Posts Tagged ‘Valery Gergiev’

Cinderella, Gergiev and the LSO, BBC Prom 52, Royal Albert Hall, 22 August 2012

22 August, 2012

Combining Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra to play ballet music is a winner. At the Proms in 2008 they gave an electrifying performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, and this year they produced a superb rendering of Prokofiev’s Cinderella.

Cinderella tends to be less well-known than Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, and partly for that reason less favoured on radio broadcasts, but it is a fascinating score, and the LSO gave it their best. In the first act when the fairy godmother appears in her new guise, Gergiev produced a lovely musical sweep into the world of magic where she conjures up visions of the year with its four seasons. And then as Cinderella finally sets off for the ball he rounded the music off to perfection. After a short pause we moved into Act II where they placed brass up in the top gallery for the entrance of the prince and his companions, and as their sound filled the hall and was answered by the orchestra on stage the result was quite unlike anything you will hear in the theatre — it was wonderfully effective! Towards the end of that act the music swelled out strongly for the Prince and Cinderella, before dying away and moving into the waltz-coda, and then the ominous ticking of the clock as midnight approaches.

After the interval came Act III where the Prince searches for Cinderella, and as he finds her the music developed gloriously. After the slow waltz came a ravishing amoroso, ending with a beautiful diminuendo. What a change this was from the Proms in 2011 when Gergiev conducted Swan Lake with the Maryinsky theatre orchestra, who produced the usual boilerplate rendering they had been serving up in the theatre. As I wrote at the time, I longed to hear Gergiev back again with the LSO at the Proms in 2012, and this was it, a world-class conductor with a world-class orchestra — it was a huge pleasure.

Swan Lake, in concert, Prom 42, Royal Albert Hall, August 2011

16 August, 2011

With Valery Gergiev conducting, this was a sell-out. I remember his magnificent Sleeping Beauty at the Proms three years ago, and was looking forward immensely to Swan Lake, but in the end I was disappointed.

It was a promising idea. The orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre have been in London to play for the Mariinsky Ballet at the Royal Opera House, so why not get a Proms concert out of them, with Gergiev, the music director of the Mariinsky, conducting. And yes, there were good moments. A powerful start to the prologue, continuing into Act I, and a lovely harp solo in Act II, joined by a solo violin that reappeared later in Act III and was superbly played by the leader of the orchestra. The basses rocked to the beat at slower moments during the cygnets dance in Act II, swaying the stems of their instruments from side to side — they were obviously having fun — and the percussionist with the castanets in Act III was right on the beat. It must be super for these soloists to play in the great open space of the Albert Hall, rather than hidden away in the orchestra pit, and they rose to the occasion. As for the full orchestra, Act III started with a woompf, and Act IV began with symphonic passion, lovely strings and woodwind. Gergiev has a dramatic technique for starts and conclusions, but the brass hit plenty of wrong notes in the middle, and overall this failed to ignite.

The Mariinsky orchestra played four Bayaderes on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and this concert was on Monday. Gergiev had little time to get them in shape. It was only one week ago that they performed Swan Lake at Covent Garden, and although this may well have been a cut above, it wasn’t a patch on Gergiev’s Sleeping Beauty with the London Symphony Orchestra in 2008. Please can we have Gergiev and the LSO next year? A theatre orchestra cannot rise above their usual level without adequate rehearsal time, and we should not expect it.

Stephen Fry: Wagner and Me, cinema screening, September 2010

27 September, 2010

“You stand waiting hours for a Valkyrie and then they all come at once”. So quips Stephen Fry in a studio at Bayreuth with four Valkyries in rehearsal. Bayreuth is the small town in Bavaria where Wagner built his own opera house, and in this delightful documentary we learn how he acquired the money for this temple to art, specially designed for performances of his own operas in a festival atmosphere of sanctity and enthusiasm. With its world-beating acoustics and an orchestra pit that’s invisible to the audience, the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth was something new, and Wagner was not a man to stick with old ideas. He was the person who put the lights out in opera houses, rather than allowing a well-lit auditorium where one could look around at other patrons in their expensive and decorous clothes. He was the person who as a conductor faced the orchestra rather than the audience, allowing an interaction with the players. And above all he was the man to bring the ideals of Greek tragic drama — as complete works of art with mythical themes — to the world of opera. He called such a creation a Gesamtkunstwerk (literally: complete work of art).

