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Gala Mariinsky
Music by Prokofiev, Minkus, Bach/Gounod, Rossini, Mozart, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Czerny, Bizet, Saint-Saëns, Stravinsky, Gounod, Wagner and Verdi
Instrumental soloists: Denis Matsuev (piano), Leonidas Kavakos (violin) and Yuri Bashmet (viola)
Opera: Anna Netrebko (soprano), Olga Borodina (mezzo), Ekaterina Semenchuk (mezzo), Sergei Semishkur (tenor), Placido Domingo (baritone), Akexei Markov (baritone), Yevgeny Nikitin (bass-baritone), Ildar Abdrazakov (bass), René Pape (bass), Mikhail Petrenko (bass),
Academy of Young Singers, Children's Chorus and Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre
Ballet: Diana Vishneva, Yekaterina Kondaurova, Ulana Lopatkina, Vladimir Shklyarov, soloists and corps de ballet of the Mariinsky Theatre, Vaganova Ballet Academy
Chorus and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre/Valery Gergiev
Stage direction: Vasilyeva Barkhatov
Television direction: Don Kent
rec. live, Mariinsky II, St Petersburg, 2 May 2013
Sound format: PCM stereo
Picture format: 16:9
Resolution: 1080i High Definition
Region: worldwide
ARTHAUS MUSIK Blu-ray 108153 [120:00]

Today might not seem the best time to be living in Russia but we can only look on in envy - especially from London with its endless wrangling over when, where or even whether to build a new concert hall of international standard - as that country enjoys a striking new addition to its music scene.

Mariinsky II was inaugurated in May 2013. Within a modern but generally unremarkable exterior, its designers have successfully created at its heart a very attractive main auditorium that, while recognisably traditional in shape, also incorporates the latest hi-tech equipment. At almost 80,000 square metres spread over 10 floors, Mariinsky II is one of the world's largest theatre/concert venues and, situated alongside the familiar original mid-nineteenth century Mariinsky Theatre and a concert hall opened in 2006, now forms part of a substantial arts complex under the control of its ubiquitous supremo Valery Gergiev.

Although the booklet notes describe this as an "Opening Night Black Tie Gala Concert", shots of the audience suggest that lounge suits were actually the order of the day, with even Vladimir Putin himself - who appears to be sitting democratically in the stalls - dressed down for the occasion. In fact, sitting just behind the President is a man who, horror of horrors, isn't wearing a tie at all, be it black or any other colour. Given the event's high profile, it is also worth recording that by no means every seat was filled that night.

Quite understandably, the evening's programme eschewed anything remotely highbrow in favour of a mixed sequence of generally familiar and crowd-pleasing musical excerpts, mostly from the 19th century. None was longer than eight minutes or so, presumably ensuring that even the least appreciative audience member wouldn't be bored. The featured artists, both native-born, including Matsuev, Bashmet, Netrebko, Borodina and Vishneva, and from further afield, such as Kavakos, Domingo and Pape, were joined on stage by the full range of the Mariinsky's musical resources - the opera and ballet companies, chorus, youth ensembles and orchestra.

As seen on this newly-released recording, however, the evening gets off to a rather odd start. While the orchestra plays music from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, a terrible semi-animated film - featuring, for some unexplained reason, a cartoon diamond bouncing around the new building's interior - is projected onto the rear of the stage. The presumably somewhat bemused audience thereupon seemingly feels obliged to burst into a round of applause right in the middle of the music.

The second item on the programme is something of a let-down. The kingdom of the shades, as choreographed by Petipa for Minkus's ballet La Bayadère, is usually considered the most exquisitely beautiful spectacle in classical ballet. Traditionally, 32 members of the corps de ballet enter one after the other down a diagonal ramp at the back of the stage, executing a seemingly endless series of arabesques and repeatedly cross-crossing the ranks of the ones following on behind them. That makes for a stunning visual spectacle, best appreciated at home on stunning HD in a 2013 performance from the Bolshoi Ballet (BelAir Classiques Blu-ray BAC501). On this occasion, however, for some reason the Mariinsky producers do away with the ramp so that the dancers simply enter and cross the stage at ground level, thereby sacrificing that breathtaking theatrical effect. Even an extra 18 dancers placed in support at the back of the stage aren't, I fear, enough to compensate, especially when all we can see is their hand gestures and not their leg movements. The booklet boasts of Mariinsky II's ability to deploy "sets for at least four productions in the stage area at the same time", so it's hard to fathom why the traditional ramped set for this scene - the fourth longest of the 23 items in the production and so, I'd have thought, a pretty important one to get right - wasn't included.

