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Gergiev and The Mariinsky Festival in Orange County

Orange County
Orange County Performing Arts Center
10/06/2006 -  to 10/22/2006

Friday, October 6

Wagner: Der Ring Des Nibelungen

Das Rheingold

Mikhail Kit (Wotan), Andrey Spehov (Donner), Alexander Timchenko (Froh), Vasiliy Gorshkov (Loge), Edem Umerov (Alberich), Nicolai Gassieve (Mime), Vadim Kravets (Fasolt), Mikhail Petrenko (Fafner), Svetlana Volkova (Fricka), Anastasia Kalagina (Freia), Zlata Bulycheva (Erda), Margarita Alaverdian (Woglinde), Irina Vasilieva (Wellgunde), Lyubov Sokolova (Flosshilde)

The Kirov Opera, Valery Gergiev (Conductor)

Saturday, October 7

Wagner: Die Walkure

Placido Domingo (Sigmund), Fyodor Kuznetsov (Hunding), Mikhail Kit (Wotan), Mlada Khudoley (Sieglinde), Olga Sergeyeva (Brunnhilde), Larisa Diadkova (Fricka), Liya Shevstsova (Gerhilde), Irina Vasilieva (Orlinde), Elena Vitman (Waltraute), Lyudmila Kanunnikova (Schwertleite), Tatiana Kravtstsova (Helmwige), Nadezhda Vailieva (Siegrune), Elena Sommer (Grimgerde), Lyubov Sokolova (Rossweisse), Alexander Yevfremov (Loge)

The Kirov Opera, Valery Gergiev (Conductor)

Sunday, October 8

A Concert of Epic Proportions

Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements
(With a visual presentation by Peter Bogdanoff and Joseph Horowitz)
Pacific Symphony, Carl St. Clair (Conductor)

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 60, Leningrad
The Pacific Symphony and Kirov Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (Conductor)

Monday, October 9

Wagner: Siegfried

Leonid Zakhozhaev (Siegfried), Vasily Gorshkov (Mime), Vadim Kravets (“Traveler” Wotan), Victor Chernomortsev (Alberich), Mikhail Petrenko (Fafner), Zlata Bulycheva (Erda), Olga Sergeyeva (Brunnhilde), Anastasia Kalagina (Woodbird)

The Kirov Opera, Valery Gergiev (Conductor)

Wednesday, October 11

Wagner: Gotterdammerung

Victor Lutsyuk (Siegfried), Andrey Spehov (Gunther), Mikhail Petrenko (Hagen), Victor Chernomortsev (Alberich), Olga Sergeyeva (Brunnhilde), Valeria Stenkina (Gutrune), Larisa Diadkova (Waltraute), Margarita Avaverdian (Woglinde), Liya Shevtsova (Wellgunde), Elena Sommer (Flosshilde), Lyudmila Kanunnikova (First Norn), Svetlana Volkova (Second Norn), Tatiana Kravtsova (Third Norn)

The Kirov Opera, Valery Gergiev (Conductor)

Thursday, October 12

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 12, Op 112, The Year 1917
Shostakovich: Concerto No. 1 in F minor for Piano, Trumpet and Strings, Op. 35
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 14, Op. 135 for Soprano, Bass, Strings and Percussion

Alexander Toradze (Piano)
Olga Sergeyeva (Soprano)
Mikhail Petrenko (Bass)

The Kirov Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (Conductor)

The Mariinksy Festival at the Orange County Performing Arts Center was the heart of the celebration for the opening of the new Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, designed by architect Cesar Pelli and the renowned acoustician Russell Johnson. Home to the Pacific Symphony, the debut of this new symphony concert hall was a watershed moment in the musical life of Southern California, and the festival was far too extensive to cover in its entirety. In addition to the concerts and operas reviewed here, the Mariinsky Festival also included Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov, (reviewed by Christie Grimstad earlier in Concertonet), and the Kirov Ballet performing works by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, as well as other concerts, educational programs, and gala parties with fireworks. Both the festivities and the new hall have offered startling controversy and musical competition to Los Angeles, at least for this season. The quality of the music, the acoustics, the architecture, and the programming have all been lauded and debated. The arts and extreme capitalism, and the relation between urban planning and social engineering have also been debated. But the touring Kirov Ring cycle, regardless of its controversy, has been an unprecedented success for Orange County.

