Seen and Heard Opera
Noces and Oedipus Rex: Soloists,
Chorus & Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre/Valery Gergiev,
Barbican Hall, February 25th, 2005 (CC)
Short concerts seem to be the flavour of the season in London,
what with Hélène Grimaud playing her CD at the RFH
recently and Gergiev here giving us exactly the same programme
as a recent single Naxos CD (Craft on 8.557499, a disc that runs
to 76'31). A cancellation, too, took away a real audience draw.
Illness forced Christopher Lee out, and Tim Piggott-Smith stepped
nobly into the breach at short notice.
Les Noces (to use its accepted French title, although
it was of course sung in Russian) is a Stravinskian masterpiece
of the first order. In its sometimes austere ritualism it speaks
of an imagined age; in its scoring (soloists, chorus, four pianos
and percussion) it has a somewhat distancing effect - no lush
Romantic sonorities here. The four pianos were set to the conductor's
right, the percussion to the left, soloists to the front.
Gergiev's four soloists were notable for a mismatch between the
ladies (both strong) and the gentlemen (both weak at various points).
By far the real star was soprano Irina Vasilyeva (no biography
in the booklet notes for any of the Noces soloists),
a singer whose warm voice nevertheless carries huge power, both
in volume and expression. Her real cry as she related the cruelty
of the matchmaker patently came from the heart and throughout
she managed to combine the Bride's purity with power. Both Gennady
Bezzubenkov (bass) and Vladimir Felenchak (tenor) seemed ill-at-ease.
Much better was Olga Savova's strong and characterful mezzo (a
rich mezzo that should surely be redefined as contralto).
The driving force thoughout was Gergiev, whose rhythmic sense
was beyond criticism. In defining the rhythms so well (both instrumental
and choral), the resultant propulsion captured the raw, primitive
element to perfection. A mere 22 minutes in performance, this
was a remarkable experience despite the occasional vocal shortcoming.
The 'opera-oratorio' Oedipus Rex is, compositionally
speaking, a magnificent achievement, binding together the influences
of Monteverdi. Handel and Verdi in a truly personal way. The work
is to be sung in Latin with a narration in the vernacular (although
I for one would not miss listening to Cocteau's rendition of his
own texts, in French). Tim Piggott-Smith (recently Agamemnon at
the Donmar in Euripides' Hecuba) sat stage-front, delivering his
lines as if from an armchair, but nevertheless with all the requisite
drama. His pacing of delivery was simply excellent, notably when
he linked the two acts. When he talked, lights dimmed so we focussed
on him. Before anything happened (and we were all waiting with
bated breath - 45 minutes is a long time as interval), the stage
was bathed in blood-red light, an augur of things to come.
A reminder of the miracle of Gergiev's conducting came right at
the beginning. Now batonless, how on earth did everyone come in
at the same time? Not only that, there was a sense of the monumental
right from the first chord, of raw power. All of which contrasted
with the extreme floridity of Oleg Balashov's lines as Oedipus
enters ('Liberi, vos liberabo'). Balashovs rather 'ham' heroic
physical stance was actually in contradiction to what we heard
(soloists were now set at the back of the stage, on a raised podium).
His voice is flexible (although sometimes the melismas did not
fully convince) and his confidence rose as the evening went on.
Much more disappointing was Evgeny Nikitin's Creon (Nikitin also
took the part of Messenger), whose vital aria, 'Respondit Deus'
was in dire need of authority.
Fyodor Kuznetsov, superhumanly tall and possessed of equal presence
to his height, was a good Tiresias (again he seemed to warm into
his part - could this be the singers adjusting to the Barbican's
acoustic)? Zlata Bulycheva took the part of Jocasta. Her bearing
was imposingly regal, her voice very strong, very Russian, her
way with large intervallic leaps awe-inspiring, her low register
beyond criticism. By far the best of the soloists, her contributions
immediately caught the attention.
It was the chorus that was really the star of the evening, its
contribution to Oedipus magnificent. The Mariinsky Chorus
is simply the best-drilled I have heard - just one example would
be 'Delie, expectamus' ('Delian goddess, we await thee'), just
after the Narrator announces that the assassin of the King was
a King, but really every time they opened their mouths they revealed
their quality. Gergiev's structural handing was what really made
this Oedipus special. This was nowhere more in evidence than in
the closing pages, leading into the huge final chorus, a true
climax to the work and, indeed, the evening.
This coupling: Craft, Naxos 8.557499