After that disappointment, things begin to look up when a children's choir sings the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria most affectingly, even though several of the younger children are quite visibly overawed by the occasion. The impressive bass Ildar Abdrazakov subsequently comes on stage to sing Don Basilio's La calunnia from The barber of Seville, after which we encounter the first real show-stopper of the evening when Denis Matsuev gives an outstandingly virtuosic performance of Grigory Ginzburg's arrangement of the Fantasy on Figaro's cavatina.

After the Mariinsky opera company's chorus has delivered an idiomatic acclamation at the coronation of Tsar Boris Godunov, as imagined by Mussorgsky, there is, though, another missed opportunity. When an artist of the calibre of Leonidas Kavakos is featured on the programme, it seems nothing less than perverse to assign him the somewhat limited role of accompanying a dancer and hardly to show him on screen at all. Ulyana Lopatkina certainly performs beautifully in choreographer John Neumeier's Pavlova and Cecchetti, set to Tchaikovsky's music, but the star violinist's luxury casting is essentially thrown away.

Allowing for their young ages, children from the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet’s junior classes perform both affectingly and very creditably to Czerny's music in Harald Lander's Études - a full version of which on DVD would be very welcome - even though, in the pit, Maestro Gergiev looks on nervously as though wishing he'd followed the traditional theatrical advice never to work with children. Adult soloists Anastasia Kolegova, Kim Kimin and Filipp Styopin then join in, with the young prize-winning Korean Kimin producing some quite spectacular physical effects (44:29-44:35). Unfortunately, at this point and for the next few items on the programme an electronic image of some sort is introduced as the stage backdrop. Composed of closely-spaced horizontal lines, it looks fine from the audience's perspective - but whenever close-ups on the performers bring it near the camera lens it introduces an uncomfortable degree of striation that detracts from the overall clarity of the on-screen image.

As evidenced by her performance of Les tringles des sistres from Bizet's Carmen, Ekaterina Semenchuk is not the world's greatest actress. Her impersonation of a gypsy - essentially lowering her head and looking up soulfully, à la Princess Diana, while making stabbing gestures with her fingers - is cruelly exposed when performed in a formal concert gown and with no props or on-stage action to divert the attention elsewhere. She certainly sings characterfully, but is taxed by Gergiev's decision, after a very deliberately paced opening, to speed things up even more markedly than usual. The Bizet theme then continues as Diana Vishneva gives a high-kicking and sexy performance in an excerpt from Rodion Shchedrin's 1967 ballet Carmen suite which many readers will no doubt recall from Rozhdestvensky/Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra's subsequent recording that featured no less than 47 ear-popping percussion instruments according to the Melodiya LP cover of the time.

The annoying electronic backdrop becomes even more annoying in a subsequent excerpt from Tchaikovsky's Iolanta for it begins to change every 10 or 15 seconds, adding a completely unnecessary distraction as Alexei Markov delivers a strong performance of the Duke of Burgundy's passionate Kto mozhet stravnitsya s Matildoy moyey. The next artist to appear on-stage, Yuri Bashmet, once again suffers the Kavakos treatment, if perhaps not quite to the same extent, as he is utilised simply in support of ballerina Ekaterina Kondaurova who takes the role of Saint-Saëns's Dying swan. Ms Kondaurova herself is most affecting in the role, though, right to the end, her swan certainly appears to put up a more spirited resistance to its demise than many others have done.

Another showstopper then comes along in the form of the familiar Song of the Volga boatmen - or "Hey, ukhnem" ("yo, heave, ho") as it's better known in Russia and is billed here. Bass Mikhail Petrenko takes complete command of the stage for this one. I have absolutely no doubt that in real life he loves kittens and helps old ladies across the road, but here he adopts a notably threatening facial expression, as though impersonating a deckhand who'd feed you to the fishes as soon as look at you. Delivering the song direct to camera and supported by the men of the Mariinsky chorus, similarly intimidating in spite of their incongruous outfit of dinner jackets, he proves the maxim that less can very easily be more. The audience loves it.

While Stravinsky's The rite of spring may no longer cause riots in the theatre, it is probably still radical enough to frighten any members of the audience whose conception of ballet derives from childhood LPs of the Nutcracker suite. Ms Kondaurova and fellow soloists Daria Pavlenko, Yuri Smekalov and Alexander Sergeyev therefore give us only eight minutes worth in Sasha Waltz's choreography, but, even so, it offers a welcome and bracing corrective to the schmaltzy flavour of many of the other items on the evening's programme. The men of the Mariinsky chorus then acquit themselves well once again as they support René Pape in his vigorous delivery of Le veau d'or from Gounod's Faust.

