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Bruno Mantovani, Akhmatova: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris (chorus master: Patrick Marie Aubert), Pascal Rophé (conductor). Opéra Bastille, Paris, 31.3.2011 (MB)

Anna Akhmatova - Janina Baechle

Lev Goumilev - Atilla Kiss-B

Nicolaï Pounin - Lionel Peintre

Lydia Tchoukovskaya - Varduhi Abrahamyan

Faina Ranevskaya - Valérie Condoluci

Representative of the Writers' Union - Christophe Dumaux

Olga - Marie-Adeline Henry

Sculptor, English Academic - Fabrice Dalis

Student, Second Academic - Paul Crémazy

Student, Third Academic - Vladimir Kapshuk

Agent - Ugo Rabec

Woman from the People - Sophie Claisse

Old Woman from the People - Laura Agnoloni

Solo tenor - Emanuel Mendes

Solo baritone - Slawomir Szychowiak

Nicolas Joël (director)

Wolfgang Gussmann (set designs)

Wolfgang Gussmann and Susana Mendoza (costumes)

Hans Toelstede (lighting)

Production Picture ©  Elisa Haberer

A tale of two cities: London recently found itself lumbered with Anna Nicole. Meanwhile, Paris, in the guise of Nicolas Joel, had commissioned Bruno Mantovani to write his second opera. Akhmatova was the result, a retelling of key episodes from the life of the poetess, Anna Akhmatova, with particular focus upon the torment of her relationship with her son, Lev, that torment in good part a consequence of Stalinist persecution. Premiered on 28 March, this was Akhmatova's second performance. Divided into three acts, it was performed with an interval between the second and third.

If I hesitate to say too much in detail concerning the music, then it is because I think I should need a second or third hearing to be in any sort of position to offer more than the most cursory observations. However, the fact that I am sure I should benefit from a second or third hearing already draws a contrast with Anna Nicole: what one heard - and saw - on the surface in London appeared all too clearly to be all that there was. Mantovani's music, by contrast, suggests secrets to be given up with deeper acquaintance, microtones and all. And there was no doubt that, on this occasion, music was the raison d'être of the opera. Immediately striking was the opening viola solo - Mantovani has written a concerto for two violas - and different instruments enjoyed their moments in the sun, almost as if this were a concerto for orchestra with voices. An accordion added particular colour, plangently 'Russian' in its way, though there is, we may be thankful, no resort to pastiche. (For one thing, one gleans from librettist Christophe Ghristi's words in the programme that Mantovani is no more a fan of Shostakovich's music than I am…) Spatial effects are employed sparingly and therefore with dramatic effect. There are even evocations of particular places and moments - tone-painting, one might say - such as the train that takes Akhmatova to Tashkent or suggestions of the siege of Leningrad, yet within a framework of overall continuity.

Most striking of all is the final scene, almost entirely orchestral. 'In a birch forest near to the Baltic Sea,' reads the libretto, though one would never have known it from the staging, which remained identical to that for 'Akhmatova alone in her room, then Lev'. Akhmatova observes the sun rise over the sea. Bar a few words towards the end; otherwise, we hear in orchestral terms the anguish of her situation. She has had to endure the use of her son in a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities, resulting in his disowning her, believing that she did not care, for why did she not protest, why did she not attempt to have him released? Violins become more prominent at the opening of the scene, but the leading role of woodwind and trumpets continues, leading us through a series of extraordinary solo arabesques. It felt a little like what I imagine the use of the Lulu-Suite prior to Friedrich Cerha's completion might have done. At any rate, it proffered a genuinely moving conclusion, without attempting to answer too many questions. Burned into one's memory there remained Akhmatova's earlier desperate conclusion that a poetess should not have children. It is interesting in that connection to note Ghristi's claim that opera has neglected mother-son relationships: oddly true, though not exclusively so, when one thinks about it (though the Mime-Siegfried relationship of the previous night's production offered something of a precedent!)

Performances all seemed to me very good, especially the excellent orchestral contribution, under the sure guidance of Pascal Rophé. One had little doubt that this was how the music was supposed to sound, which is far from always the case in such enterprises. (Mantovani has already had his ballet Siddharta performed at the Bastille.) The gleaming sounds Rophé extracted from the orchestra offered credit to all concerned, not least of course the composer. Mantovani owns that, following his first opera, L'Autre côté, 'a very masculine opera,' he had wanted to set to work on a large female role. This was certainly what we were offered in the role of Akhmatova, well taken by the librettist's wife, Janina Baechle, who proved especially moving during the climactic third act. The splendidly named Atilla Kiss-B also proved increasingly impressive as Akhmatova's son, Lev Goumilev: one felt his anger and his incomprehension, another victim of state barbarism. A faithful friend indeed was to be seen - and heard - in Varduhi Abrahamyan's Lydia, her refusal to denounce Akhmatova both moving and convincing. Valérie Condoluci employed her coloratura to effect almost as glittering as the orchestra in the role of Akhmatova's actress friend, Faina Ranevskaya. I think it is fair to say that there was not a weak link in the cast. Lionel Peintre and Marie-Adeline Henry both impressed as Akhmatova's ex-husband and his new partner, whilst Fabrice Dalis revealed a fine love-sick - or at least lusting - tenor as sculptor and Tashkent lover of Ranevskaya. It is perhaps by now beside the point to note in particular the use of a counter-tenor, in the guise of Christophe Dumaux's Representative of the Writers' Union, chillingly excited by his power in the aftermath of the Zhdanov Decrees. What might not so long ago have been used, if at all, as some sort of special effect, now seems for many composers a perfectly natural choice, yet the timbre seemed especially well chosen for such 'non-masculine' nastiness and the performance amply justified its use.

Ghristi's libretto seemed to perform its task well, for the most part self-effacing, yet permitting Mantovani to do his job. A few English phrases - from visiting academics - did not sound quite so natural, but other than that, the story was told clearly, in a narrative anything but avant-garde in its construction, leading us unproblematically from the years of Stalin's Terror to some point beyond the dictator's death. Nicolas Joel, perhaps controversially, adopted the twin guise of patron and director. In terms of the latter role, I have little to say, other than to note the stark, monochrome designs and lighting (Wolfgang Gussmann and Hans Toelstede), relieved in the Tashkent artists war-exile scene (Act Two, Scene Three) by scarlet, erotically evocative of the actress, Ranevskaya and, no doubt, the unreality of the artists' situation. As with the libretto, the direction, despite occasional confusion of place, in general permitted Mantovani's music the principal role. A tale of two cities, once again…

Mark Berry

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