24 Feb 2012
Amsterdam’s Invisible, Risible Kitezh
A breath-taking stage picture at curtain rise of Netherlands Opera's The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia indeed made us involuntarily gasp as one.
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Director Annabel Arden believes that Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia is ‘all about playfulness, theatricality, light and movement’. It’s certainly ‘about’ those things and they are, as Arden suggests, ‘based in the music’.
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Lyric Opera of Chicago staged Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette as the last opera in its current subscription season.
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A breath-taking stage picture at curtain rise of Netherlands Opera's The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia indeed made us involuntarily gasp as one.
Then we burst into delighted applause in appreciation for the evocative beauty of the realistic woodland, the artistically placed tall dry foliage, the massively elaborate tree trunks, the scattering of withered late fall flowers, the raked stage with cozy cabin up the ‘hill’, the eerie mists rising from the ground’s dampness. Three wooden ladders are placed up that hill evoking Golgotha. Mysterious. Provocative. Apt. Seldom has a piece begun so favorably and offered such promise of a legendary evening. And all this before the downbeat.
Svetlana Ignatovich [Photo: Theater Dortmund]
When conductor Marc Albrecht immediately weighed in, it was clear from the outset that the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra would be on fine form the entire night, the strings rippling then soaring, the winds burbling then chirping, the horns playing rhapsodically then introspectively, the trumpets by turns jaunty and mellow, the large battery of percussive effects making significant contributions throughout the evening.
Rimsky-Korsakov is a master of orchestral effects after all, and along with the many exposed solos and textured ensembles come substantial challenges, not only having to master spare scoring of great delicacy, but to also communicate edgy, angular dramatic writing, and to evolve at will into downright euphoria. But this inspired band missed nary a trick. I shall long remember their spunky rendition of the tumultuous battle interlude with the winds fairly crackling with brilliance; as well as the long stretches of the last act when lush strings oozed like melted butter with the harp adding characterful accents, and the solo violin taking us on buoyant flights of trilling fancy. Albrecht knows this group of musicians, knows the house, and clearly looooooves him some R-K. The Maestro managed to unleash a surging and ebbing journey of well-defined musical moments that melded perfectly into one mighty, arching whole. Bravo, Mr. Albrecht.
We were perhaps even more fortunate with our heroine Fevronia, who carries the show. Russian Svetlana Ignatovich was simply ravishing in the title role (the maiden, not the city!). Ms. Ignatovich was recently honored by ‘Opernwelt’ as Best Young Singer and it is easy to hear why. For she is possessed of an ample, silvery-yet-warm, effortlessly produced soprano that encompasses every facet of the demanding vocal writing (and the requirements are many). At curtain rise we find her basking in the bucolic surroundings, and her voice takes on a comfortably resigned, conversational quality that ‘speaks’ well in the lower parlando passages. As her love interest blooms, her maidenly timbre acquires more luster, more pulsing heat, and she builds the excitement with exceptionally well-calibrated forays above the staff. Everything is marvelously connected, placement is consistent, the sense of the phrasing, the dramatic intent, the physicality (did I mention she is very pretty indeed?) are all splendid.
Gennady Bezzubenkov as Goeslispeler, John Daszak as Grisjka Koeterma, Morschi Franz and Peter Arink as the noblemen and Koor van De Nederlandse Opera
As Ferovnia’s happiness gets detoured and her fate more despairing, Svetlana summons reserves of (just a bit of) steel to zing phrases out over the demonstrative orchestra in a dazzling display of dynamic and interpretive range. In the final act, the composer has one more major hurdle for his heroine, a lengthy final solo stretch (Immolation crossed with Capriccio) that encapsulates everything in her arsenal into one final Mother of All Scena’s (that’s probably ‘Sceni’ but who cares?). If any convincing were needed that Svetlana Ignatovich is the real deal, the new diva in town, heiress apparent to many a lirico-spinto part, she won us over in that final marathon display of exemplary vocalism. Her curtain call deservedly won her a giddy, uproarious, celebratory affirmation.
