Rubinstein: The Demon; Smelkov: The Brothers Karamazov

Mariinsky Theatre/Valery Gergiev

Barbican Hall, London, 3 February 2009 4.5 stars

Valery GergievThanks in large part to Mariinsky Theatre Trust, the Mariinsky Theatre's tours to the UK have become fairly regular occurrences in recent years, allowing UK audiences to experience their high quality collective artistry not only in some traditional productions of famous war horses, but also many works which are little known or performed outside Russia.

For this residency at the Barbican, the Mariinsky gave concert performances of Tchaikovsky's very well known The Queen of Spades, Rubinstein's The Demon, which remains obscure in this country, and the UK premiere of Alexander Smelkov's The Brothers Karamazov, a Mariinsky commission which was completed in 2008.  It was not possible to get to the Tchaikovsky, but the other two evenings were unique and valuable opportunities to hear this world class company and discover music which is new to audiences in this country, under the direction of the Mariinsky's Artistic and General Director, one of the world's most famous conductors, Valery Gergiev

Perhaps the most striking impression gained from the whole experience over both evenings is just how vibrant and modern the approach of the Mariinsky artists is to opera.  Discard any notions about heavy Slavic vibrato, lugubrious musicianship and over-darkening of the timbre.  The sheer consistency of the excellent vocal technique across the whole ensemble is remarkable, and leads to a sound which is characterised by a fresh openness, allowing for clear and immediate diction and a disarming directness of expression.  Dramatically too, even in the context of a concert performance, the majority of the singers revealed themselves to be committed and natural actors, always engaged with their respective characters' situations and emotions.  The organic way in which the physical and musical performances were integrated puts to shame much of what one sees on stage in major houses in the rest of the operatic world. 

I was particularly keen to hear Rubinstein's The Demon because the title role's two arias are very beautiful, and brought out the best in both Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Rene Pape on their respective recent recital discs.  Written between 1871 and 1875, the work overall betrays the influence of French Grand Opera with its flashes of local colour and large scale Act II finale, culminating in a vengeance chorus.  The story concerns a young girl, Tamara, whose fiancé's death is caused by the Demon so that he can seduce her himself.  In her despair, Tamara enters a convent where the Demon appears to her.  Tamara is tempted to yield, but ultimately repels the Demon and is borne aloft to heaven by angels.  This clearly has elements in common with Gounod's Faust, even if the middle man is missing, and Act III closes with a comparable apotheosis for Tamara replete with a chorus of angels. 

To the title role, Yevgeny Nikitin brought a youthful sounding bass-baritone voice and an appealing physicality with all the arrogance required by the character.  He was at his strongest in the declamatory passages and his interpretation grew in stature and complexity during the evening as Tamara's torment undermined his character's certainty of success.  It was unfortunate that the only disappointing singing from him came during his aria at the derailed wedding celebrations in Act II, which is the musical highlight of the opera.  What should have been a long succession of beautiful legato lines, effortlessly winning over not only Tamara but the whole audience too, was marred by a tendency to start phrases under the note and without vibrato.  This was not enough to detract too much from what was a compelling role assumption however, and Nikitin, who is in his mid-30s, is an artist to watch. 

As Tamara, Irma Gigolaty was excellent.  If she didn't sound quite warmed up enough for the unusual contours of the vocal lines at her entrance (a mixture of top notes plucked out of nowhere and melismas depicting fish in the river), she settled down quickly and gave a thoroughly convincing account of Tamara's anguished journey through agitation, grief, confusion, terror, temptation and death, her beautifully dark lyric soprano voice never failing to bend to her expressive will.   

The smaller roles were all taken with great distinction. As the nurse, Elena Vitman impressed with her few lines, revealing a well produced, substantial and attractive mezzo-soprano. Gennady Bezzubenkov, as Tamara's father, used his very high quality bass voice with great sensitivity, but also stentorian power when called for.  Kristina Kapustinskaya was a real stand out performer, effortlessly using her large and beautiful mezzo-soprano as the Angel to admonish the Demon and welcome the heroine. 

Gergiev's manner with the score was straight forward and unfussy.  Colours and dynamics were certainly not neglected, but his sense of priority appeared to favour the clarity of the overall form above individual moments and details, and it paid off on the whole so that one never lost contact with the dramatic thrust of the piece.  However I would attribute the chorus's disappointing lack of character directly to Gergiev's coolness of manner.  The choral sound was beautiful and their musical security admirable, but they would benefit from more weight in the female voices, and more of a sense of involvement when expressing joy or wrath, or any of the other myriad emotions called for in the score. 

