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Beware of Russians Bearing Gifts

New York
Carnegie Hall
03/09/2010 -  & March 10, 2010
Hector Berlioz: Les Troyens
Ekaterina Gubanova (Cassandre), Irina Mataeva (Ascagne), Elena Vitman (Hécube), Sergei Semishkur (Enée), Alexei Markov (Chorèbe), Yuri Vorobiev (Ghost of Hector), Ekaterina Semenchuk (Didon), Zlata Bulycheva (Anna)
Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre, Andrei Petrenko (Chorus Master), Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, Valery Gergiev (conductor)

V. Gergiev (© Jennifer Taylor)

Whenever I encounter Les Troyens, I think of how lucky we audience members are. After all, its composer, Hector Berlioz, never had the pleasure of seeing the work performed. There are so many Trojan stories to tell, but let’s confine ourselves to but one.

Berlioz was the only significant personage to read the score of Die Walküre before its publication or first performance. Wagner valued his opinion highly and thought of Roméo et Juliette as a consummate work of music – fitting since the German master learned his leitmotif technique from his French soulmate’s “dramatic symphony”. Clearly the pivotal point of the entire five hours of The Trojans is the striking of the armor and Mercury’s cry of “Italie”. Had the god intoned “Wehwalt” instead, the kinship to the story of Siegmund and his destiny would not have been more vividly invoked.

Now Valery Gergiev is presenting this massive masterpiece in two evenings with the stars, singers and musicians of his Mariinsky Theatre. Although not the ideal method, there is a long tradition of presenting the first two acts on night one and the remaining three on the successive evening. The initial concert contained a high energy performance of the Trojan Horse saga, but it was not without its problems.

There is always a concern in concert versions of operas that the singers will be literally blown away by the orchestra seated directly behind them. Often soloists are forced to shout and strain to be heard, but this night the entrance of Ekaterina Gubanova dispelled all fears. Hers is an amazingly powerful voice and she could probably be heard out on 57th Street. As Cassandra she dominated this performance, however she seemed hesitant whenever about to unleash a higher sustained tone, causing some flatting in key spots. This mezzo had been scheduled to sing in Gergiev’s Roméo two weeks ago but was replaced at the last minute. Perhaps she is still a bit under the weather.

Much less forgivable than a few pitch problems was Ms. Gubanova’s lack of emotional intensity. If ever there were a role for the unhinged, for the horribly alone, for the only human who sees the truth and knows that doom is coming, it is this one. But Ms. Gubanova stayed dispassionate throughout. The voice was excellent, the characterization was pallid. By contrast, Alexei Markov was excellent as Corebus.

This, of course, is French opera, but an anecdote from the Russian stage comes to mind. When Chaliapin sang Boris, he would stare so intently into the corner of the empty stage when hallucinating the two murdered children that patrons would stand on their chairs to get a better look at what the czar saw. I thought of this on Tuesday when the shade of Hector, sung magnificently by Yuri Vorobiev, began to intone his prophetic message. The voice seemed to come from the depths of the stage but was difficult to locate. Lost in my musical reverie, it took a while for me to look up to observe patrons on the main floor pointing into an obscure corner. Gazing skyward, I was amazed at the number of customers who were standing in the balcony, straining to find the source of this powerful soliloquy. Mr. Vorobiev was strategically placed in the trombone section and clearly had a ringing tone to rival any of his neighbors.

Gergiev wrung as much as possible out of chorus and orchestra, running from one side of the stage to the other often performing windmills of manual exhortation. The excitement was sometimes quite infectious, but, like Cassandra, I remained a pessimist. Hearing Sergei Semishkur in the relatively minor part of Aeneas, I couldn’t help wondering if we were all in for a long night tomorrow when the Trojans moved on to Carthage.

Let’s begin our examination of part two (actually acts 3, 4 and 5) with a stylistic anomaly. For the first evening, the individual singers simply stood and delivered when it was their turn to sing. There were no gestures, no facial expressions, simply declamation. Certainly a legitimate approach, but on this second evening everyone acted and interacted throughout the drama. An odd turn of 180 degrees, making those of us who settled in for both nights just a bit confused.

Ekaterina Semenchuk was superb as Dido, although she seemed to be holding back just a tad. This may have been in order not to totally overpower her Aeneas and preserve at least a token sense of vocal balance. Although the chorus was excellent throughout, the solo singers this second night were, as a whole, disappointing. Further, Maestro Gergiev may have expended too much energy on the first go, as his leadership this night was either phlegmatic or, more often than not, simply absent. The Mariinsky is not a great orchestra and their “Royal Hunt and Storm” was almost embarrassingly underpowered.

My original vinyl Troyens with Colin Davis is still in great shape, except for side number eight, whose surface has been practically rubbed off by literally thousands of playings of “Nuit d’ivresse”. This consummate duet was adapted from Mozart’s “Soave sia il vento” by way of Rossini’s “A la faveur de cette nuit obscure”, which Berlioz the critic praised after attending a performance of Le Comte Ory. A watershed piece, it requires two singers of enormous depth and vocal power. Alas, this was certainly not the case this time around.

There was one interesting aspect to the lovers’ mismatch: The harmony of Dido often took pride of place over the melody of Aeneas, thus revealing much about the structural plan of the music itself. However, Mr. Semishkur was so clearly out of his depth that he sometimes simply did not bother to strive for a note, preferring instead to either pantomime the word in question or else sing so softly as to allow Ms. Semenchuk to be the only voice. One interesting sidelight to this concert version was that we all discovered a new portent: Destiny is about to take over when the gong player rises and walks towards his instrument.

The supporting cast was uniformly weak, although in differing ways. Best of the lot was the Anna of Zlata Bulycheva, who was not a very impressive singer or actress, but who possesses a lower tessitura down in Ewa Podles country. These subterranean notes were delivered with no strain or artifice and this is rare enough to deserve special mention.

Overall, a major disappointment for those of us who waited well over a year since the announcement of these two concerts. The crowd voted with their feet, as hundreds left the hall once our hero followed his stars and left to found Italy. In a very real way, Dido was truly left alone on the African shore.

Fred Kirshnit



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