by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, August 4, 2003.
Andrew Porter, who wrote warmly erudite music criticism for this magazine from 1972 to 1992, used to travel out of town for stagings of neglected Russian operas, commenting that even a threadbare production of something like “Ruslan and Ludmila” gave off more sparks than a lot of standard operatic fare. This was before the advent of Valery Gergiev, the fiery angel of the Russian repertory, who has seemingly sworn not to get a full night’s sleep until Glinka’s operas are as familiar as Puccini’s. Early this month, Gergiev arrived in town with the collected forces of the Maryinsky Theatre, of St. Petersburg, bearing his latest enthusiasms. The company gave twenty performances at the Metropolitan Opera House, under the auspices of the Lincoln Center Festival. On the bill were Prokofiev’s “Semyon Kotko,” Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh,” Moussorgsky’s “Khovanshchina,” Rubinstein’s “The Demon,” Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” and, the odd man out, Verdi’s “Macbeth.” It wasn’t exactly a cavalcade of hits, and attendance suffered. But those who made it to Lincoln Center in the July heat were given a crash course in the golden age of Russian opera.
Gergiev had some rocky moments guest-conducting at the Met last season, so it was good to see him back in form, summoning phenomenal sounds from the Maryinsky orchestra. One sharp observer of the music scene suggested that the Met should have given its own orchestra free tickets to all these shows, so that the players could hear what style Gergiev has been trying to elicit from them. The Maryinsky’s strings are second to none; when its remarkable double basses sing out at full voice, a new dimension is added to the music. Woodwind lines glow like daubs of color on a canvas. Trombones and tuba make noise to wake the dead. The chorus matches the orchestra in richness of timbre, and the singers, even when overworked, give their all. This is red-blooded opera—risky, raucous, and alive.
"Semyon Kotko,” the most obscure of the Maryinsky’s offerings, was written in 1938 and 1939, at the height of Stalin’s Terror. Set in the period after the Bolshevik Revolution, it tells of a Ukrainian soldier who beats back Germans and capitalists and learns how to be a bland Soviet hero. Despite its impeccable Socialist-Realist plot, it was doomed to failure from the outset. A week before Prokofiev finished the vocal score, his collaborator, the director Vsevolod Meyerhold, was arrested. Then, in August, 1939, the Hitler-Stalin pact was announced, necessitating a last-minute revision of the anti-German element. The stench of Stalinism permeates the scenario; Tkachenko, who betrays his village to the Germans, stands in for the kulaks, or wealthy peasants, who were among the principal victims of the Terror. Satires of kulaks belong with cartoons of banker Jews in the gallery of genocidal stereotypes.
Yet there is stupendous music in “Kotko.” The ending of Act III, in which the Germans and the Ukrainian anti-Bolsheviks overrun the village, rivals the Coronation Scene of “Boris Godunov” in sheer malevolent splendor. Indeed, Prokofiev modelled his musical material partly on Moussorgsky’s: as in the Coronation Scene, a chord progression sways across the interval of the tritone, in unrelenting pendulum motion. Over these chords, singers and orchestra repeat downward motifs of lamentation, building to such an intense articulation of despair—“They plunder and burn / Our Ukraine is lost / All is lost!”—that listeners may end up thinking not of the events of 1917-18 but of the Ukrainian “terror famine” of 1932-33. “Kotko” hardly seems like a subversive piece, but it is legitimate to ask why Prokofiev thought back to “Boris Godunov,” the tale of a homicidal Russian ruler, when he was supposed to be depicting a German invasion.
Gergiev delivered this quintessential problem opera with all possible conviction. Yevgeny Strashko showed a solid, agile tenor in the title role; Irina Mataeva had lustrous moments as Kotko’s lover, Sofia; Fedor Kuznetsov, a superb young bass, found power and pathos in Tkachenko; Irina Loskutova led the lamentations of Act III with a big, piercing soprano. Yuri Alexandrov’s production worked hard to rescue “Kotko” from Soviet kitsch, and mostly succeeded, although the decision to include Maoist garb and little red books in the final tableau was a puzzler. Better was the idea of staging the Act III finale in the manner of the legendary film director Andrei Tarkovsky. One of the most unforgettable sequences in Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev” depicts the sacking of Vladimir Cathedral; throughout the scene, a church censer is shown swinging from side to side, in ironic counterpoint to the mayhem. The director used a similar image in his Covent Garden production of “Boris.” In “Semyon Kotko,” the Tarkovsky pendulum, a marker of Russian destiny and doom, becomes, ominously, a globe of the world oscillating in the air.
