St. Petersburg on the Hudson

Classic Arts Features   St. Petersburg on the Hudson
David Shengold appraises the Kirov Opera's offerings this month at the Metropolitan Opera House as Valery Gergiev's acclaimed company moves in for a three-week visit that boasts three rarities.

St. Petersburg celebrates its three-hundredth anniversary this year. The last few months have witnessed the biggest White Nights Festival ever at the city's premiere cultural institution, the beautiful Mariinsky Theatre, home to the Kirov Opera and Ballet troupes. This month Valery Gergiev, the Kirov's head and guiding spirit, brings to the Lincoln Center Festival 2003 and to the Met (where he is Principal Guest Conductor) twenty performances of six key works from the Kirov Opera's repertory.

Tchaikovsky's tunefully melancholy Eugene Onegin surely counts as the Russian work most familiar to American audiences‹ though none the less welcome for that, especially in the Kirov's brand new production (a co-production between the Kirov and the Théâtre du Châtelet). Mussorgsky's historical drama Khovanshchina is on the bill; while not unknown in recent decades at the Met or San Francisco Opera, this powerful work in the colorful and spectacular Kirov staging carries the authentic stamp of Russsian-ness. Russia still grapples with the questions of power, influence and loyalty set forth so magnificently in Mussorgsky's score, so that Khovanshchina productions can serve as a barometer of national sentiments. The work also supplies unconventional and terrific lead roles for bass and mezzo, in the Old Believer patriarch, Dosifei, and his prophetic protégée Marfa; some of the company's stars will offer their classic interpretations.

The Kirov also performs a wide repertory of non-Russian works, specializing in recent years in Mozart, Wagner, and bel canto (all relatively marginalized in the Soviet era), and most especially in Verdi. La Forza del Destino had its premiere at the Mariinsky in 1862, and Verdi proved a bigger influence on Russian opera than is sometimes acknowledged in accounts of its development. The Kirov's 2002 Verdi season in London featured David McVicar's Macbeth, and the company brings to the Met stage its first performances of Verdi's Scottish masterpiece in more than a dozen years.

The company's three other offerings supply a rare chance to experience major works by three of Russia's most important composers, Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), and Anton Rubinstein (1829-1924).

Rubinstein's The Demon, to be heard in concert July 15, is one of the many important operas premiered at the Mariinsky (on January 25, 1875). It is based on a verbally lush, tremendously popular narrative poem by Mikhail Lermontov (1814-41), poetically second only to his predecessor Pushkin in most Russians' estimation but far less represented on the operatic stage. Lermontov traveled to the Caucasus‹then for Russia what the Wild West proved to be for the United States, a locus of romantic fascination and "exoticizing" objectification of indigenous peoples‹both as a boy and as a soldier (in political exile). In fact he died there in the last of many duels. Lermontov's Demon, like Pushkin's Onegin (indeed, like the younger poet's created persona) a distinctively Byronic creation, is a Fallen Angel in desperate love with a mortal princess, Tamara. Killing her princely fiancé, Sinodal, he attempts to seduce the besotted Tamara into being his redeemer, but loses the struggle to a guardian Angel.

Rubinstein, with his brother Nikolai, founded conservatories in Russia's two capitals and were tremendously influential in establishing a Russian basis in Western‹largely German‹musical theory and technique. The Demon, with Nero (Paris Opera, 1879), is the most acclaimed of his nineteen operas, boasting an energetic and tuneful score with orientalized coloration applied particularly to the music of Sinodal, the tenor. The titanic bass-baritone lead proved impossible to resist for both Fyodor Chaliapin and the superstar Italian baritone Mattia Battistini, who added to his tremendous following in Russia by performing it (and Onegin) in the original language. The first Russian opera to be given in England (a scant six years after its premiere), The Demon got its first hearing in New York in 1903.

The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and The Maiden Fevronia also premiered at St. Petersburg's legendary theater, on February 20, 1907. The beloved composer, Rimsky-Korsakov, died little more than a year afterward, leaving his final operatic work (The Golden Cockerel) to be premiered posthumously. Magnificently orchestrated like all of his mature works, Kitezh has evoked comparison with Parsifal for its grandeur and often masque-like ritual beauty.

The libretto by Vladimir Belsky, often in archaized language, combines two legends: that of the Wise Fevronia of Murom, a healer married to the prince she heals, and of the 13th-century chronicle of Kitezh, still a potent symbol of endurance in Russsian cultural mythology. Greater Kitezh, vanishing under Lake Svetly Yar as church bells toll and thus through faith escaping destruction by Tartar hordes, has elements in common with Arthurian "once and future" legends and Byzantine tales of Hagia Sophia's priests carrying its treasures into the walls, to return when the building regains its Christian status. The pure, Orthodox Kitezh‹like, in an alternate way, the merchant oligarchy Novgorod ‹represented for Russians a symbol of what might have been had the country's often cruel history turned out differently.

