Russian works get intense treatment

Opera Review

December 20, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

When the Kirov Opera from St. Petersburg's famed Mariinsky Theater visited Washington nearly two years ago, the first night was a tribute to Tchaikovsky that included scenes from the well-known Eugene Onegin and more obscure Mazeppa. Those tantalizing excerpts have been followed this week with complete, extraordinary presentations of both operas. The remaining performances provide the best excuse I can think of to take a break from the holiday rush.

So maybe these particular productions aren't the last word on stagecraft - Onegin looks like it was designed from leftover Ikea displays, and Mazeppa has the kind of sets that put the old in old-fashioned (although they do suggest what the opera looked like when it was done at the Mariinsky for the first time in 1884). It's the totality of the experience that makes each of these works compelling to see and hear.

Like so many Russian operas, Mazeppa has never found its way into the repertoire in the West. Yes, it makes for a long evening (about four hours, with two intermissions). And its well-packed plot, steeped in old Russian history and peopled with sometimes morally ambiguous characters, blends melodrama, tragedy and pageantry in ways that don't always work. But there's so much more to embrace. What holds the piece together is Tchaikovsky's passionate convictions, not to mention his deeply lyrical, imaginative music and mastery of orchestration.

The composer achieves a sweeping panorama of lives and events, large and small, that recalls the Verdi of Don Carlos or Simon Boccanegra. From a small squabble - a father wants to keep his young daughter from marrying a much older Cossack chief - Mazeppa builds quickly into an intense battle of loyalties and ambitions involving control of the Ukraine. By the time the final curtain falls, heads have rolled, fortunes have reversed, and a soprano has gone mad. Great stuff.

Valery Gergiev, general and artistic director of the Mariinsky, doesn't always live up to his reputation as a hot-shot conductor, but he sure did leading Mazeppa Thursday night at the newly renovated Kennedy Center Opera House. The Kirov Orchestra responded dynamically to his guidance, providing an often stunning symphonic foundation for the opera (an off-center note or two from the cellos and winds proved inconsequential). Gergiev really fired up the orchestra-only opening of Act 3, a depiction of the Battle of Poltava (when the treacherous Mazeppa is routed by Peter the Great); an on-stage, costumed brass band filled out the czarist anthem.

The large cast was dominated by Nikolai Putilin's firm, ringing baritone in the title role and Tatiana Pavlovskaya's radiant soprano in the role of his tender, naive wife Maria. As her father, Kochubey, Vladimir Vaneev compensated for some technical roughness with a fervent characterization; his singing in the Act 2 execution scene was brilliantly, movingly shaded. Larissa Diadkova, as Kochubey's wife, heated up the room with her sumptuous mezzo. The chorus excelled throughout, but especially in their prayerful singing for that execution scene.

Like Mazeppa, Onegin is based on poetry by Pushkin. But where the former is painted large, the latter is drawn in intimate strokes. The plight of the four young characters who approach love with totally different expectations and illusions may strike folks today as way too emotional. But Tchaikovsky, an emotional basket case himself, believed in every word and gesture of this story. The music has a searing honesty.

Gergiev unleashed a glowing performance of the work Tuesday night. Again, the strength started with the orchestra, where Tchaikovsky put the soul of the opera. Some of the voices were easily swamped by the sounds coming out of the pit, but the level of acting was so accomplished - Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier provided the distinctive direction - that nearly every nuance in the work could still be felt.

The sight of lovesick Tatiana crouched on her bed like a pathetic child, or her old nanny registering fear and concern in every tremble, or all four female characters, isolated and devastated, registering their shock at the unexpected explosion of male pride during a lavish party - such things stayed long in the memory. The set's omnipresent, monochromatic walls limited the sense of atmosphere, but certainly kept the attention squarely on the characters.

Irina Mataeva was a sublime Tatiana, Evgeny Akimov an ardent Lensky, Vladimir Moroz a dapper (if vocally under-powered) Onegin. The rest of the cast added to a true ensemble experience of considerable vocal and theatrical impact.

Kirov Opera

Where: Kennedy Center, 2700 F. St., N.W., Washington

When: 1:30 today (Eugene Onegin), 7:30 tonight (Mazeppa), 1:30 p.m. tomorrow (Eugene Onegin)

Tickets: $40 to $250

Call: 202-467-4600, 800-444-1324

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