Now before I go on, if you do not know the bare bones plot for this piece (as I did not), I bring you
Kitezh for Dummies: The maiden Ferovnia lives in a dense forest, self-exiled for some sorta New Age reasons. During a hunt, Price Vsevolod stumbles into the scene. He is son to the ruler of Kitezh (think: Oz). They fall in love and he proposes to her. Subsequently, in a suburb of Kitezh a carnival-like party is going on to celebrate the arrival of the bride (think: Mardi Gras). However, two clinically disgruntled citizens (think: Tea Party) persuade the local curmudgeon Grishka to diss the bride who has now arrived accompanied by the Prince’s best man, Fyodor. All is terminated by an attack of blood-hungry Tatars (think: Big Mac Attack but noisier), and the invaders take Grishka and Ferovnia as hostages. The latter prays that Great Kitezh be made invisible so the invaders cannot conquer it. Guess what? It vanishes! (Hope your belief was duly suspended?) Meanwhile in Oz, er, Kitezh, ruler Yuri prays for his people as he appoints his son commander-in-chief, sacrificing Vsevelod to battle the Tatars. At this the V-Man proves singularly unskilled, ending up quite dead quite soon. The hoodwinked Tatars, who can’t see the city in front of their faces, disperse in frustration. Grushnik goes crazy and Ferovnia is visited by two helpful birds (think: Abigail van Buren and Ann Landers) who advise her that a) she will die, and b) become eternally happy. And, there you have it.
That may not help explain what I write about next, but, well, can it hurt?
Svetlana Ignatovich as Fevronja, Jennifer Check as Sirin and Margarita Nekrasova as Alkonost
Having already done himself the big favor of designing an eye-popping set, in his other role as director, Dmitri Tcherniakov devised a first act that was a marvel of informative invention. He seemed to view the ambiguous piece as a ritual, with the natural goodness of the selfless maiden making her a spiritual leader of sorts. In the clearing at stage center there was a table variously used as a work space, dinner table, and even suggesting an altar. Here, Ferovnia tends to the everyday needs of a “family” (extras) that inhabits the cabin, nurturing and feeding them, dressing wounds, and performing menial chores. The action was chockful of meaningful stage business and incorporated fluid blocking that thoughtfully filled out the sketchy story. When the Prince observed her detailed displays of kindness and devotion, it was this powerful imagery that won his heart in what would have otherwise been an implausibly short turn- around time. Tenor Maxim Aksenov not only cut a fine figure as Prince Vsevelod, but sang with real distinction. His rich, slightly darkened instrument fell easily on the ear, and his work in the upper regions, although slightly covered, was secure, pliant, and persuasive. Moreover, Mr. Aksenov and Ms. Ignatovich wove their way through their duets with insightful musicality and good vocal contrast.
Bass-Baritone Alexay Markov was another jewel of a performance. His is a polished, gleaming, virile, responsive bass-baritone of major importance. From his first notes at the end of One we sat up and took notice. But it was his extended scene at the opening of Act Three, after he is blinded in battle, that was to prove one of the musical highpoints of the evening. As Mr. Markov lurched and stumbled through and among the crowd, he sang with such an unearthly despair, unbridled passion, and burnished tone that he seemed to also spur the chorus and orchestra on to their finest, fieriest work of the night. His was arguably the opera’s most totally engaged performance, musically, theatrically, he just ‘lived it.’ By the end of the remarkable first act then, we had heard three superlative soloists and an orchestra firing on all cylinders; seen one of the loveliest realistic sets in recent memory; experienced highly detailed character interaction; and basked in a mysterious aura that was only furthered near act’s end by having the three ‘family members’ slowly mount the ladders, stretch their arms out, and sway gently, suggesting what? The Crucifixion? Birds? Wheat? There was also the moody, expert lighting design by Gleb Filshtinsky. Masterfully calculated washes, isolated areas, back-lighting, and specials, like the cabin being lit from within. And when that single overhead cabin bulb was all that was left, in the waning bars it grew brighter and brighter and brighter until blackout.
I was now courting the idea this could turn out to be one of the best things I had seen in years. I mean, with this abundant talent on display, what could go wrong? The answer was, unfortunately, Act Two. And then Act Three.
