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Dazzling Production for Prokofiev Rarity

San Francisco
War Memorial Opera House
11/23/1998 -  and 25, 27*, 28 November, 3, 6, 10 December 1998
Sergei Prokofiev: Betrothal in a Monastery
Nikolai Gassiev (23, 25, 27 November), Konstantin Pluzhnikov (28 November, 3, 6, 10 December) (Don Jerome), Gennady Bezubenkov (23, 25, 27 November), Gergei Alexashkin (28 November, 3, 6, 10 December) (Mendoza), Alfredo Daza (Pedro, Second Masker, Brother Chartreuse), Norman Shankle (Pablo, Brother Elustaf), Bojan Knezevic (Miguel, Third Masker, Brother Benedict), Mel Ulrich (Don Ferdinand), Richard Walker (Lopez), Evgeny Akimov (First Masker), Anna Netrebko (Louisa), Larissa Diadkova (The Duenna), Peggy Kriha Dye (Lauretta), Tatiana Pavlovskaya (23, 25, 27 November), Lia Shevrsova (28 November, 3, 6, 10 December) (Clara díAlmanza), Molly Claymon (Rosina), Yuri Shklyar (Don Carlos), Fyodor Kuznetsov (Father Augustine)
Musicians: Anthony Striplen (clarinet), John Pearson (trumpet), Allen Biggs (drums)
Solo dancers: Lira Khuslamova and Dmitry Korneev (Spanish pas de deux), Nora Heiber and Brian Chung (Oriental pas de deux), Debra Rose (Columbine), Ioannis Adoniou (Pierrot)
Orchestra and Chorus and Corp de ballet of the San Francisco Opera, Valery Gergiev (23, 25, 27, 28 November) Gianandrea Noseda (3, 6, 10 December), Conductors
Vladislav Pazi (Stage Director), Original choreography recreated by Natalia Spitsyna

One of the most notable achievements of Lotfi Mansouriís tenure as General Director of the San Francisco Opera has been the series of collaborations with the Kirov Opera. In addition to introducing several rarely performed operas, including Prokofievís War and Peace and The Fiery Angel, Glinkaís Ruslan and Lyudmila, and Borodinís Prince Igor, the series has introduced a number of notable artists to San Francisco audiences. And first among these artists is conductor Valery Gergiev. His astounding, incisive, insightful and dramatically astute musicianship has had a significant impact on the company and left many strong and favorable impressions.

In the last of the series of collaborations, at least for the foreseeable future, Prokofievís Betrothal in a Monastery received a first-class production with a dazzling array of costumes and remarkable set both designed by Alla Kozhenkova. The production boasts several top-flight performances as well. All this for one of Prokofievís decidedly lesser works.

Based on Richard Brinsley Sheridanís The Duenna, a restoration comedy with stock buffo types, young lovers, a crafty duenna, the standard young-love-thwarted type plot would have been vintage Rossini. In Prokofievís hands, the comic results are less successful and it is the serious romance between young lovers that receives the most memorable and significant musical treatment. But under Gergievís capable nurturing, the problems are minimized and the potential maximized with a result to delight both the eye and ear. Gergievís conducting never sounds artificially forced or driven, but he still manages to propel the score into a sum greater than its parts.

The principal set piece for the production is an enormous open fan. At times, the fan, made of a translucent material, creates a semi-circular backdrop which can be lit from behind (the sunset effect created was magical). The base of the fan also pivots to lower the fan and create a large, slightly raked playing area for several of the scenes. The additional set pieces were rich in detail and contributed to the handsome, innovative look of the show. Together with an array of costumes in bright, bold colors and patterns and Thomas J. Munnís evocative lighting, the visual effect was a constant source of delight.

At the same time, it never upstaged the dancers and singers, who all delivered sharply etched performances, notable for vocal quality and theatrical panache. Betrothal in a Monastery demands singers who can act as well as they sing and San Franciscoís production met both demands. As the scheming fish merchant Mendoza, Gennady Bezubenkov was deliciously smarmy. Full of his own self-importance and confident, he paraded about in ostentatious costumes to match his personality. And as his fellow schemer, Don Jerome, Nikolai Gassiev was delightfully droll. Mel Ulrich and Anna Netrebko both looked and sounded well suited to their roles as the young lovers, Don Ferdinand and Louisa. Ulrichís voice was occasionally lost when singing from upstage or over heavy orchestration, but he never pushed and maintained a well-focused, lyrical tone throughout. Netrebkoís pure, silvery soprano continues to delight, elegant and alluring in lyrical passages, accurate and at ease with Prokofievís bouncing comical vocal writing with its wide intervals and quick tempi. Larissa Diadkova made the role of the Duenna a plum one. With a ripe, full tone and a broadly drawn characterization, she commanded the stage with her comic presence and sense of humor.

Stage director Vladislav Pazi created a lively production that interspersed ballet, particularly in the first act, to great advantage. The original choreography was recreated by Natalia Spitsyna for the production using commedia del arte characters and carnival maskers. The visual riches climaxed in a final scene of color and energy and movement that furthered and complimented the opera without ever detracting from it.

Whatever the merits of the music in Betrothal in a Monastery, this production by the Kirov, makes a strong case for the work and a fitting finale to a series of splendid productions San Francisco has been most fortunate to witness and in which the company and Lotfi Mansouri can take great pride.

Kelly Snyder



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