But that’s all background. What Fry gives us is fun and huge enthusiasm. He meets the pianist Stefan Mickisch whose piano renditions of Wagner’s works are quite incredible. I was in Bayreuth the same year and found the Mickisch excerpts from Tristan more revelatory than the orchestral performance in the opera house. Of course that says something about the dull conducting of the opera, and although we hear little of Mickisch’s playing, there’s enthusiasm on both sides when Fry talks to him, as there is during his interview with Valery Gergiev in St. Petersburg. By comparison the interview with Eva Pasquier-Wagner in the grounds of the Festspielhaus is a dreary affair, and though he tries to lighten it up with some slightly off-beat suggestions, she won’t bite. The Wagner family had one genius, and while Wagner’s grandson Wieland was also a creative force, the others can only step inadequately in his footsteps. Wagner said, “Kinder schaff’ neues” (Children do something new), but they can’t. They only think they can.

And what of that force that adored Wagner’s music and really did do something new, albeit extraordinarily destructive? Fry doesn’t omit the Führer, who was welcomed by Nazi-loving members among Wagner’s descendants, but he gives a level-headed, clear-sighted viewpoint, and without sparing Wagner’s anti-semitism he puts it into an oft-forgotten context. In the end it’s the music that counts, and of course Wagner’s new ideas that changed the performance of opera forever. Indeed, the Jewish side of Fry battles with his own conscience, separating the art from the politics and bigotry, and comparing Wagner’s work to a great tapestry on which someone has created a huge stain. While being aware of the stain we must see beyond it to the tapestry itself, and appreciate the work of — as Fry calls him — the greatest genius who ever lived.

In this film, produced and directed by Patrick McGrady, and shot at locations in Bayreuth, Nuremberg and Switzerland, Fry uses his eloquence to inform and entertain us. This is longer than the television version, but never flags for a minute, and was even applauded by some audience members at the end.

Firebird, in concert at the BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, August 2010

17 August, 2010

This concert by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Valery Gergiev, had a substantial hors d’oeuvre in Scriabin’s Symphony No. 1. That six-movement work, which ends with massive choral forces, was beautifully performed. The soloists, mezzo Nadezhda Serdiuk and tenor Sergei Skorokhodov, both members of the Mariinsky Theatre, sang strongly, and the LSO chorus gave immense power to the finale.

Stravinsky’s Firebird followed after the interval. It’s a work I have seen danced many times on stage, but here it had an unusually dreamy quality in the earlier part, quite different from the overtly dramatic effect one normally gets with ballet performances. It’s interesting to compare it to Vladimir Jurowski’s excellent Firebird with the London Philharmonic at the Proms two years ago, which was more in the style of a stage performance. After the dreamily dreary first half, Gergiev built momentum and there was a wonderfully swinging quality to the later part when the prince gets hold of Kashchey’s heart in the egg, before breaking it and releasing the princess from Kashchey’s magic. Gergiev also produced a very remarkable dynamic range from the orchestra at the end, becoming scarcely audible before building to a huge climax, helped by the dramatic appearance of three extra trumpets on stage left. This was a superb ending that elicited immense applause.

Elektra, in concert with Valery Gergiev and the LSO, Barbican, January 2010

15 January, 2010

This powerful Richard Strauss opera, scored for an orchestra of over 110 instruments, has a huge dynamic range and needs singers who can rise above the orchestra. This is where Angela Denoke as Chrysothemis did wonderfully well, and I very much look forward to her singing Salome at the Royal Opera in July. Felicity Palmer as Klytemnestra showed just the right mix of uncertainty and determination in her portrayal, and the voices of the three main protagonists — Elektra, Chrysothemis, and Klytemnestra — were very well contrasted. Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet as Elektra showed herself fierce and anguished, but was clearly out-sung by Angela Denoke. For example, towards the end, after Klytemnestra has been murdered and her lover Aegisthus cries out for help, Elektra sings, “Agamemnon hört dich!” (Agamemnon hears you!), but it was weak, and as he is dragged away, Chrysothemis comes in with “Elektra! Schwester! .. .” The contrast could not have been greater — Ms. Charbonnet was no match for the orchestra, but Ms. Denoke rose effortlessly above it. Matthias Goerne sang Orestes, keeping up well with Ms. Charbonnet in their duet, and Ian Storey sang Aegisthus.

But what really made this a terrific evening was the conducting by Gergiev. He gave us wonderfully melodious quiet passages, yet turned on the power when it was needed. The London Symphony Orchestra respond well to his enigmatic hand gestures, and the orchestral playing was beautifully lyrical. The name Elektra means ‘shining’ — as in the alloy electrum — and Gergiev with the LSO gave us a shining performance.

Mariinsky Opera and Ballet Visit to London, July/August 2009

24 August, 2009

St. Petersburg — capital of the Russian Empire for over 200 years since 1713 — is home to the Mariinsky theatre, whose opera and ballet companies date their founding back to Catherine the Great in 1783. The city lost its status after the Russian Revolution, and the theatre lost its name. The previous name honoured a royal patron, and during Soviet times it became the Kirov, honouring a Bolshevik revolutionary. During the last twenty years, however, it has reverted to its old name under music director Valery Gergiev, and stepped more firmly on the international scene. This summer they brought to London the works of some great composers: Wagner’s Ring, and three great full-length ballets (two Tchaikovsky, one Prokofiev), along with a Balanchine triple bill. Perfect. At least it might have been.

