Mantovani: Akhmatova

Opéra Bastille

Paris, 3 May 2011 4 stars

The Bastille Opera in Paris has popular success on its hands with Akhmatova, a new, commissioned opera by the Italian composer Bruno Mantovani, to a libretto by Christophe Ghristi (in French). A ballet, Siddharta, by the same composer was produced in Paris last season.

The story of the Russian poetess Ana Akhmatova is fascinating, especially as related in a extremely detailed time-line in the programme. Raised comfortably in Tsarist times, ultimately becoming disdained by the revolution, and later compromised by it, losing various members of her family to gulags and purges, she managed to survive until 1966, acclaimed as one of the great poets of her time, not only in Russia but abroad. 

Whether a poet's life is a likely plot for operatic treatment is questionable. (A film might have been a better solution.) The events that proved dramatic in Akhmatova's life were the killings of loved ones, and the estrangement of her son, who accused her of not being terribly responsive or loving to him when he was imprisoned in Siberia. She was married several times, but that is hardly fodder for an opera. The biography in the programme, giving the poetess's life unfolding against the climactic events of Russia in the twentieth century, would have required a much more elaborate score and production, more like Prokofiev's War and Peace than the fairly intimate, chamber-ish work at hand. 

Mantovani's score is very much in his own style, failing to reflect anything especially Russian or Soviet; there is no reference to Akhmatova's contemporary composers, such as Prokofiev or Shostakovich, even though Akhmatova had encounters with both these men. There were busy crescendi at harried moments, and a certain lethargy when things were still distressful but more quiet. On the basis of one hearing, there were no real take-home arias, and the Mantovani style, if effectively dramatic at times, is not one I would call especially distinctive or original. Nevertheless, the German mezzo-soprano Janina Baechle made the character of Ana completely memorable, and her son, sung by the Transylvanian tenor Attila Kiss, also made a strong impression.

The production, staged by Nicolas Joel, was continuously arresting, and the sets, basically using panels reproducing the Modigliani drawing of Akhmatova, done in Paris in the 1920s, were fluid and involving. In moments of unease, Akhmatova constantly sat in a chair, and this became as much of a leitmotif for the production as the portrait. In the final act, at first set in the ruins of the besieged Leningrad, a chorus of displaced persons between Moscow and Tashkent comment on the war, virtually the only big chorus number in the opera.

More interesting were the scenes involving the Union of Soviet Writers and Ana, and an amusing scene between the British university professors who come to champion her poetry, some of their lines delivered in English. The interchanges between the Soviet stalwarts and Ana and those between she and her family provided the most telling dramatic moments in this finely-staged, if spare pageant of a poetess's troubled life.

Such is the success of Akhmatova, with a minimum of 2030 spectators each evening at the enormous Bastille Opera, that director Nicolas Joel has proposed to the French composer Philippe Fénelon that he create a new opera for the Bastille based on Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard.

By Richard Traubner