The ‘festival’ open space (or fair ground, or boulevard) that was expected for the pre-nuptial revelry of the citizenry turned out to be a cafe in the inner court of an East Bloc monolithic office skyscraper quad. The chorus was seated, nay trapped at their tables through much of the act. Hubert Francis rose from their midst and declaimed his lines as the Bear Handler with great assurance and pleasing tone but he had no bear to handle, nor any real characterization at all. Who was this guy? Similarly, Gennady Bezzubenkov who poured out some fine, apocryphal bass phrases as the Gusli Player, held a contemporary acoustic guitar and didn’t even attempt to fake playing it. He looked a wee bit like Peter in search of Paul and Mary. The costumes (Elena Zaytseva and Dmitrti Tcherniakov) were indeed all over the place: jeans, tees, cheap men’s suits, chinos, day wear, fading hippies, school attire, sun dresses. Did WalMart have a clearance sale?
Bad guys Bedyay and Burunday are quite indistinguishable (shades of Fafner and Fasolt!) although Nikita Storojev and Vladimir Ognovenko worked hard to differentiate them. Both brought their considerable experience to bear and displayed seasoned bass voices, although both were slow to warm up, finally coming into their own in their clash in Act Three. It was not their fault their villainy was drawn in crayon with sneering and mugging so broad it made Snidely Whiplash seem a model of restraint. As the undermining Grushnik, I had to admire John Daszak’s pluck and absolute immersion in the unpleasant character. However, both artist and director badly needed a filter, for the bloke went beyond merely ‘annoying’ to become a truly hateful figure combining the worst excesses of Alberich, Hannibal Lecter, and Newt Gingrich. Think I’m kidding? He was the only real ‘moving target’ in this crowd-as-living-tableau and he never stopped being obnoxious. Having desecrated a crucifix by oh, scratching his back with it, swinging it around in a plastic bag (that he then pulls over someone’s head) and holding it as a phallus and ‘masturbating;’ Grushnik goes on to flip the finger, crawl under tables and polish shoes, stage a hideous mock seizure, spit on one patron, pour a drink on another, lie flat on his back petulantly in the middle of various tables, and too much more to mention. First of all, someone in this ‘hip’ crowd would have called the Kitezh Kops and had him hauled off. Second, does anyone else see the problem with a) the blurred focus of the scene which is not just about him; b) the complete incompatibility of this nonsense with the score emanating from the pit, and c) making Grushnik so totally repulsive that there is nowhere for him to go dramatically?
I did appreciate Mr. Daszak jumping in with both feet, but I’m afraid his was a Herculean effort for little good effect. His straight forward tenor had a bit of an edge to it, and he used it with great skill if not always great care as a few over-acted phrases lost pitch or a sense of line. My initial impression was that John was perhaps a very fine character tenor but his extensive credits read otherwise. I will reserve full judgment of his gifts for another time when he is not so immersed in creating a vocal creature of such unrelenting malintent. While the director’s use of Grushnik was the most damaging choice in Act Two, it was not helped by the sloppy crowd motion when the Tatarᾀ?s invaded through doors that opened in the upstage colonnade. At least I think the Tatars invaded. They are certainly supposed to. But it was hard to tell what was happening, or even who the marauders were until after some passage of time when several Men-in-Black jumped on the tables after the crowd had been noisily machine-gunned down. A feeble sputtering strobe light up right, a super running manically through the littered corpses spraying a fire extinguisher in the air, and an afterthought of some seriously flaming debris falling upstage were too little too late in making the massacre visually viable. The capture of Grushnik and Ferovnia got lost in the mish-mash. As the curtain fell, the notably subdued applause seemed to mean: “What the hell happened?”
