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Seen and Heard Opera Review

Stravinsky Les 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.

Colin Clarke


Further Listening:

This coupling: Craft, Naxos 8.557499



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)