In Review > International

Iolanta (5/3/13) & Nabucco (5/4/13)

ST. PETERSBURG
Mariinsky Theatre

After an uneven but rousing gala opening of the "Mariinsky II" on May 2, the next afternoon's Iolanta witnessed a heartening acoustical confirmation marred by a reversion to old patterns. "Maestro" was chatting up friends outside after the announced starting time; foreign donors fought with locals for misallocated seats and scarce programs; surtitles went AWOL. The draggy first thirty minutes suggested late-night post-Gala partying. Anna Netrebko — ideally suited to the role of Iolanta — started somewhat under par, sounding grainy. Things picked up with Alexei Markov's song (his Robert was the standout performance) but didn't move into high gear until the love duet. Here, Netrebko warmed to her task, and Sergei Semishkur's Vaudemont, despite a less-than-attractive middle voice, offered some charm and some striking top notes. Sergei Alexashkin's King René had authority but a wobbly top. 

The company had already used Mariusz Trelinski's psychologically insightful if sometimes puzzling 2009 coproduction with Baden-Baden. Why do almost all the arias addressed to others become soliloquies? Where's the rush of color implicit in the finale's music? This transfer raised the question of how works designed for one Mariinsky stage will play in the new one; presumably, they'll be rehearsed under less pressured time and usage conditions than they were here. Some of the LED effects worked well, but in a work so focused on light, the primitive follow-spotting was embarrassing. Still, what a gorgeous score! Kudos to Gergiev for shepherding another undervalued work into the international repertory. One hopes this show, slightly tweaked, will make its rumored Met appearance soon.

The next night, the original Mariinsky stage witnessed Dmitry Bertman's 2005 staging of Nabucco (shared with Moscow's Helikon Opera). Cheered to the echo, it frankly did not credit an international theater in terms of musical or dramatic results — as one might expect from the fairly earned high reputations of the three principals, the conductor and director, none of whom was presented at his best on this occasion. Bertman's production proved a lethal combination of camp old-style Biblical-epic costumes and wannabe provocative set and movement elements: spear-twirling guards, air-punching soldiers and pipeline-toting Israelites clambered in front of what resembled enormous, steeply raked Babylonian scrimshaw powder horns. Abigaille, styled as Mae West doing leather and whips, all but mud-wrestled Fenena for the crown.

Plácido Domingo's long-time endorsement of the Mariinsky "brand" ismuch appreciated locally; he received a hero's welcome for singing that may in many ways defy time — several ruminative passages, such as "Dio di Giuda", were phrased with firm tone and artistry — but did not add much to his laurels. (Some phrases got sacrificed to parlando "effects") or to the performance history of this particular role. Dramatically, Domingo went for affable patriarch-hood, smilingly embracing both daughters as his troops were in fact conquering an enemy people's holiest inner sanctum. 

Maria Guleghina, running on all eight cylinders, couldn't be faulted for lack of energy, volume at full tilt or sheer nerve. (High interpolations came thick, fast and shrill.) Scary register breaks and glottal attacks notwithstanding, parts of Guleghina's voice retain a glowing beauty; and despite all the technical patchiness, she occasionally demonstrates unexpected instances of superbly controlled line. Then the other shoe drops — perhaps quite literally: Abigaille's removing her tall leather boots to sing her nostalgic cavatina (along with her pampered bathtub ablutions before the confrontation with Nabucco) will long linger in the memory of all present. 

Mikhail Kit, a fine bass whose artistry has been a pillar of Gergiev's achievement, can clearly still produce admirable middle register tone and will doubtless remain useful in certain Russian roles. But Zaccaria's wide-ranging lines and linear bravado were never meant for this slow-to-tell instrument, even before seven decades of use understandably compromised both extremes.

Happily, two younger singers pointed toward a bright company future. Ekaterina Semenchuk sang handsomely as Fenena. (Bertman had the princess dragged around the stage and even raped by the High Priest.) She is clearly the successor to Gergiev's first great wave of Mariinsky mezzos, Olga Borodina, Larissa Diadkova and Mariana Tarassova. Sergei Skorokhodov fielded a bright, genuinely italianate tenor in Ismaele's frustratingly limited part. Choral singing was sonorous if verbally rather uninflected; Gergiev's incredibly hard-working orchestra sounded now barely rehearsed, now brilliant; his phrasing and tempos similarly lurched from strikingly insightful to unfathomable. It was a starry but disappointing evening. spacer 

DAVID SHENGOLD

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Current Issue: January 2015 — VOL. 79, NO. 6