Valery GergievMany of the attributes on display by this fine company in their performance of The Demon were in evidence the following evening at The Brothers Karamazov.  Dostoevsky's novel, on which the opera is based, has a lot of striking features, but the kind of concise, linear narrative that would make it an ideal subject for operatic treatment is not one of them.  Smelkov's librettist, Yury Dimitrin, has done an excellent job in distilling and condensing it into a coherent drama whilst staying fairly close to the feeling of the original, and cleverly maintaining key episodes such as that of the Grand Inquisitor which don't obviously form part of the story.  Nevertheless, Gergiev's reluctance to dwell in the moment was again most welcome and served the composer and librettist well. 

Smelkov's musical language was a surprise, and defied one's expectations of the kind of compositional style that a twenty-first century opera composer might use.  The first word that sprung to mind was 'post-romantic', but even this makes it sound more progressive than it actually is.  Much of the score sounds rather like Tchaikovsky verging on Mussorgsky, with the occasional passage of Shostakovich in his satirical guise, along the lines of the dance music in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.  Really the only indication that Smelkov was born in 1950 and not 1850 was the fact that he felt he had license, due to what had happened in music in the twentieth century, to use the whole orchestra to make large dissonances at moments of high drama, and some unusual percussion combinations to create an exotic atmosphere when the devil appeared.  But even these anomalies, which seemed scarcely integrated into the whole, felt derivative, of Prokofiev in the former instance, and Debussy and Ravel in the latter. 

Nevertheless, taken on its own terms, the music was neither unattractive nor dull, and it was a relief for once to find a contemporary opera with writing which was sympathetic to the voices.  Several of the characters had extended solo scenes which functioned as arias, of which the real stand out was Katerina Ivanova's, sung by Elena Nebera.  The full range of her lyric soprano was used sensitively during her meditation with an orchestral backdrop that supported her singing and provided colour but never overwhelmed.  Here was yet another singer with a distinctive voice so free of technical concerns that she could paint the words exactly as she wanted to according to her fine musical and dramatic instincts.

Kapustinskaya impressed once more, this time as Grushenka, a role that exploited more of her vocal and artistic range than the Angel had done the night before.  If she didn't seem quite as inside her role as Nebera was, she nevertheless demonstrates a huge level of accomplishment for a singer who only graduated from the National Tchaikovsky Music Academy of Ukraine in 2006. 

The 3 brothers had pleasingly contrasted voices and were well cast.  Avgust Amonov's fruity tenor was a good match for Dmitry's music which gets increasingly neurotic throughout the opera. Alexey Markov's heroic baritone with a slight metallic snarl in the tone was impressive as Ivan, particularly as he became more and more incensed and then descended into madness, and Vladislav Sulimsky's soft-grained lyric baritone was ideal for the pious Alexey. Alexander Timichenko, who sang Smerdyakov, should also be singled out for praise.  Although he is a character tenor, he has none of the technical short-comings the term might suggest.  Indeed, his singing was always beautiful and tasteful.  His use of text, and imaginative phrasing allow him to make a real impact and portray complex individuals in a way that sticks in the memory.  Further confirmation that the Mariinsky has tremendous strength in depth, as if any were needed, came from some short solos taken by chorus members, each displaying assurance and vocal allure to spare.  

It goes almost without saying that the orchestral sonority on both nights was as rich and smooth as one could wish for.  There is a pleasing balance of youthful and more experienced faces amongst the players which must play a large part in ensuring there is nothing old fashioned or stagnant about this ensemble.  Their relationship with Gergiev is obviously long-standing and the benefits are self evident – the conductor's smallest gestures appear to be mutually understood and lead to beautifully expressive results, although as noted above, the chorus appears to be less susceptible to these subtleties than is ideal. 

These were two evenings of some of the most consistently high quality music making I have heard.  Although some of the singers, such as Nikitin, have burgeoning freelance careers, the overriding sense was one of a great opera company, rather than a collection of international soloists brought together piecemeal for a production as is necessarily the case at Covent Garden and the Met, and the gains in artistic terms were huge.  Each singer, whether in a major or peripheral role, demonstrated the same high standard of musical preparation and attention to text.  Each had an excellent voice and a near ideal technique.  Many of their biographies have long repertoire lists full of very heavy roles, often showing alarming diversity, and the impression one has is that their schedules are rather punishing (Bezzubenkov, Timichenko and Kapustinskaya performed on all three evenings at the Barbican, for instance).  But despite these factors which young singers here and in the US are constantly urged to be wary of, something about the system at the Mariinsky is working, because one would be hard pressed to find a tauter ensemble performing opera today. 

By John Woods

Photos: Valery Gergiev

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