Coda: The Performances I Can't Forget
Russian magic: Rimsky-Korsakov's Snow Maiden at the Mariinsky, 2004
© Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters/Corbis 2014
Music has always played an important role in my life. For years, performers were my primary fascination. I never really developed strong feelings one way or the other about composers or historical connections — until I had the chance to visit Russia.
The year was 2004. My assignment was to accompany a group of enthusiastic music fans who signed up for a trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg through New York's classical radio station, WQXR, where I had been an on-air host since 1993. And there was to be music along the way — Russian music.
In Moscow, it was all about Tchaikovsky. First came a performance of his Fifth Symphony by the Moscow Philharmonic in Tchaikovsky Hall. I remember how disappointed I was when we entered the auditorium. It was cold and uninviting — not at all as I thought a concert hall in a great European city should be.
The musicians entered, and everything seemed fairly routine and lackluster. But to my surprise, as the music began my eyes welled up with tears. It was Tchaikovsky as I had never heard it before — the most soulful, connected playing I had ever experienced. Every note had amazing intention, and the music poured out of the group as though their very lives depended on it. "Is this just a moment in time," I wondered, "or is something unusual going on here?"
The next night, we found ourselves in the Bolshoi Theatre for a performance of Tchaikovsky's operatic masterpiece based on Pushkin's mysterious tale of greed and obsession, The Queen of Spades. My first encounter with this piece was the Metropolitan Opera's acclaimed production in 1995. The unforgettable cast included Karita Mattila and Ben Heppner, both in their absolute prime, as Lisa and Gherman. That run included a Met debut, Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Yeletsky, and a company farewell, Leonie Rysanek as the imperious Countess. The great Russian maestro Valery Gergiev conducted. It was a powerful evening of music and drama, and I was fairly sure that though it was my first, it was a production that couldn't be topped.
Gergiev was not conducting that night in Moscow. It was a local production that was close to sixty years old, and I didn't recognize a single name in the program.
When the opera began, it was dark and dusty onstage, and I thought the singers could have spent more time warming up. But as the evening progressed, they grew bigger and more powerful with each breath. And soon the sound was flowing through the hall like a mighty river. The audience was mesmerized.
These are the very people who inspired Pushkin to write as he did, I thought. Tchaikovsky heard these voices when he wrote his luscious score. And here we are in the land that provided the exotic setting for it all!
It was a magnificent synergy of elements. By the end of the performance, I found myself absolutely stunned by what I had seen. Given the sum of the parts that created the whole, it was clear that the Bolshoi's production of The Queen of Spades was beyond compare.
We moved on to St. Petersburg. In the storied Mariinsky Theatre I found myself transported one last time on this fantastic trip to Russia. It was a delightful new production of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's opera featuring Russian folklore's beloved snow girl — Snegurochka, or The Snow Maiden. And this production was created under the supervision of the theater's dynamic artistic director, Valery Gergiev.
Since The Snow Maiden is rarely — if ever — performed in the U.S., I had absolutely no idea what to expect. In essence, the opera is about a young snow maiden who desperately wants to live and love as mortals do. Her parents — Spring Beauty and Grandfather Frost — release her into that world, and the fire of true love destroys her. But as she melts to her death, the fifteen-year-long winter that has plagued the town comes to an end, and the stage is filled with a glorious finale in praise of the sun!
As was true with the Bolshoi, when we approached the Mariinsky, history came alive. It was as though centuries of great artists who had made this theater their creative home were right there with us. We sensed opulence and the presence of nobility. In terms of stage technology, the theater appeared to be in as much of a time machine as the auditorium.
But this was a "new" production. So I waited.
When the curtain opened, we entered a transcendental universe that was on the one hand very old and on the other quite new. It was a Russian fairy-tale world that we were seeing as though through a child's eyes for the very first time. There were animals of all shapes and sizes, angry Gods, magic flowers and, of course, an enviably beautiful heroine. Combine that with the same ardent commitment to the gorgeous music in the pit and the compelling intensity of the voices onstage that I had experienced in Moscow, and you had a special kind of magic that would be virtually impossible to replicate in any other circumstances — even at the Met.
As I look back on that trip to Russia, I often wonder how different things might have been if we had seen La Bohème and Die Zauberflöte, rather than The Queen of Spades and Snegurochka. The "all-Russianness" of the experience sealed an indelible impression in my mind's eye, and my heart was permanently transformed.
MIDGE WOOLSEY is a television and radio producer, writer and on-air host. She lives in New York City.
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