Rimsky-Korsakov wrote Fevronia for the sumptuous-voiced and stunningly beautiful soprano Maria Kuznetsova, whose training in dance eventually led her to create Potiphar's Wife in Richard Strauss's ballet Josephslegende. Ivan Yershov, whom recordings place alongside Lauritz Melchior as one of the finest Wagnerian heldentenors in history, created Grishka Kuterma, the almost Dostoevskian figure of drunken self-hatred who attempts to betray her and his city. Reunited with her slain Prince Yury in an idealized eternal life, Fevronia intercedes for Grishka as well. Grishka must be one of the oddest (and most fundamentally "Russian") characters in Russian opera. Some of the other characters can seem rather generic or strangely familiar. The listener's experience of the often sublime Kitezh can be a remarkable one indeed.

In Soviet times, the same libretto-tampering poetaster, Sergei Gorodetsky, who changed Glinka's Romanov-worshiping A Life for the Tsar into the generally patriotic Ivan Susanin, created a non-religious Kitezh in which Russian military might triumphs and all ends as happily as in a Socialist realist novel. On precisely such a novel, the 1937 I, Son of the Working People by Valentin Kataev (1897-1986), Prokofiev based Semyon Kotko (1940), his first of several thwarted attempts to create a "Soviet" opera acceptable to the authorities under Stalinism.

Prokofiev had left for America in May 1918 and spent the next two decades largely abroad; his naive, fateful return amidst the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s was largely motivated by a desire to obtain wider performance and recognition for his works. In search of a "heroic, positive" Soviet subject he turned to Kataev's work (and collaborated with the writer on the libretto). The resultant opera, named for its demobilized Ukrainian peasant revolutionary hero Semyon Kotko, takes place in the post-revolutionary Civil War (1918-21) or, as styled in Soviet historiography, "War Communism" period. The newly formed Soviet state was menaced by expeditionary forces (including an American one that we tend to forget and they to remember), several marauding and competing "White" Armies, and attempts by many parts of the former Russian Empire to go it alone. Before the Second World War gave Soviet Russia its greatest achievement and Socialist realist culture its greatest subject for popular and high art, this "War Communism" period was a favorite locus for Soviet artists; not only Party-directed hacks, but the likes of Isaac Babel, whose Red Cavalry stories would make ideal pre-opera reading. The 1934 film Chapaev, instantly hailed as a classic and until recently as popular and universally known in Russia as The Wizard of Oz is in the U.S., took its setting from the Civil War in southern Russia. All this boded well for popular and official acceptance; moreover, the Ukrainian setting called up in Prokofiev memories of his childhood, spent as the son of a Russian estate agent in the Ukrainian countryside. The rural setting summoned up a nearly unparalleled lyricism in Prokofiev; the transition from the idyllic opening of Act III, with lovers' meetings, to its horror-struck choral conclusion after a murderous German incursion, is of a dramatic power rarely matched in twentieth-century opera.

Prokofiev hoped to renew a collaboration with Russia's theatrical genius Vsevolod Meyerhold that dated back to the thwarted Mariinsky production of The Gambler in 1917. A Meyerhold-directed dramatic adaptation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin for which the composer wrote occasional music fell victim to repression, as eventually did Meyerhold himself, arrested in June 1939 as Prokofiev neared completion of Kotko's piano score. Eventually the opera was staged by the actress Serafima Birman, best known as the fantastically vengeful aunt in Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible films, scored by Prokofiev, at Moscow's Stanislavsky Theatre in June 1940. Predictably, the new opera was denounced as "formalistic" (the kiss of death when content was meant only to reflect state ideology). Semyon Kotko disappeared until a concert performance in 1957, after Khruschev's initial de-Stalinization began. Brno staged the piece the following year, but the score was only published in 1960. Not until 1970 did Semyon Kotko enter the Bolshoi repertory, in a production by Boris Pokrovsky featuring Galina Vishnevskaya as Sofiya, the landowner's daughter who defies her sinister father's wishes by loving the peasant-class Semyon, a demobilized Red Army solider.

Veteran director Yuri Alexandrov's complex Kirov staging of Semyon Kotko has been highly successful with Russian and western audiences, whatever their feelings about the Soviet regime. Semyon Pastyuk's brilliant designs evoke a range of Soviet iconography from brightly colored agitprop posters to the Ukrainian rural films of Sergei Dovzhenko. Patriotic, but not without irony, Alexandrov's staging of the finale flashes ahead to evoke the Stalinist excesses implicit in the local Bolsheviks' victory. Semyon Kotko, marking its North American premiere on this visit, is rich in supporting roles for the company's singng actors.

For three weeks, New York audiences have the privilege of feeling as if they live near the Mariinsky Theatre, sampling lavishly both the familiar and the novel from among the artists and works Maestro Gergiev has brought to the Metropolitan Opera House and the 2003 Lincoln Center Festival for this important anniversary season.

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