Maxim Aksenov as Prins Vsevolod Joerjevitsj and Svetlana Ignatovich as Fevronja
Act Three’s City of Great Kitezh is set in a makeshift field hospital, set up in a faded dance hall-cum-auditorium such as can be found in the back of selected Wisconsin taverns. Of course. That is what Kitezh would be like. Side bar: In the press kit, Mr. Tcherniakov’s “portrait” says that he “eschews all superficiality (he) likes to travel to the place where the opera is situated in order to soak up the local color.” I guess Dmitri has been to a drunken Wisconsin Wedding Dance? Or am I being “superficial”? Back to Act Three’s peeling wallpaper
After the afore-mentioned thrilling opening with baritone and ensemble, Vladimir Vaneev put his focused bass in the service of some heartfelt, plaintive singing as the ruler Prince Yuri Vsevolodovich. The moment he appointed his son to lead the war was heart-breaking and memorable. As the Page, Mayram Sokolova was rather dressed as a mother who welcomed her young son back from the fray. Her clear mezzo was pleasant, but somewhat impersonally utilized and her portrayal was marred by wild gesticulations. Costumes here were sort of, well, Amish(?) at first but then as the men prepare for war they take off their shirts (always a risky visual with an opera chorus) and the women dress them in white Cossack shirts, then later themselves don white babushkas. The men having left, the ladies tore velcro’d curtains off the three stage right windows and observed the battle quite placidly in silhouette as they drank wine.
The Tatars burst into the room intent on finding Kitezh which was now “invisible,” although the only suggestion of this was that the women’s chorus went upstage and silently sat on the “stage” for the rest of the act. Among the more bizarre costume choices (seemingly inspired by L.L. Bean), were the inclusion of two Santa Clauses. Yes, Virginia. The rampage is accompanied by a non-stop flickering neon light, up stage right again. (A hidden meaning? You tell me.) The “chaos” was almost comical in its excesses. A pent-up, juiced-up chorister leapt around so hysterically he seemed straight out of Cool in West Side Story. (“Easy, Action ”) Slaps and punches were so wide of their marks as to suggest an ersatz purse fight (and this from a director who eschews all superficiality). To give the devil his due, as motivation for Burunday to kill Badyay, Tcherniakov has the latter force Ferovnia to perform (carefully masked) oral sex on him, filling the avenger with murderous disgust. Refreshing clarity and honesty in the muddle.
And then I felt like I had been to Lourdes for a Miracle occurred and it was Act Four.
We were once more in a raked, black playing space with five massive towering trees reaching into the flies. The lighting effects came full circle and there were once again tightly focused, beautifully wrought specials. After malevolent-to-the-end Grushnik drags, hits and kicks Ferovnia well in excess of your average Apache Dance, he mercifully leaves her (and us) alone, and that is when magic, true Magic begins to happen. First and foremost from here to the end Svetlana never falters, offering flawless, emotionally tinged vocalizing that could make angels weep. Her gleaming instrument somehow becomes even richer, unstinting in her generous, ravishing phrasing. But the staging too grew in strength, not only recalling the splendors of the first act, but developing them even further.
As Ferovnia makes life’s ultimate transition, first the cabin is once again revealed, then a “rescue party” comes in pulling a long sled with a pillow on it. The two helpful birds (well-served by Jennifer Check’s direct, laser-like soprano and Margarita Nekrasova’s ripe, baritonal contralto) assist the maiden in going to sleep on the sled, now serving as a bier that they pull “home” to the cabin. When they arrive the black backdrop irises open revealing a golden-orange cyc and, as in the conclusion of the film Places in the Heart, the loved ones from the past including the Prince, Ruler, and Page join her in Paradise. Those final ensembles with those principles and those birds were irresistibly sung. Truth to tell, Nicolai wrote about twenty minutes more music than was needed. Just when you feel “that was it, how beautiful” another violin phrase transitions into a retread of music we have heard before. That said, Mr. Tcherniakov who was nothing but excessive for half of the evening, found no new invention to fill out that last repetitious segment, content to allow his principles remain around their improvised picnic dinner and simply sing marvelously. There was one final good effect as the blacks stole back in sealing the playing space while Ferovnia drifted down right and assumed a sort of fetal position in a tightly focused spot, recalling a similar moment at the opera’s start.
At evening’s close then, I was profoundly grateful to the always top flight Netherlands Opera for allowing us the opportunity to experience this seldom heard piece. I was in awe of so much of the musical execution especially Svetlana Ignatovich who was a revelation. And I came to believe that while director Dmitri Tcherniakov may more rather enjoy being a Euro Bad Boy, it is when he is being a Good Boy that his genuine talent emerges. When he is Good, he is very fine indeed. I would urge him to maintain the splendor of the first and last acts, and be far more truthful and discerning with the middle. Dmitri is already onto something ‘good’ here. With some serious refinement, it could be ‘great.’