Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Mother Russia On The March

I may not be a particularly trendy person, but certain types of trends do interest me. Global shifts in taste are always fascinating. And smaller patterns of change can often reveal areas of growth which, unless someone carefully connected the dots, might otherwise go unnoticed.

With the cold war now ended and the United States and the Soviet Union entering into more and more trade agreements, Russian opera has been gaining a stronger foothold in the repertoire of America's regional opera companies. From an economic standpoint, some of this is due to the loosening of travel restrictions on Russian artists. Some credit assuredly goes to the healthy effects of Glasnost and Perestroika.

From an artistic standpoint, much of this "operatic renaissance" is due to the beautiful music created by some of Russia's leading composers. None of it can be attributed to the simplicity of the plots to Russian operas because, without sorely-needed help from Supertitles, few American audiences would be able to figure out what the hell's happening onstage in most Russian operas.

In any event, this season has been a surprisingly strong one for Russian music. Critics have practically crawled down the aisles to lick Dmitri Hvorostovsky's toes and Prokofiev's War and Peace received a rare and most wonderful production (which was taped for future release in HDTV format) from the Seattle Opera. Mussourgsky's Boris Godunov was performed at both the Des Moines Metro Opera and New York's Metropolitan Opera.

Without any doubt, the most popular Russian opera on the calendar was Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, which was staged in Chicago and Toronto last fall, will soon be seen in Edmonton, Pittsburgh and St. Louis and is scheduled for performances in 1991-1992 at Canada's Manitoba Opera and L'Opera de Montreal.

Meanwhile, the Lyric Opera of Chicago has announced a new production of Prokofiev's The Gambler for 1992. The Washington Opera is planning a rare production of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride for 1993. Future plans at the San Francisco Opera include productions of Prokofiev's War and Peace in 1991, Mussourgsky's Boris Godunov in 1992, Tchaikovsky's Jeanne D'Arc in 1993 followed by a revival of the ubiquitous Eugene Onegin in 1994. Plans are also afoot for a festival of Russian operas that will probably take place in June 1994.

Personal peregrinations brought me in contact with two Russian rarities this fall. While neither offered a fully satisfying evening of opera, the assets of each production far outweighed the liabilities.


After being forced to delay its plans for one year, the Dallas Opera finally got the curtain up on a new production of Prince Igor on November 8th (the 100th anniversary of the opera's premiere in St. Petersburg). Despite the fact that Borodin's rich orchestral score helped to inspire Broadway's Kismet, Prince Igor is rarely performed in the United States. The only production I've ever encountered was at the New York City Opera back in February 1969. There ain't been a whole lot of Prince Igor around these 50 states since then.

My sole memory of the City Opera production was that it was incredibly long and boring. With the Dallas Opera providing Supertitles, Prince Igor became long and inanely convoluted (its rather lame and ridiculous plot makes one wonder if Prince Igor wouldn't be better off being performed in a concert version). While the music has many ravishingly beautiful moments (audiences are most familiar with the composer's Polovtsian dances), it soon becomes obvious why so few opera companies ever attempt to stage Prince Igor. This hulking piece requires huge amounts of chorus rehearsals. Another deterrent is that so few of the principal artists working the international circuit have ever needed or wanted to learn Borodin's score.

The Dallas Opera's production (on loan from the opera company in Belgrade, Yugoslavia), featured handsome costumes by Bozana Jovanovic. Mileta Leskovac's unit set, which consisted of movable platforms and drops, enforced a certain rigidity on the evening. Dejan Miladinovic's stage direction rarely rose above mundane levels of blocking and, in certain instances, was downright laughable (Mariana Paunova's portrayal of the seductive Kontchakovna stretched the limits of operatic camp).

Although bass-baritone Sergei Leiferkus delivered an impressive performance in the title role, the real star of the evening was conductor Semyon Vekshtein, who understood Borodin's score and knew how to highlight its many moments of orchestral beauty. Strong performances came from Eric Halfvarson's Prince Galitzky and Wieslaw Ochman's Vladimir. As Igor's long suffering wife, Jaroslavna, soprano Stefka Evstatieva once again revealed a large spinto voice with painfully little focus.

Special credit goes to the Dallas Opera chorus and the Fort Worth Ballet (which, under Paul Mejia's direction, provided some welcome visual relief from Leskovac's ponderous scenery).


Back at home, the San Francisco Opera revived its production of Mussourgsky's Khovanshchina, which was last seen here in 1984. Nicola Benois' wonderfully evocative sets and costumes retained their Russian flavor while Sonja Frisell's staging kept matters pretty much under control.

There were numerous cast changes since 1984 but, alas, not all of them were for the better. Despite the richness of her voice mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick had no sense at all of Marfa's fanatic determination, thus leaving one of the opera's pivotal characters floundering in a theatrical void. Soprano Maria Fortuna's Emma did more screeching than singing and Nicolai Ghiaurov's Prince Ivan Khovansky sounded surprisingly weak and dry.

Stronger performances came from Steven Cole's scrivener, John Treleaven's Prince Vassily Golitsin, Gwynne Howell's sonorous Dosifei and tenor Michael Myers as Prince Andrei Khovansky. Timothy Noble's aggressively-sung and forcefully acted Shaklovity offered the best work of the evening from any one individual artist.

Like most Russian operas, the success of any performance of Khovanshchina rests squarely on the shoulders of the chorus. Under Ian Robertson's direction, the San Francisco Opera's choristers nearly walked off with the show, making the long evening well worth one's patience.

As with the Dallas Opera's Prince Igor, the major force behind the evening stood firmly on the podium. Conductor Yuri Simonov made an impressive San Francisco debut. One hopes he will return to the Bay area on a regular basis.

* * * * * * * * * *

This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on January 31, 1991.

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