In an evening generally free from anything in the way of on-stage props, the entry from the wings of no less than six horseless carriages comes as something of a surprise. They hold the 14 soloists who take part in Act 2, scene 4 of Rossini's Il vaggio a Reims. This excerpt also marks the first arrival on stage of superstar Anna Netrebko who here sings the role of Madame Cortese. The addition of the props and a varied range of attractive and colourful costumes, the presence of more than just one or two artists on stage, a true sense of ensemble performance and Rossini's sparkling score all serve to give a real lift to this particular part of the evening and it has to be judged as one of its particular successes.

As the Rossini ends, we see that there is one occupant of the carriages who has yet to emerge - Olga Borodina, here to give us Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix, the best-known aria from Saint-Saëns's Samson et Dalila. The audience, responding, I suspect, to the familiarity of the melody rather than to the performance - good though that is - is in raptures. Unfortunately, the mixed nature of this recording then comes into evidence once again as the annoying electronic backdrop destroys much of the pleasure that might have been derived from watching dancers Olga Esina and Alexander Sergeyev deliver a rather erotic depiction of Leda and the swan as choreographed by Roland Petit to the music of Bach.

Another superstar - Placido Domingo - is next to arrive, on a stage dominated by gigantic suits of armour, helmets and gauntlets. His Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond from Wagner's Die Walküre is perhaps a little less heroic than a younger man might have delivered but he compensates with a warm, romantic glow to his voice and the experience that comes with artistic maturity. The audience responds, once again, with great enthusiasm. A ballet interlude - the closing section of Diamonds from George Balanchine's Jewels, set to the highly danceable finale of Tchaikovsky's third symphony - gives the Mariinsky corps de ballet a chance to sparkle before it's time for the return of one of the heavweight stars, Ms Netrebko. This time she gives us a powerful account of the Act 1, scene 1 cavatina (Vieni! t'affretta) from Verdi's Macbeth. Knocked out by Ms Netrebko's thrilling high notes, the over-eager audience bursts into applause while she is still only half way through.

After Lady Macbeth's wickedness, someone obviously thought that it was time for a little lightheartedness, so Ms Netrebko remains on stage for Mozart's duettino Là ci darem la mano (Don Giovanni) where she is serenaded, one after the other, by five of the male solo singers - not the six suggested by the careless booklet notes. Her first suitor brings her a bunch of roses; not to be outdone, the second brings her a full basket of them; the third offers a large potted rose bush; while the fourth wheels a whole market stall of the flowers onto the stage. Ms Netrebko's fifth admirer is Placido Domingo who serenades her from the conductor's rostrum where he's temporarily taken over Maestro Gergiev's duties.

With many of the main participants already on stage, the remaining space is now filled by all the artists we've seen so far, including the full opera and ballet companies, while the vocalists perform the majestic closing pages of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta and bring Mariinsky II’s inaugural gala to an end.

It must have been an impressive evening, no doubt very enjoyable to those in the audience and gratifying to the Russian social and political elite whose support made the new complex possible. All that said, I'm really not so sure about the way it has transferred to the Blu-ray Disc under review. Quite obviously, that major problem with the electronic backdrop raises issues of visual quality but, underlying that, there’s a more basic issue. While the performances are never less satisfying, virtually everything we see is surprisingly plainly done and fails to celebrate – surely the point of any gala - the new auditorium's supposedly extensive resources.

General viewers - at whom this recording with its lack of any overarching artistic theme and its unchallenging contents is presumably targeted, are also badly served by: (1) the lack of any extra features - instead, the main screen offers just options to play the concert or to watch trailers for other DVDs. Thus the disc misses an obvious trick by failing to include even a brief filmed guide to the building, which is, after all, the raison d'être of the whole production. Although the booklet notes do major on Mariinsky II's architecture and facilities, they do so in a dry piece of text that reads like an architect's initial pitch to the company's board of directors; (2) completely inadequate details of the music being performed, its context and any biographical information about the performers involved; (3) no subtitling of lyrics on the disc, which might have helped make sense of what's being sung for those unfamiliar with the various operas; (4) poor presentation, both in the booklet and on screen - did no-one, for instance, proof-read a caption stating that the choreography is by "Sasha Walz" when she is really Sasha Waltz?

I suspect that those who buy this disc will have been tempted by the odd individual item or two. I cannot, however, imagine that too many viewers will decide to sit through the whole occasion again once they have watched it for the first time.

Rob Maynard