They started with the Ring, a terrific undertaking that they galloped through in four consecutive days. No one else does this — other companies insert a day or two of rest in between the four operas — and even the indefatigable Valery Gergiev was tiring towards the end. But it’s not just the music — the whole thing was under-rehearsed, and we were essentially given a dress rehearsal, despite the unusually high ticket prices. Tales of vodka flowing backstage may not have been true, but I wouldn’t blame them if they did take a tipple or two under such pressure.

Wagner’s operas are a new departure for the Mariinsky, but the ballet is a different matter. The three full-length ballets they performed: Romeo and JulietSwan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty are all in their standard repertory. But the productions are from the Soviet era, and the first one in particular is more pantomime than classical ballet, lacking the naturalistic staging that audiences expect and the music demands. The two Tchaikovsky ballets, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty allow more in the way of set dances, and the female solos can be thrilling when danced at speed, but here they were danced at half speed, so that each one became a series of poses. This might work with an audience unused to first-rate ballet, but to one familiar with our own Royal Ballet, it doesn’t work at all. Some soloists seemed to expect stronger applause than they received, and the company continued taking curtain calls at the end while many of the audience left for home. Only the Balanchine programme was successful, but that was because the Balanchine Trust keeps a tight control on the staging and performance. If they dared to do what they did for the Sleeping Beauty under the baton of Pavel Bubelnikov they could well lose their performance rights.

Last year Valery Gergiev conducted Sleeping Beauty in a concert performance at the Proms, and it was simply terrific. He knows very well what it should sound like, and slowing it down for the soloists not only ruins the music, but the solos themselves. If the dancers can’t dance to Tchaikovsky’s music at normal speed then they could do something else — like Don Quixote — that is musically much easier. But it’s not just the solos; the ballet has sublime moments, such as the journey to the sleeping palace, involving no dance, yet they were boringly conducted, and there was no comparison to Gergiev’s concert performance last year at the Proms. Since the great conductor is music director of both opera and ballet he has the clout to change their patterns of behaviour, and make the Mariinsky worthy of its fine pedigree. On present form it is not, and despite some notable individual performances, the overall effect was disappointing. The city of St. Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great, and he would surely not have put up with companies that ought to be able to compete with the best in the world but fail to do so.

The Ring, Maryinsky Opera, London, July/August 2009

30 July, 2009

ring[1]

Rheingold. This promises to be a wonderful Ring, as Valery Gergiev unfolded the music beautifully in this first opera, never rushing, but never flagging. He even held the first chord for longer than usual, but with excellent effect. George Tsypin’s powerful designs showed four giant horizontal human torsos that moved up and down at various times. With fine costumes and Gleb Filshtinsky’s excellent atmospheric lighting this was a very welcome change from the two operas I saw in Bayreuth at the weekend! I particularly liked the costumes for the giants, and the use of dancers in raising the huge silk representing the river. As to the singers, Nikolai Putilin was superb as Alberich, and was the star of the evening — I’m delighted he will appear again in the last two operas. This is not the case with all performers, and Evgeny Nikitin, who was a slightly underpowered Wotan, will reappear in Siegfried, but someone else will take over in Walküre. Fricka was well sung by Larisssa Diadkova, as were her brothers Donner and Froh by Evgeny Ulanov and Evgeny Akimov, with Zhanna Dombrovskaya as Freia, and Oleg Balachov as a strong Loge. When Donner roared out his last words Weise der Brücke den Weg it sounded like Russian, but that was fine with me because the cast were all entirely in character. Vadim Kravets was a beautifully voiced Fasolt, with Gennady Bezzubenkov as a surly Fafner, whom we shall see again in Siegfried, along with Zlata Bulycheva as a darkly voiced Erda. Andrei Popov sang Mime, but the part will be sung by someone else in Siegfried. Altogether this was a great start to the Ring, though standards slipped in Walküre the next night.