While the critical response to this Ring Cycle has been decidedly mixed, the festival proved a phenomenal tour de force for the Performing Arts Center. Wagner fanatics and critics poured into Southern California from across the country and throughout the west, drawing attention from around the world. This Kirov performance brought the production to the United States, and was the first complete Ring Cycle to be mounted in Southern California. The Mariinsky Ring will continue on to Cardiff, Wales November 30 through December 3 and then next year to Lincoln Center in New York. Staged with a cast of mostly unknown young Russian singers (but with the addition of Placido Domingo as Sigmund), the production was criticized most strongly for its bizarre absurdist staging, conceived by Gergiev’s collaborator, director George Tsypin. Unfortunately, the company chose not to bring a stage director to Orange County. The Lincoln Center production next year promises to be more polished. But even with these severe flaws, Gergiev’s exhilarating pace and his exquisite conception of Wagner’s musical architecture created an extraordinary experience for all but the most jaded of Wagnerites.

As the curtain rose on Das Rheingold, the shocking abstract sets made a bold impression. The scenery was simple but ambitious, with several colossal boulders that starkly dominated the stage. The lighting changes were astounding, as impressive as a Robert Wilson production but not resembling Wilson’s work at all. The scenery metamorphosed through lighting changes, both of source and color, and through the movements of supernumerary dancers in abstract costumes. Black light made the dancers headdresses glow green or bright orange, and the lighting created dawn and the underwater scene of the river.

In Das Rheingold, the creation of a coherent mythical universe was effective. The huge rocks suspended above the stage were abstract, but evoked the concept of Valhalla marvelously. The giants Fafner and Fasholt were also made of huge boulders with tiny singing heads, but it worked. They were giants but somehow human, like the Cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey. The costumes, lighting and dancers over all were excellent, creating a consistent fantastical world, perhaps owing something in conception to Cirque du Soleil, but all the better for it, and not at all derivative. Wotan and Alberich were both very good, singing with persuasive strength and creating their characters thoroughly. The minor parts, including the brothers of Freia, well also conceived and developed. One could imagine this family of gods, this universe extending beyond the stage to a cohesive and beautiful world. Gergiev and the orchestra’s pace was gorgeously conceived and executed, forcefully pulling the opera forward. And although the opera was staged in the 3000 seat old Segerstrom Hall, which is now used for opera and ballet, the room seemed fine and did not distract from the experience.

This atavistic staging of the Ring, particularly the characters of Wotan and Alberich, underscored the mythic quality of the opera, inviting comparison with history’s great epic poetry and with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The opening scene of Das Rheingold directly embodied Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment, a great force in the world, in human life. The force that is created when the Rheinmaidens reject and humiliate Alberich: that is the force and strength of the Ring itself. Alberich’s resentment against his own ugliness and thus against all of life and all that is beautiful gives him tremendous power- power that is embodied in the Ring. And Wotan’s final ability to give up that prerogative at the end of Das Rheingold is the great lesson. The rock headed giants Fasolt and Fafner are fooled into destroying themselves by the influence of the ring. But Wotan, for the love of Freia, his daughter and for the strength of youth against decay, gives up the Ring. Wotan finally listens to Erda, the Earth herself, and the ultimate arbiter of wisdom.

Loge was also a marvelously conceived character in this production. Dressed in deep saturated red and bright hennaed hair going all the way down his back –in contrast to the white of Wotan and Fricka and the pastels of the others. Loge seemed to have a deeper understanding of humanity and the experiences to be had in the universe, as if he had strode up and down through the earth and heaven, like the devil in the Book of Job. He seemed to part of both realms and neither, and to suffer both the greatest knowledge and the greatest confusion. As with many great characters, Loge’s actions and motivations are ambiguous and complex.

