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Seen and Heard Opera Review


Mariinsky Masterworks (1) Verdi: La Forza del Destino
(concert performance of the 1862 St. Petersburg version ) soloists, orchestra and chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre, Symphony Hall, Birmingham 25.05.2006 (RJF)

When Gergiev brought his Kirov forces to Covent Garden in 2001, the centenary year of Verdi’s death, and presented a series of productions of the composer’s works, critics came heavy on what they saw as inadequate preparation and seeming routine. No such criticisms could be levelled at last night’s outstanding performance. Gergiev, substituting loose wrists and fluttering fingers for a conductor’s baton, was like a puppet master controlling every facet of an outstanding evening, even down to choreographing, on the hoof, the taking of applause by soloists more used to a proscenium curtain. Such is his vitality, musical vision and professionalism, that although his control of the personnel surrounding him is absolute, it stimulates the orchestra who follow his every nuance whilst not inhibiting the interpretation of his soloists. As to the soloists, the Kirov has a long and creditable history of providing the world’s opera stages with singers of distinction. The six principal singers, and those in the comprimario roles, would have graced the stages of any of the great opera houses of the west. To have them forsake a stage stetting to sing and portray their roles in a concert performance was a great privilege.

As might be expected, Verdi’s first version of the opera, written for and premiered at the Imperial Italian Theatre, St. Petersburg in 1862 was that performed. It is the version that Gergiev conducts on the Kirov company recordings issued on CD (Philips) and DVD (Arthaus). His feel for the Verdian line in this version is wholly idiomatic with the composer’s glorious vocal cantilena as well as the dramatic situations of the plot which are brought out in the most convincing manner. Of course, much depends on the solo singers for that happy marriage to take over a performance. It was obvious, even though some of the soloists wanted the psychological support of a score in front of them, that all were well experienced in their roles in the theatre. Equally obvious was that whilst all the six principal soloists were strong singers, at least four of the six principals were stage creatures who would create an even greater frisson in a staged performance. Foremost in that respect were the Preziosilla of Ekaterina Semenchuk and the Carlo of Vasilly Gerello. Semenchuk, a finalist in Cardiff in 2001 and , looking stunning, has a rich low mezzo of strength and vibrancy. She sang a thrilling Rataplan in the second scene of act 3. Her interplay with Gerello in the inn scene, with the singers sparking electricity off each other and where the absence of stage sets was forgotten was most impressive. Likewise in the army camp, and with the chorus set back behind the orchestra, she moved and acted to them without detriment to the audience. Slender and with sinuous arms, she would make a Carmen of ones dreams. Glyndebourne should get to see and hear her.

Although somewhat small of stature, Vasilly Gerello’s burnished baritone was a vocal strength throughout the evening. His range of colour and expression, allied to the exemplary diction shared by all the singers, enabled him to convey the cunning nature and implacable character of Carlo. His Act II solo ballata Son Pereda was a vocal highlight as were his contributions to the famous duet Solenne in quest’ora and the more aggressive confrontations with Alvaro sung by the tenor Avgust Amanov. A big man, Amanov towered over his baritone colleague, whilst being a little more wooden in stance and body language. In this version of the opera Alvaro has a significantly greater burden than in the 1869 Milan revision when Verdi deleted the long aria at the end of the revised Act III. Amanov is a true lyric tenor with plenty of vocal heft. He sang well in duet with Leonora in Act I and also in his big aria at the start of Act III, La vite e inferno, where he phrased well. Later on, he lost some focus but was none the less vocally thrilling in the final confrontation with Carlo.

Much of the vocal burden of the first two acts falls on the soprano singing Leonora. In this performance Irina Gordei sang the role. Her voice has a creamy centre allied with the capacity for well-declaimed and dramatic lower notes as well as the ability to soar over the orchestra in those long phrases that hallmark Verdi’s writing in this opera. Her Act I romanza Me pellegrina was well phrased whilst she was vocally varied and expressive in Madre, Madre, pietosa and soared beautifully in La Vergine degli angeli as Leonora is accepted into the monastery. After sitting out Act III and the first scene of Act IV , Gordei did not launch her Pace, pace mio Dio of the final scene with the same even vocal quality, although she recovered her skills part way into the aria. As the Father Guardian of the monastery, Mikhail Kit sang with strong steady tone, but without that warmth to his voice that Bolognese bassi cantanti seem to inherit. He came over as rather rigid and austere. Surely what he sings conveys more sympathy for Leonora’s plight than he conveyed here. The irascible sacristan Melitone was sung and acted by Andrei Spekhov. This Melitone didn’t suffer the goings on in the army camp or the beggars at the door of the monastery very kindly, and as to his response to Carlo enquiring about Brother Raphael, his eyes near popped out and his facial expression conveyed real fear of that monk. In a stage setting such acting and strong expressive singing would be a histrionic tour de force.

Those in the minor parts matched the singing of the principals. Of particular note was the Alcade of the young Eduard Tsanga. He won the Rimsky Korsokov ‘Young Opera Singers Competition’ in 2000 and was a prizewinner at the International Plácido Domingo Operalia in 2003. He is physically imposing and with a fine bass baritone voice. I would dearly like to see him as Don Giovanni. As Leonora’s maid, Svetlana Volkova was strong and even, whilst Nikolai Gassiev was characterful as Trabucco and the peddler. The chorus of twenty three men and an equal number of women were set above and to the rear of the orchestra and lost some impact as a consequence, particularly in Act II when Leonora is welcomed into the monastery and they sing the backing to the Father Guardian’s Il sante nome.

In my fifty years of opera going I have travelled far and wide to catch odd performances of this magnificent opera whose length and demand for six principals mean it too rarely features in opera house schedules. I managed to see Marina Arroyo at Covent garden and Vladamir Chernov with Scottish Opera, but never before have I been privileged to encounter an all round performance of such excellence as was given at Symphony Hall, Birmingham on Thursday. The audience seemed to share my feelings and showed their appreciation vociferously at the end. Even after a two-hour drive home, my wife and I were still on cloud nine as we tried to go to sleep. Nights like this one come around far too rarely in the world of opera, whether on stage or in concert. We shall long savour this one.

Robert J Farr




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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)