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Janina Baechle as Anna Akhmatova and Atilla Kiss-B as Lev Goumilev  [Photo by  Elisa Haberer courtesy of Opèra National de Paris]
19 Apr 2011

Akhmatova in Paris

The very name Mantovani strikes musical terror in the hearts of high minded Americans and Brits of a certain age. Now the same surname is evidently terrorizing Parisians.

Bruno Mantovani: Akhmatova

Janina Baechle: Anna Akhmatova; Atilla Kiss-B.: Lev Goumilev; Lionel Peintre: Nicolaï Pounin; Varduhi Abrahamyan: Lydia Tchoukovskaya; Valérie Condoluci: Faina Ranevskaya; Christophe Dumaux: the representative of the Writers' Union; Fabrice Dalis: a sculptor: an English Academic; Ugo Rabec: an agent. Pascal Rophé, conductor; Nicolas Joel, stage director; Wolfgang Gussmann, sets and costumes; Hans Toelstede, lighting. Paris Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

Above: Janina Baechle as Anna Akhmatova and Atilla Kiss-B as Lev Goumilev [Photos by Elisa Haberer courtesy of Opèra National de Paris]


At least it seemed so, judging by the empty seats of the sixth and final performance of Bruno Mantovani’s Akhmatova at the Bastille (and the even more empty seats after intermission).

Just when Parisians have breathed a collective sigh of relief that the Gerard Mortier reign of terror has ended. [Gerard Mortier is a notorious impresario now in Madrid.]

This French Mantovani (only the name is Italian, with no relation to Annuncio Paolo Mantovani) is 37 years old. His musical idiom is a continuum of sonic explosions effected in astringently classical mediums. For Akhmatova he used a Beethoven orchestra with a couple of clarinets added plus some extra brass and a remarkably restrained percussion battery. In a concert the previous evening of piano music by Mr. Mantovani only the piano keys were struck, there was no amplification or other extra-classical application. His string quartets are just that.

There was a time when an opera was credited to the author of its play, its composer only identified on a second line. Turning back to this custom of bygone centuries let us credit this work, Akhmatova, to its creator, one Christophe Ghristi, dramaturg of the Toulouse Opera who presented the idea and libretto to Bruno Mantovani. It is a book of complex theme and sad to say little poetry.

Strange to say little poetry because Anna Akhmatova, if you did not know, is one of Russia’s great poets. Like many of the important Soviet era artists she was tortured by her art and tortured by her social responsibility. Ghristi exposes Akhmatova’s tortures not through her poetry, but by recounting a back story — her alienation from her son Lev, alienation that was both artistically and politically motivated. In fact her most beautiful poetry dwells on separation, but Akhmatova knows too that her art is superfluous. Thus by conscience she must condemn her son’s defense of the art of his father, the poet Nikolai Gumilyov who was executed by the Revolution.

So we have some pretty big themes put on the table. Too bad that they are left there. The story is told but rarely felt even though Mantovani’s orchestra is as sentient as Strauss’ orchestra, maybe even moreso. The Mantovani sonic vocabulary is enormous, based on repeated notes, trills, glissandi, and oblique tonal movement in, strange to say, almost Beethovenesque sonority. It is music that is potentially responsive to the biggest and smallest movements of the human spirit.

Note that there are no steps in a progression of tones, the term melody is not relevant. Accords between tones are equally irrelevant, any occasional suspicion of harmony is diffused by quietly apparent foreign tones. Like Rameau who bragged that he could set newspaper copy to music, there is no doubt, evidenced by Akhmatova, that Mantovani could as well — interesting, vital and beautiful music.

Mantovani is a lyric composer who is motivated by word, image and idea, real or imagined, the stuff of poetry. The Ghristi book gave him copy that he colorfully illuminated, but Ghristi gave him no poetry, and surprisingly incorporated a most minimal amount of Akhmatova verse though her quite brilliant poetry was certainly there for the taking!


The Opéra de Paris production directed by Nicolas Joel and designed by Wolfgang Gussmann relied on the usual devices of slick modern storytelling. Its point of departure was the abstract portrait that Modigliani sketched of the 20 year old Akhmatova. This black and white image was omnipresent at the Bastille, and dictated that all color in the production would be within the gray scale (a brief bright red scene in the second act indicated a bit of frivolity). The Modigliani minimalism in fact informed all decor. It is a simplified staging idiom that seemed ignorant of or impervious to the luxuriant compositional techniques of Mantovani.

German mezzo-soprano Janina Baechle was Anna Akhmatova. Mme. Baechle’s usual repertory is Mistress Quickly, Brangene, Fricka, etc. The beautiful, young Akhmatova of the Modigliani sketch bore no relationship to the heavy-set, bitter, aged Akhmatova we saw all evening and who only made sense in the opera’s third and final act. The first and second acts lacked the presence of the thin, intense, charismatic Akhmatova of middle age who was illustrated by photographs in the program booklet. Such impersonation would have brought vibrancy and finally pathos to Mr. Ghristi’s story. As it was Mme. Baechle’s quite powerful performance was unfulfilling.

Romanian tenor Atilla Kiss-B. [sic] was Akhmatova’s son Lev. Mr. Kiss-B.’s usual repertoire seems to be emotionally complicated Strauss and Janacek roles, and that was his weight in this production. He is a striking performer who fully embodied the bitter, strident middle-aged Lev returned from the Gulag camps, but missed creating the naivete of Lev the idealistic university student in the early moments of the opera. His impressive delivery of his ugly adieu to his mother begged for the sense of the boy whose innocence was wasted.

The balance of a mismatched cast negotiated the Mantovani vocal lines with aplomb, no easy feat. Mr. Ghristi’s phrases were generally declaimed on a single note, jumping, seldom if ever stepping to subsequent tones to further the speech. From the initial downbeat conductor Pascal Rophé made Mantovani’s orchestra the center of attention. Perhaps there never was the possibility of the traditional operatic relationship between pit and stage as the Mantovani orchestral continuum naturally absorbs the voice rather than supports it.

Michael Milenski

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