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Coming of Age

Bass Mikhail Petrenko has developed his career at his own pace. This month, he takes on Prince Galitsky in the Met's new Prince Igor. JENNIFER MELICK reports.

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In concert at Royal Albert Hall, 2013
© Chris Christodoulou 2014
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Courtesy Askonas Holt
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As Orest to Evelyn Herlitzius's Elektra in Aix, 2013
© Pascal Victor/Artcomart 2014

Young opera basses face very specific challenges: they have to play fathers, grandfathers, wise men and assorted villains, often decades before reaching the age of those characters. They also have to perform opposite more mature singers in more youthful roles. "When I started to sing, I used to sing only really low parts, because my low register always worked. The only thing I could sing in conservatory the first two years was Sarastro arias, and Fiesco!" laughs Mikhail Petrenko. "Oh, and songs that are transposed down. That was it." At thirty-eight, Petrenko has greatly expanded his range of roles, along with his vocal range, but even just a few years ago, in 2011, with his large, wide eyes and round cheekbones, he was an almost absurdly young-looking Gremin in Netherlands Opera's Eugene Onegin. (He also had to perform his aria against a backdrop that included actors costumed as astronauts.) Still, when he opened his mouth to sing, none of this really mattered. 

Petrenko's voice is a rounded, flowing hybrid with more honey than edge — almost no metal at all — and wonderfully fluid rolled rs that seem to emerge naturally as an extension of the pitch itself. Sometimes he lets that sound do almost all of the acting: as Orest in the stunning Patrice Chéreau Elektra production in Aix-en-Provence last summer, the recognition scene was highly moving, in part because Petrenko, who moved very little, showed a restraint that perfectly balanced the intensity of Evelyn Herlitzius's Elektra, whose grief and outrage he seemed to absorb like physical blows. At the opening of the Mariinsky II Theatre last May in St. Petersburg, Petrenko's soulful but restrained "Eh, Ukhnem!" (Song of the Volga Boatmen) seemed to come from the depths of that river itself yet never descended into kitsch. Describing his Hagen (Götterdämmerung) at the Proms in London this past July, reviewer Mark Berry wrote, "Petrenko's vision is in many ways more dangerous than the traditional Ridderbusch-like performance. Rather than pitch-black 'mere' evil, we hear someone devilishly intelligent, and troublingly alluring." 

For the past few years in Europe, Petrenko has been singing everything from Don Carlo's Filippo and Grand Inquisitor to Frère Laurent, Hunding, Fafner, Leporello, Ruslan and Don Basilio. Thus far at the Metropolitan Opera, opportunities to hear Petrenko have been limited — three tiny roles in War and Peace back in 2002, Pistola in Falstaff in 2005, the villainous Sparafucile in Rigoletto in 2009, the monk Pimen in Boris Godunov in 2010–11 — but this season he returns as Vladimir Yaroslavich (aka Galitsky) in Dmitri Tcherniakov's new production of Prince Igor, his biggest role to date there. Petrenko said he was looking forward to the production when we met this summer in Aix, where we chatted, in English, at his rented house in the hills overlooking the town. Against that bucolic, hot, very un-Russian backdrop, our conversation competed with the almost deafening noise of cicadas, as Petrenko's one-year-old son, Luka, napped in the garden a few yards away. The bass, like most everyone at that point, was in the dark about what the new Prince Igor production would be like. "I asked Mitya Tcherniakov two days ago, 'Tell me something!' but I still have no idea what he has planned, not even the way they are going to be dressed!" he laughs. Petrenko worked with Tcherniakov in 2011, when he sang the title role of Glinka's operatic fairytale Ruslan and Lyudmila in the reopening of the renovated Bolshoi Theatre, a production that shocked some traditionalists with a setting that went back and forth between the period of the legend (ninth to thirteenth centuries) and the present day, complete with naked women and a Thai massage. Prince Igor is a patchwork mix of Polov­tsian and Russian scenes, left unfinished at the composer's death to be completed later by Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov. Petrenko calls it "one of the most genius music moments in all literature."

"The Polovets act, that's Borodin's hand," he notes, "and this is the most treasured part of the opera." That act includes "Gresno tait" (I hate a dreary life), the aria of the scheming Galitsky. "Comic villains are the type of characters I like best," he says with a gleam in his eye. "My role is funny, drunk, kind of Varlaam — well, Varlaam is funnier. Galitsky has power and authority, and he wants to take power while Igor is absent in war, and he is abusing the court maids. That's my character." 