In Die Walkure the sets still held interest, with the four monoliths becoming colossal human figures, watching over the action as distant, objective observers. The same great boulders then transformed into the set for Ash Tree House. Placido Domingo as Sigmund was very strong, very much the superstar, surprisingly full of youth and vigor. Mlada Khudoley as Siegelinde was also very good, beautiful and expressive. Olga Sergeyeva as Brunnhilde seemed overly dark of voice at first, but quickly grew into the part. Mikhail Kit as Wotan was again excellent, now dressed in black rather than white. It seemed a great gift to have the Kirov from St. Petersburg in Orange County, performing an opera that bears comparison to Homer and Dante as much as to other great operas. For all its flaws, the Kirov Ring rivaled the stature of any opera that I have seen in recent years. Gergiev conducted a driving, percussive performance, always pushing forward, creating riveting drama, never lagging even after hours of singing. As we filed out of the hall for the intermission, I overheard a man say: “good thing they don’t drug test in opera, because I don’t know how these performers can have this stamina.”

The central conflict of Die Walkure, the dilemma of Wotan caught between his loyalty to his illegitimate children, the Waelsungs and his wife Fricka has the deep human resonance of a tragedy by Aeschylus. These conflicts between men and women: our need for freedom and yet to live in society are truly the burdens that God has given mankind. They define the human condition in perhaps the most universal way that it can be defined. Even the moments of humor in Wagner are classical, like the conflict between Zeus and Hera in the Iliad. One note of comic relief has Brunnhilde warning Wotan that Fricka is coming and that she is set for a fight- the kind of fight that Brunnhilde would avoid (Brunnhilde prefers to fight the easy way, with swords like a man.) These are everyday conflicts between men and women in their lives and marriages, and yet they resonate from ancient Greece to Valhalla to Orange County today.

The bizarre set design, populated by figures of giants and little half-men emphasized this universal quality, implying that giants and pigmies always populate the human race. We waver between them; at moments we face the battles of gods, at others we are tiny and ugly. One of the most striking of the stage sets had the monoliths surmounted by the massive skulls of dead horses- another vision of the Walkure: riders of death who carry slain men off the field of battle to Valhalla.

The sets for Siegfried, made up of the same basic elements that were used in Das Rheingold and Die Walkure, had become monotonous and overused. Seigfried himself was more off-putting than persuasive. But that character- an invincible young man trying to learn the meaning of fear- is inevitably grating. Even so, the musical drama and architecture carried the opera on surprisingly winged feet. By the final marathon night of the Gotterdammerung, the tired set design truly distracted from the quality of the production, regardless of the many good singers. There was no attempt to depict a dragon or the flooding of the Rein, and the sung drama seemed poorly blocked or not blocked at all. These aspects were disappointing, but the music and the tempi were still masterful. Some of the singing was also great, particularly the velvet bass Mikhail Petrenko as Hagen and Victor Chernomortsev as Alberich. While this Ring Cycle was far from perfect and may not be among the greatest in history, it is nevertheless astounding that the Orange County Performing Arts Center was the first to bring it to the United States. As a musical Mecca, the production instantly placed Costa Mesa, CA on the world map.

While the Ring Cycle took place in the old Segerstrom Hall, the sheer magnitude of the Wagner opera was rivaled in the new symphonic concert hall by a cycle of Shostakovich symphonies and concertos. An immense program that began early on a Sunday evening was called a Concert of Epic Proportions. The first half of this concert combined the forces of the Kirov Orchestra and the Pacific Symphony performing Shostakovich’s mammoth Leningrad Symphony under Gergiev’s baton. While the triumphant Leningrad Symphony may not be one of Shostakovich’s best-loved works, the performance was certainly epic. The players from the two orchestras covered every available inch of the stage. It was perhaps too ambitious to combine the two groups, as they did not quite achieve the tight, driven organic sound of the Kirov alone with Gergiev. But the performance was nevertheless larger-than-life, seeming to encompass all of human emotion and experience. Gergiev’s swift percussive pace was inexorable. All of the innumerable crescendos and false endings of this massive victory symphony were relentlessly well carved.

