`Macbeth' in fine hands with Kirov

Review: The Russian ensemble's performance was memorable - just like its visit to Kennedy Center.

Classical Music

February 26, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

As Yuri Temirkanov can attest, Westerners love to typecast Russian artists. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's music director invariably is thought of first as a conductor of Russian repertoire, even if his approach to, say, Gustav Mahler is every bit as potent. Likewise, the Kirov Opera at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg invariably is thought of first as a company that performs Russian works, no matter how many other things it effectively puts on stage.

Not surprisingly, then, the Kirov Opera's memorable visit to the Kennedy Center had the public clamoring most for performances of a Russian item, Mussorgsky's Khovanschina, rather than Verdi's early masterwork, Macbeth. Perhaps local opera fans thought the ensemble wouldn't be as persuasive with Italian fare. Perhaps they just don't consider Macbeth a good enough opera. Either way, they couldn't be more mistaken.

Sunday afternoon's performance did as much to demonstrate the Kirov's exceptional strengths as Macbeth's.

After Khovanschina, with its grand vistas and nifty fake fire at the end, this production looked, well, cheap at first - an empty stage and exposed walls, bare except for wiring and lighting fixtures. But Tanya McCallin's spare design allowed the emphasis to remain - as Verdi always liked - on the drama. The darkness of the plot was complemented by more or less period costumes, mostly in shades of black and white, and David Cunningham's atmospheric lighting.

With no big scene changes to worry about and just a few, telling props (one was a recurring giant object that suggested a cross between a castle wall and a rusty, blood-stained blade), the opera flowed with terrific momentum. Director David McVicar had characters entering and exiting easily, sometimes through trap doors.

Some ideas didn't quite work; at one point, in a kind of dream sequence, Macbeth watched his wife playing ring-around-the-rosy with children and then opening a little casket to reveal a baby. Shakespeare can do just find without Freud.

Once again, the first star of the production was conductor Valery Gergiev, who sent an electric charge flowing through the performance. There wasn't a routine phrase all afternoon. Even passages that sometimes suggest a lapse in the composer's inspiration - the entrance of King Duncan and the finale, for example - registered deeply. Tempos were on the fast side (only the chorale finale of the banquet scene went a little too fast for its own good), which underscored the brisk, unyielding pace of the plot.

Victor Chernomortsev may have looked a little more like Falstaff than Macbeth, but his vocalism and acting had the ring of truth. This was a brusque, crude schemer who wasn't above shoving Lady Macbeth around. The baritone's voice was a prism, from the subtlest tones to ringing power.

As Lady Macbeth, soprano Olga Sergeeva offered delicious low notes, mostly firm technique and expressive vibrancy. Her sleepwalking scene was especially compelling.

Grennady Bezzubenkov brought a deep, stirring bass to the role of Banquo. Leonid Zakhozhayev sang Macduff's aria eloquently. The choral component in Macbeth is nearly as important as any other element, and except for a few coordination slips, the Kirov Chorus rose to the occasion with extraordinarily rich tone. The lament of the Scottish exiles was delivered with particular warmth and vividness.

The sound pouring from the Kirov Orchestra in the pit had tremendous impact from the start, with the snaky woodwind theme superbly articulated. Throughout, the players reveled in Verdi's symphonic coloring, from the most delicate to the most blatant.

The Kirov Opera's visit, the beginning of a decade-long association with the Kennedy Center, reinforced its stature among the world's leading companies. Next year has to be skipped while the center's opera house is renovated, but the Kirov has left enough vibrant memories to last until 2004.

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