Another character in this same opera, Konchak, was crucial for jump-starting Petrenko's career. "That's what I sang for my audition piece, Konchak's aria, when Gergiev first heard me about fifteen years ago," says the bass. "Since then I've sung it many, many times. I was in the first year they ran the young artists program at the Mariinsky, in 1998. There were about ten of us — five already singing in Mariinsky Theatre in small roles, and five were absolutely young from across the street at the conservatory. I was among the youngest. Imagine, you are still studying in conservatory, you're still a student. And you have an opportunity to come to stage with the legends that you might have heard on CDs. But now, you enter the same door with them, and someday, one or two years from then, you share the stage with them. It's fantastic! I think it's the best invention of opera house of last years, [programs like] Merola in San Francisco, the Met, La Scala, Mariinsky. Of course, there is also…." Petrenko stops short, grabbing a dictionary to look up a word. "Ah, 'natural selection,' you know what I mean? Some of us [from that initial class at Mariinsky] have disappeared. However, everybody was given a chance, the same chance. And this is amazing. It works much better than competition." 

Growing up in St. Petersburg, Petrenko didn't take a direct route to opera. His mother, a pianist and organist, "tried to start me with piano, and I refused. Then I started percussion. So. Yeah. Five years of school as a percussionist. Then when I was a teenager, I decided to stop with music. In two years I decided to get back, but it was too late for percussion, because the competition is really high — there are a lot of talented children in St. Petersburg! The only faculty at conservatory that could accept me was the vocal one." He enrolled in St. Petersburg's famous Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory, across the street from the Mariinsky, where his teachers included Bulat Minzhilkiev (1940–97), who can be heard on many of the 1990s Kirov recordings of Russian operas. Petrenko credits no single teacher as most important for his career. "You never know what is more important to be taught — good things, useful things, or useless things, in your technique. Because when you know what you should not do, it's much easier to stick to what you should do. So bad teachers are also good! Because they can teach you what you shouldn't do." 

Among Petrenko's mentors is Daniel Barenboim, whom he's known since 2004, before he had even turned thirty. "It was my first German role at the Berlin Staats­oper. I sang Hunding." He pantomimes cutting his throat and explains, "That was like hours, hours with his assistants. I came there, and it was a great school. This one month made four years of education. They took a risk, taking a guy with the right voice but without the right experience to sing this music. They took a risk, and they prepared me for this." 

Petrenko declares himself lucky to be living in the post-Soviet era: "It's much easier for us professional singers," he notes, "because you can be totally concentrated on what you are doing in the theater, without some kind of intrigues. For example, before, you couldn't get a big role or see anything but Leningrad without being a member of Communist party. No way. Now, of course, life is a game, and we have to play with its rules. But sometimes the game can be fun. Sometimes not. My mother couldn't do any [international] career, because she couldn't play these rules. My mother is very concentrated in music. She teaches piano and organ and still spends eight, ten hours playing every day." 

Nowadays, Petrenko says he relies on the advice of just a few people — his wife, Alisa, a dancer, and "my pianist, my co-répétiteur, and also the choral co-répétiteur. Or the conductor I am working with. I believe him, too — he is my critic." 

After a period living in Berlin, Petrenko has returned to live in his hometown of St. Petersburg. It's just a three-hour plane ride from most of his European opera engagements. Now that he is taking on bigger roles, he is just barely starting to settle into being in the spotlight. He is amusingly modest — and clearly uncomfortable — inadvertently dropping his own name in the same breath as some of the more famous products of the Mariinsky Opera, which he calls "a home to singers like Netrebko and Borodina or me — oh, sorry! I didn't mean to put myself in [their company]! There are some singers who are and always will be soloists, nominally, of the Mariinsky. Even though we don't live there all year, we still belong to the theater. This is unimaginable in olden times — if you worked there, you had to be there, without any discussion."

In May, Petrenko sings his first Méphistophélès in Alex Ollé's new production of Faust at Netherlands Opera, led by Marc Minkowski. Not surprisingly, given Petrenko's upward trajectory, fans and critics have started to ask aloud when they might hear him in the title role of Boris Godunov. "I'm starting to think about it," he admits. No dates for Boris have been announced, but, he says, "I think this moment will come soon. I hope so. Before, I was not ready for it psychologically, mentally. Now I am ready for it. Now I am." spacer 

JENNIFER MELICK is managing editor of Symphony Magazine.

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