Cesar Pelli and Russell Johnson’s new 2000 seat concert hall handled this epic music splendidly, containing the exuberant volume admirably within its intimate space. The controversial reverberation chamber doors, massive concrete panels that open the walls of the concert hall to adjacent empty chambers, were partially open. At the orchestra level surrounding the audience the doors were slightly open, with the angle of the door opening increasingly wider at each higher level of the balconies. Behind the stage, the panels were all open to same wide angle as the doors at the highest balcony. While the acoustic quality of the hall is clearly still evolving (a similar Russell Johnson designed system at Verizon Hall in Philadelphia took over a year to finally settle in), the sound for this concert was very promising.

In the second half of this Concert of Epic Proportions, conductor Carl St. Clair and the resident Pacific Symphony performed Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, which was also composed as a celebration of victory in war. This exceedingly sophisticated music was impeccably performed and widely admired by both the critics and the audience. A film, made up of newsreel footage of the war that inspired Stravinsky, accompanied the symphony, projected onto the flat silver surface of the organ behind the stage. The visual presentation was highly unusual and intriguing, if a little distracting and not overwhelmingly popular with the audience. The moving images, often of tanks and goose-stepping troops, were timed to match the flow of the music, rather than having the music paced to match the film. The turn of the movements of the symphony aligned with the tide of victory in the war. Pacific Symphony artistic advisor Joseph Horowitz and his colleague Peter Bogdanoff of UCLA funneled a tremendous amount of scholarship and understanding into the creation of the film. It was remarkable to encounter such sophisticated programming, particularly when one might more likely expect lighter fare and popular warhorses.

On another evening, Gergiev and the Kirov began with an exemplary performance of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 12, “The Year 1917.” The deep, slow, grieving opening felt very close, almost too loud, blasting, as if the Kirov was testing the limits of the new concert hall. The reverb doors were in the same position as for the earlier Shostakovich concert, but the hall could barely contain this performance. Gergiev and his superb young concertmaster led a crack ensemble, fraught with percussive speed and tension. The music was furious, impassioned and revolutionary, as if depicting a pitched battle from the level of a soldier’s eye, all the instruments seeming to play at once. Even when the mood changed back to deep brooding, the orchestra was still propulsive. The oboe and bassoon were soulful, lyrical. Even the horns were percussive, following an ocean of pizzicati in the strings, with drums and deep bass lying beneath. A crescendo felt like dawn, spilling out over the top of the darkness with cymbals. Then the battle began again, but with the forces marshaled and organized, with taught, calm horn calls in the distance.

The symphony alternated between frenzied battle and quiet, idyllic passages with the melody beginning in the strings, then taken up by the flute before returning to the strings in a darker form. When battle began again the timpani would blast before another quiet dark passage in the strings, illuminated by a snare drum. Storm clouds and thunderheads gave way to bright sun over and over again, with the end maddeningly always approaching but never seeming to arrive. This music was hugely enticing if not completely satisfying. It would be hard to imagine a better performance.

The Shostakovich Concerto No. 1 in F minor for Piano, Trumpet and Strings, Op. 35 was unhappily interrupted at the beginning by a confusion in the audience who thought that the intermission had begun and filed out of the hall and then back in during the first movement. Pianist Alexander Toradze, of the famed Toradze Studio, seemed the perfect choice for this highly exotic concerto, although some might find his timbre too light for this music. Eruptions of sound interrupted slow string passages that recalled the Adiagetto of Mahler Five, followed by an elegiac trumpet solo. Then the trumpet and piano entered into a dialogue that carried on through much of the concerto, at times giving way to a lyrical aurora in the strings. The piano tumbled up and down the scale in arpeggios, finding a completely unique voice in its halting dialogue with the trumpet. The two instruments tried to shout each other down, with Toradze’s fists pounding the keys and the trumpet sounding like the overture from William Tell. Toward the close, the orchestra joined fully into the conversation, with piano melodies like dance hall tunes and the trumpet sounding almost like something from Spain. The piece closed with a final virtuoso solo for the trumpet.

