Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Russians Are Coming

At the height of the holiday season there can be little doubt that Russian music weighs heavily on our minds. As usual, The Nutcracker seems to be everywhere. American Ballet Theatre's production (choreographed by and starring Mikahil Baryshnikov) is on PBS-TV while a controversial new film of Pacific Northwest Ballet's Nutcracker (with sets and costumes by Maurice Sendak) is on display at the Northpoint Cinema. The San Francisco Ballet is currently enjoying a huge success with its new production of Tchaikovsky's perennial treat at the Opera House and, from Folsom Street to Fisherman's Wharf, little toy soldiers are marching around this town with a vengeance!

The past few months have been particularly interesting in terms of Russian opera which, thanks to the recent usage of Supertitles, has become infinitely easier to digest and far more exciting to watch. Although I was unable to catch the Houston Grand Opera's opening production of Mussourgsky's Boris Godunov (my sources tell me that HGO enjoyed a major artistic triumph) I was able to attend a brilliantly staged Russian opera in San Francisco and another in the nation's capitol which, although eagerly anticipated, left a great deal to be desired. Here's why.


By this point I'm convinced that soprano Mirella Freni has made a pact with the devil. Now nearing fifty, she seems to look half her age or, as one of my more jealous friends muttered, "Fuck that shit. She looks half my age!" No matter how young she looks, Freni continues to glow with a musical strength and artistic commitment that somehow manages to defy description. From her silken blonde tresses and doe-like eyes to her sensual lips and girlish figure, the woman is simply remarkable.

Freni's portrayal of the lovesick Tatiana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin was, far and away, one of the highlights of the San Francisco Opera's fall season; a magnificently-sung characterization which, although it polarized the evening, never upset the opera's dramatic balance. Much of the credit goes to director John Copley, whose sensitivity to the emotional surges in Pushkin's novel (as well as in Tchaikovsky's score) allowed him to frame the dramatic action as tenderly as possible.

Although Freni dominated the evening (I often found it hard to take my eyes off her) I was particularly impressed by Denes Gulyas' impassioned Lensky and Joseph Frank's immaculately etched cameo portrayal of Monsieur Triquet. Nicolai Ghiaurov's Prince Gremin and Thomas Allen's Eugene Onegin were sturdy and reliable contributions to this production.

Much of the evening's musical success was directly attributable to Richard Bradshaw's firm command of the San Francisco Opera orchestra. Bradshaw lovingly captured the full sweep of Tchaikovsky's surging romanticism as well as the composer's classic moments of Russian despair. There were so many delicately sculpted moments in this Eugene Onegin (moments which are rarely found in other productions) that I almost felt as if I were experiencing Tchaikovsky's opera for the very first time.

Part of that feeling, no doubt, was due to Robin Don's highly evocative sets and Thomas Munn's superb lighting. Having originated at Festival Ottawa in 1983, this production was seen in San Diego in 1985 before coming to the San Francisco Bay area. I hope it hits the road with a vengeance, for this staging of Eugene Onegin is that rarity of rarities: an understated jewel of operatic excellence.


There were lots of jewels onstage in the final moments of the Washington Opera's production of The Tsar's Bride but, alas, nothing to match the consummate artistry of San Francisco Opera's Eugene Onegin. Although Washington Opera's production of Rimsky-Korsakov's rarely-performed work (a shared effort with the Monte Carlo Opera) had sumptuous sets and costumes by its resident designer, Zack Brown, much of the performance sat on the stage like a leaden piroshki. The fault, I fear, lies not so much with the Americans involved in the production as the Russian stage director and conductor who were supposed to bring a true measure of authenticity to the project.

While reading Galina Vishnevskaya's autobiography, I was particularly impressed by the rage she felt at the Soviet Union's habit of treating its artists like civil servants. Although she was, for many years, a leading artist with the Bolshoi Opera, as the stage director for this production of The Tsar's Bride Vishnevskaya only seemed to be recreating that which she knew from her past. The most painful aspect of her work was that, that of the bureaucrats she castigates in her book, it reeks of a civil service mentality -- an enigma which makes me wonder if, perhaps, you can take certain Russian artists out of the Soviet Union but you cannot take the Soviet government's years of soul-numbing oppression out of certain Russian artists.

Almost in spite of Vishnevskaya's stage direction, two rather impressive performances came from Cleopatra Ciurca as the jealous Lyubasha and recently defected Russian tenor, Vyacheslav Polosov, as Ivan Sergeivich Lykov. Elizabeth Knighton sang quite beautifully as the heroine, Marfa, while Jeryl Metz's brief appearance as Domna Ivanova Saburova offered a touch of comic relief.

Although Vishnevskaya's husband, Mstislav Rostropovich, did a solid job of conducting, the Washington Opera's production of The Tsar's Bride never really seemed to be able to get off the ground. Some of the problem may lie in the ingredients for, like many Russian a meal, it sat heavily on the stage with scant hope of being easily digested.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on December 24, 1986.

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