Gergiev inspired with Kirov

Review: The conductor makes familiar Tchaikovsky seem new.

February 21, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The Kirov Opera, Ballet and Orchestra strutted its collective stuff impressively in a nearly three-hour "Tribute to Tchaikovsky" Tuesday evening at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

It was a midway celebration of the Kirov's Washington visit, the first of 10 annual residencies. And it marked the only time that the ballet wing of the company was accompanied by the Kirov Orchestra (the Kennedy Center's own orchestra played for the full-length dance evenings last week).

To say that the biggest star of the concert was Valery Gergiev, director and principal conductor of the Kirov, is not to slight the rest of the ensemble. But his inspired guidance in the pit gave the evening an unbreakable thread, a galvanizing force.

Never mind the occasional ragged moment; given Gergiev's hectic schedule, which includes conducting Prokoviev's gargantuan War and Peace at New York's Metropolitan Opera in between his D.C. gigs, it's amazing the concert ran so smoothly.

Gergiev doesn't hear Tchaikovsky with the jaded ears of many listeners, but connects almost viscerally with the music's emotional content. He didn't so much conduct the music as unleash it.

Even such familiar fare as the Serenade for Strings - accompanying the eloquent ballet corps in Balanchine's choreography - sounded freshly minted and super-lyrical.

Likewise, Gergiev gave the final scene of Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky's most popular opera, an added dash of vitality and passion - aided considerably by the superbly controlled, silver-toned singing of soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya (she was equally affecting in a scene from Iolanta).

The operatic excerpts were semi-staged; rear projections and the few props looked a little cheesy at times but served well enough as scenery. Singers appeared in costume - except for some of the women who were last-minute changes or additions, including the sweet-voiced Anna Netrebko and Ekaterina Semenchuk in a scene from Pique Dame.

The procession of talent demonstrated the Kirov's basic strength as an opera ensemble. If only a few voices were of truly startling quality, everyone demonstrated solid technical skills and a keen sense of style. There was no mistaking the fully idiomatic nature of this approach to Tchaikovsky; the performances were involved and involving all night long.

Particularly compelling work came in two finales. The last scene from Pique Dame conveyed a good deal of that opera's theatricality. Alexei Steblianko was a suitably brooding Herman; the men's chorus delivered its solemn prayer in deeply beautiful tones.

The closing scenes of Act 2 of Mazeppa gave ample evidence of just how potent Tchaikovsky's neglected operas can be. Viktor Chernomortsev delivered Mazeppa's aria with abundant nuance, the voice alternately sumptuous and delicate, the phrasing always communicative. Olga Guriakova was an effective Maria. The full chorus produced a rich sound.

Aside from a somewhat crude trumpet and a few slippery patches in the strings, the Kirov Orchestra held up quite firmly throughout the long program. The playing whetted the appetite for productions of Mussorgky's Khovanschina and Verdi's Macbeth continuing through Sunday.

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