Amidst all of the Russian exotica that made up much of the Mariinsky Festival, the rarest of the performances was probably the Shostakovich Symphony No. 14, Op. 135 for Soprano, Bass, Strings and Percussion. Not really a symphony at all, the piece is perhaps the darkest and most bitter of song cycles ever composed. Set to poems by Garcia Lorca, Appollinaire, Rilke and others, the songs evoke the same acrid and sardonic smell of death as Goya’s caricatures of the slaughter and torture of war. The highly unusual instrumentation to accompany the bass and soprano is essentially a chamber orchestra of strings and light percussion, prominently featuring castanets, xylophone, vibraphone and celesta, among others. Soprano Olga Sergeyeva, who sang Brunnhilde in the Ring Cycle, and the velvet bass Mikhail Petrenko were excellent, at times singing alone and at other times in duet.

“De Profundis,” the opening song of the cycle on death, is by Garcia Lorca and sets a slow bass voice in a lament against the violins. Petrenko, Hagen in the Gotterdammerung, fit the role perfectly. The second song, “Malagueña,” portrays Garcia Lorca’s vision of death in a Spanish tavern, darkly and beautifully recounted by soprano Olga Sergeyeva. The third song, “La Loreley” by Appollinaire depicts the story of a Rhine Maiden and death in a dialogue between soprano and bass. Also by Appollinaire, “La Suicidé” brings a sad, stark melody to the soprano, accompanied by strident high strings and odd percussion, punctuated with bells of death.

Among the other ballads of death and decay, the xylophone and military drums played prominently in ironic scherzos bitter with darkness. One of the songs, “A La Santé,” tells the story of a man in prison, nearly insane. He sings: “All is quiet, there are only two of us in the cell, myself and reason.” The final Rilke poems tell of dead poets, with soprano and bass singing in vigorous unison, that death is all-powerful, keeping watch even in our hours of happiness. This was a night of exceedingly intense, sophisticated music, directed at serious, highly cultured connoisseurs. Although this concert was certainly one of the most rigorous nights of the Mariinsky Festival, this same musical ambition was evident throughout all of the performances that celebrated the opening of the new hall.

Amongst all the regional, national and international critical response to the Mariinsky Festival and the new Segerstrom Concert Hall, this point was often overlooked. This new concert hall and its opening festival celebration, the programming, the artists and ensembles, would be lauded as exemplary musical phenomenon in any great city in the world. The fact that they came into existence in an upstart location not previously known for high culture seemed to color the viewpoint of many reactions. The questions of elitism, of how much money was spent, of how lavish the parties and fireworks were, of the success or failure of the urban planning, all overshadowed the extraordinary musical aspirations that seem to me more interesting.

The concept of bringing Valery Gergiev and the Kirov to Orange County to perform Wagner’s Ring Cycle and an epic quantity of rarely performed Russian masterpieces would have been unimaginable only a short time ago. Even today or next year in Paris or New York, such a festival would be high among the most important musical events of the season. In a more established venue, the Ring would perhaps have been better polished, and a more robust audience might have a greater appreciation for the remarkable program. But in a youthful place like Orange County, it is astounding that an absolutely world class festival could be mounted with such success. And the young Pacific Symphony now has a home to grow into, a home that is far superior to Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. If these events had occurred in New York, they would have been simply huge tickets, and celebrated without all the envious sniping. This festival and the new hall that it honored should be admired for what they are: substantive and sophisticated musical accomplishments. They are the product of vision, resources and tremendous effort. There is plenty of space in Southern California for more great concert halls and ensembles, and in the world for more great music.

Thomas Aujero Small



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