Tuesday 4 November 2014

Gergiev Mariinsky Boris Godunov Barbican

Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov (original version) with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Opera, starting their residency at the Barbican, London. Gergiev loves the Mariinsky, which has scaled great heights under his direction. Boris Godunov is key Mariinsky repertoire, and brings out the absolute best in Gergiev. Total, passionate  committment from all involved, a reminder that artistic values are paramount. Whatever else one might think of Putin, the Mariinsky is a gem worthy of a Tsar.

From the first cries of the bassoon, it was clear that this performance was going to be a powerful experience. The Mariinsky Orchestra can create the rich, burnished sounds we associate with Russian opera: intoxicating dark strings,  resonantly deep brass and winds that sing as if they embodied the ghosts of past masters like Chaliapin. I felt as though we weren't just hearing the players in the here and now, but the spirit of centuries of tradition, remade and created with modern clarity. This is a superlative orchestra, playing with precise economy, aware of the violence behind the surface beauty in the score. The off-stage bells sounded hollow, and cacophonic, a sensitive and thoughtful touch. Gerrgiev's driving tempi created dramatic thrust, like Fate itself. Powerful tutti, suggesting vast hordes, controlled in strict discipline.Yet, most telling were the moments of transient beauty. Gergiev's fingers fluttered with delicacy, moderating volume, allowing flashes of a more luminous, elusive brightness - allusions to peasant music, the rhythms of simple lives, in the fields and in monasteries, the very "soul"of Russia. .

Boris Godunov fascinates because he's a divided character with contradictions and spiritual angst: a thoroughly contemporary personality. His conflicts are relevant to all power-brokers today. Peasants and boyars put so much faith in strong leaders that they get what they want. Some things don't change. Maybe the world isn't ready for leaders who do a different kind of strong. It's to Godunov's credit that he cares about the soul of Russia, and about the Orthodox values that shaped it. Many leaders - all over the world - don't have consciences like that.

Exceptional singing and playing,  a balm after the shamefully inept Tannhäuser at the Vienna State Opera on Sunday - no wonder Welser-Möst quit!  Silly costumes would have been a distraction in  a performance as good as this. For the Mariinsky, Gergiev gets the very best. Even before they started singing, the male  singers lined up in front of the orchestra conveyed a remarkable image. Mikhail Kazakov sang Boris. He created the part with such vigour and dignity, suggesting a Tsar who genuinely would be a father to his people but has to play the power games of state to survive.  Hence the warmth in Kazakov's voice, and the ferocity with which he responds to Gudonov's dilemma. Kazakov's last big aria will haunt me for a long time., for he sang with exceptional vivid colour and feeling. But I will also remember the way he interacted with the Holy Fool, brilliantly created by Andrey Popov. Popov wails, his voice twitching as if the character had a physical impediment. He whines, he's bullied by children and he's powerless, but he knows that the Virgin Mary won't like it if he sins. Kazakov is such a good actor that he commands the stage even when he's not singing.  As Kazakov listens, you hear, inaudibly, that the tsar is shaken.

Mikhail Petrenko, singing Pimen, didn't need to look old and monastic, for his voice carried authority. The effortless elegance in his voice suggested that his God armed him with eternal purity, against which intrigue has no domain., Prince Suisky is a fixer, but Pimen triumphs because he can penetrate past the corridors of power. Evgeny Akimov sang Shuisky, negotiating the tricky twists in the vocal part with aplomb. Sergei Semishkur sang The Pretender with such vocal presence that he stood out clearly from the others in the Inn scne.  His pursuers should have spotted him  right away because he sang so well.  No weak points in this performance at all, even the voices in the crowd, who, suitably, remained in the crowd. The choruses shone as gloriously as the soloists, the female voices particularly lustrous. 

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