In March, 1940, a month after Meyerhold was shot, Anna Akhmatova wrote a poem titled “The Way of All the Earth,” in which she pictured herself as “the woman of Kitezh,” wandering in search of eternal rest. Kitezh, in Russian folklore, is a city that dissolves into mist when invaders approach, leaving behind only the ringing of its bells. The legend acquired new life in 1903, when Rimsky-Korsakov, working with his librettist Vladimir Belsky, made it the basis of a post-Wagnerian ritual opera. In their hands, Kitezh becomes something more like the heavenly city of Zion—a Christian paradise that lurks in the folds of the Russian landscape. Rimsky-Korsakov lavished on the piece the utmost refinements of his style: opulent, glittering orchestration; attenuated, silvery melodies; an idiosyncratic harmonic method that amounts to a parallel universe of enchanted chords. Granted, there is a great deal of Wagner in the score—perhaps too much. Every fifteen minutes or so, the strings play the “Magic Fire” music. But Rimsky subsumes all these effects into his own surpassingly gentle vision: of a love persisting past the point of death; of callow betrayal and saintly forgiveness; of a city indivisible from nature.
Back in 1995, Gergiev brought a fairly traditional staging of “Kitezh” to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The new production, by Dmitry Cherniakov, is altogether bolder. Kitezh has become a kind of synthetic Russian community, a blend of tsarist, Soviet, and contemporary motifs. If I am not mistaken, Cherniakov took many of his images from the Akhmatova poem—a “charred depot,” a woman carried on a sled, a “white ascetic rite.” Less Akhmatova-like was the image of the Tartar prince riding in on a sci-fi contraption straight out of the “Alien” movies. Despite a baffling lack of activity during the lovers’ entry into Kitezh—did someone miss a cue?—this was a compelling vision from an imaginative director. Unfortunately, I saw it with one of the less distinguished casts of the festival; Sergei Alexashkin was the only standout, singing Yuri with a booming, charismatic bass.
In “Kotko” and “Kitezh,” homeland idylls are overrun by marauders. In “Khovanshchina,” the enemies come from within, and no one is sure who they really are. It is impossible to summarize the plot of so byzantine an opera in a sentence or two: suffice to say that it succeeds in making a plausible evening’s entertainment out of the seventeenth-century split between the Old Believers sect of the Russian Orthodox Church and the modernizing forces of Peter the Great. The achievement is not entirely Moussorgsky’s; he died at the age of forty-two, leaving behind a manuscript that was an unorchestrated mess, and its epic shape only came into focus eight decades later, when Shostakovich undertook to make his own performing version. The secret to Shostakovich’s orchestration is in the brass. There are so many gleaming chords and burnished pedal tones that the opera seems to rest on steel girders.
The Maryinsky has re-created Leonid Baratov’s 1960 staging of the Shostakovich version—a picturesque, storybook production that neatly frames the action. Gergiev, in some of his finest moments on the podium, brought out both the massiveness of the conception and the poetry of its detail; you had a sense of human voices caught in the machinery of history. Olga Borodina sang the part of Marfa, who has forsaken her aristocratic origins to join the Old Believers; it is one of the mezzo’s signature roles, and she invested every note and every gesture with meaning. Three first-class low voices—Valery Alexeev, Gennady Bezzubenkov, and Alexashkin—sang Shaklovity, Dosifei, and Prince Khovansky. Best of all was the Maryinsky chorus: it gave lusty power to various mobs and militias, and also brought us deep inside the distant world of the Old Believers, who immolate themselves rather than submit to the will of Peter the Great. Richard Taruskin, in a splendid essay on the opera, speaks of the Old Believers “stepping out of history and into eternity.” They, too, are walking to Kitezh.
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