans and plotting Siegfried's death. He revealed his true nature in the murder scene, opening up his voice and meeting the score's vocal demands. This singer's focused acting and intelligent performance brought a fresh approach to Wagner's most famous bad guy, making him a worthy opponent for Siegfried and a fascinating character in his own right.

Other vocal standouts included:
  • Vasily Gorshkov's baritonal Mime in Siegfried, less shrill than most character tenors who tackle this part. He was also a terrific Loge.
  • Kirov veteran Nikolai Putilin's put-upon Alberich.
  • Evgeny Nikitin's regal Gunther who does a great job of falling apart under stress. He also sang a gorgeous Fasolt, complimented by Mikhail Petrenko's Fafner.
  • Anistasia Kalagina's Forest Bird, helped by the fact that the character actually appears onstage for once.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.