Walküre. The first act was disappointing with Avgust Amonov as an underpowered Siegmund, who gave the impression he didn’t understand the German he was singing, and Keiner ging—doch Einer kam followed by Winterstürme lacked emotional force. Gennady Bezzubenkov as Hunding, following his appearance as Fafner the night before, carried more power. Mlada Khudoley as Sieglinde was stronger than Siegmund, but again she couldn’t hit the heights. Her response to Brünnhilde’s annunciation in Act III with Rette mich Kühne was without impact. The best moments were the duets between Wotan and Fricka in Act II, and Wotan and Brünnhilde in Act III. The Wotan was not the same as last night — and the eye patch was changed from right to left eye — but though Mikhail Kit showed warmth in his voice, he lacked the strength of other Wotans I’ve seen recently, such as Tomlinson and Terfel. As Fricka, Larissa Diadkova was superb, with wonderful stage presence and complete command of the part — she was the best Fricka that I remember seeing. As Brünnhilde, Olga Savova was a powerful presence, commanding in her appearance to Siegmund Nur Todgeweihten taugt mein Anblick, appalled by Wotan’s revenge War es so schmählich, and convincing in persuading him to protect her by fire. Gergiev conducted with restraint and emotional support for the singers, never drowning them, and I felt that with stronger principals in Act I he would have let the orchestra leap forth with greater effect. The Russian brass and percussion were superb, and this is where a Russian conductor is so important. The production included four human torsos again, but bent at the waist, and the costumes were effective, particularly the Valkyries holding shields, like wings, in their right hands. Only the sword was a disappointment, with its battery-powered light in the handle, like a child’s toy — really naff (not available for fighting). I hope Siegfried forges it into something more worthy!

Siegfried. This was a more rewarding experience than Walküre, mainly because Leonid Zakhozhaev sang an excellent Siegfried, wielding the sword like a real weapon, and Evgeny Nikitin sang out well as Wotan, much better, I thought, than his appearance in Rheingold — the patch, by the way, was back on the right eye. Nikolai Putilin sang wonderfully as Alberich again, and Erda and Fafner were the same as in Rheingold, though Fafner’s voice as the dragon was amplified, which I didn’t care for at all. Mime this time was Vasily Gorshkov, who played and sang the part very well, and Anastasia Kalagina was a lovely woodbird. My only complaint on the singing was Olga Sergeyeva who took over as Brünnhilde, but whose voice had too much vibrato, and seemed out of pitch in the awakening duet with Siegfried. The orchestra played very well again under Gergiev who seems to be able to draw on immense reservoirs of emotion. Staging and lighting were fine as far as I was concerned, except that when Brünnhilde climbed onto the rock, where she is supposed to have been sleeping for a generation, the lighting was bright and only went dark after she lay down. If she was moving to a musical cue, then it was a lighting fault, but I rather suspect she was to blame, indicating that the whole thing was under-rehearsed. Now we await yet a third Brünnhilde in the final opera.

Götterdämmerung. Musically this was on a par with the others, and vocally it had some wonderful singers and lovely moments, but there were serious shortcomings, notably boule de suif Larisa Gogolevskaya as an unsuitable Brünnhilde, who simply didn’t have the voice for the part. Viktor Lutsyuk as Siegfried lacked voice control and was not as good as Leonid Zakhozhaev yesterday. But Nikolai Putilin was an excellent Alberich, as before, and Mikhail Petrenko a very fine Hagen. His half siblings Gunther and Gutrune were brilliantly sung by Evgeny Nikitin and Elena Nebera. Nikitin, who was Wotan in both Rheingold and Siegfried, was the best Gunther I ever remember seeing. In fact he and Hagen made me think immediately of British politicians Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson. Elena Nebera had a lovely voice and her acting was terrific. She moved like a ballerina with arms, head and body — I was impressed before she ever sang a note. Petrenko, Nikitin and Nebera formed a wonderful trio as Hagen, Gunther and Gutrune, and their scenes, along with the encounter between Alberich and Hagen at the start of Act II, were the highlights of the evening. As for the scene between Brünnhilde and Waltraute, sung by Olga Savova, who was Brünnhilde in Walküre, this merely became an ineffective clash of prima donnas.

The production itself had some good moments, but there were glitches too. Hagen’s appearance on the roof in the scene where Brünnhilde accuses Siegfried of treachery was very effective, making him seem like the puppet master he is, and his murder of Siegfried during the hunt was very convincing. But when he later goes to the bier to take the ring, Siegfried’s arm did not move, so it was inexplicable that he moved away again. Then at the end when Hagen should sing Zurück vom Ring!, where was he? And why did he not sing? The surtitles showed Away from the Ring! But there were no Rheinmaidens to take it, and no Hagen. With Brünnhilde singing weakly, and nothing happening on stage except for some clever lighting, the ending was disappointing.

I’m sure there will be serious criticism of this Maryinsky Ring, and quite rightly too since it failed on many of the high points, but there were wonderful moments, which often don’t come over as well as they did here, and I’m thinking particularly of the scenes with Hagen, Gunther and Gutrune, which were the best I’ve seen. Underlying it all was Gergiev and the orchestra, playing with great sensitivity, and there were some sublime moments, but it did seem that things trailed off a bit towards the end. I loved the lighting, and at least the staging did not insult our intelligence, unlike the recent nonsense in Bayreuth, but the under-rehearsing was most regrettable, considering the unusually expensive Amphitheatre seats.