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A new Gergiev project: Les Troyens

Mariinsky Concert Hall
06/22/2009 -  & 06/25/2009 (Les Troyens à Carthage)
Hector Berlioz: Les Troyens
Part I: Yekaterina Popova (Cassandre), Sergei Semishkur (Enée), Alexei Markov (Chorèbe), Nikolai Kaminsky (Panthée), Oxana Shilova (Ascagne), Timur Abdikeyev (Priam, Ghost of Hector), Elena Vitman (Hécube), Mikhail Makarov (Helenus), Oleg Mitsura (A Greek Captain/Trojan Soldier)
Part II: Yekaterina Semenchuk (Didon), Richard Crawley (Enée), Zlata Bulycheva (Anna), Oxana Shilova (Ascagne), Yuri Vorobyov (Narbal/Mercure), Andrei Popov (Iopas), Mikhail Makarov (Hylas), Nikolai Kamensky (Panthée), Andrei Vasin (1st Trojan Commander/Ghost of Chorèbe), Grigory Shkarupa (2nd Trojan Commander/Ghost of Priam), Oxana Zagrebelnaya (Ghost of Cassandre), Oleg Mitsura (Ghost of Hector)
Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre, Andrei Petrenko (Principal Chorus Master), Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, Valery Gergiev (Conductor)

Y. Semenchuk (© N. Razina)

What will surely rank as a highlight of the 2009 Stars of the White Nights Festival is the initial unveiling - in concert form - of yet another major project by the world-striding Valery Gergiev. This time it is Berlioz’s magnum opus, Les Troyens, a work never before performed by the Mariinsky. It will be staged by the Catalan group La Fura dels Baus and is scheduled to open at the Mariinsky this coming December 25. Before that, however, Gergiev and his Mariinsky forces will perform it at Valencia’s Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia (opening Oct 31). Performances are also planned for Baden Baden and Warsaw’s Opera Narodowa.

The opera was presented in its two separate halves in two concerts at the Mariinsky Concert Hall, a 1000-seat venue opened in 2006. It is located a short distance from the Mariinsky Theatre and occupies the site of the opera house’s scene storage building which suffered a fire in 2002. The concert hall uses three of the older building’s outer walls; it was designed by Catalan architect Xavier Fabré; the acoustician was Yasuhisa Toyota, the man responsible for many other successful halls in recent years, such as the Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles. The Mariinsky Hall is similar in layout, but much smaller. The hall has a flexible design in that the stage (really an orchestral platform) can be altered in various ways, e.g., it can have an orchestra pit. This way it can be used for stagings of opera (and ballet), taking into account that the audience is on all four sides and there is no proscenium or backstage.

One might expect that the large forces required for Les Troyens (an orchestra of about 75 players, a chorus of about 85) would sound oppressively loud in such a relatively small hall, but such is not the case. The sound has lots of space around it and orchestral inner voices and colours are clearly discerned. The hall is kind to the solo voice and instrumentalists can be sure that their smallest sound is clearly heard.

Overall, this was an outstanding performance of Les Troyens. Dominating La Prise de Troie was the Cassandre of Yekaterina Popova who can only be said to have conquered this daunting role. She not only possesses an expressive, rich voice, but is also one of those lucky people who looks dramatic even just standing still. Alexei Markov, as her fiancé, Chorèbe, has an equally warm and attractive voice. The third major role, that of Enée, was taken by a young tenor and recent graduate of the Mariinsky’s Academy of Young Singers, Sergei Semishkur. Enée’s opening lines are both loud and high and he accomplished these with an attractive ringing tone. My impression is that he is trying the role on for size as a second tenor, Richard Crawley, sang the longer role in Les Troyens à Carthage.

Just as Part I was dominated by its Cassandre, Part II saw a triumph by another charismatic mezzo, Yekaterina Semenchuk, in the role of Didon. She raises goose-bumps, especially in the gripping death scene. Richard Crawley (the only non-Russian in the cast) does not possess the most clarion of tones but he firmly nailed all the scary high notes without yelling or shrieking, a major feat. (He is slated to perform the role in Valencia.)

Zlata Bulycheva, yet another fine mezzo in the role of Anna, has a nicely contrasting voice to that of her sister, Didon. Andrei Popov brought a rather edgy tone to Iopas’s wonderful O blonde Cerès. The plaintive ballad sung by the sailor Hylas was nicely voiced by Mikhail Makarov, effectively placed in a lofty position above the platform. Oxana Shilova brings a bright forthright voice to the role of Ascagne.

The performance also included some music I had never heard before, namely the prelude Berlioz composed for Les Troyens à Carthage when his grand opera was deemed too long to perform in one go. It summons memories of the sad ending of Troy - and foretells the sad ending to come for Didon and Carthage.

Comprimario roles, some of them sung by chorus members, were also strongly performed.

My only reservation is the deliberate pacing of the ballet music. Perhaps this requires the input of a choreographer before it is finalized.

These were fully-realized, well-prepared performances, with no hint of being merely rehearsals for the production to come. Singers used scores, but their heads were not buried in them; their focus was on Maestro Gergiev and his toothpick-sized baton. His conducting brought out every nuance in the score as well as the work’s overall dramatic arc. The superb orchestra and chorus have obviously been thoroughly prepared. We can expect a recording of this on the Mariinsky’s own label; its musicianship is sure to be rock-solid.

Notable also was the French enunciation of the performers; French language coach Xenia Klimenko deserves credit here.

Here is yet another example of the richness of the White Nights Festival: the same evening as the performance of Part I, at the Mariinsky Theatre a ballet program included a piece choreographed to Shostakovitch’s huge 7th Symphony (“The Leningrad”). June 22 marks the date of the German invasion of Russia in 1941; this sombre anniversary is observed even among the city’s White Nights festivities. The Mariinsky orchestra can be in two places at once as it has 212 members, plus an “off-stage band” of 27 and a Young Philharmonic of 55 players. (Incidentally, they will need all these players - and perhaps more - when they complete a third venue, a new opera house with vast backstage areas, now under construction just across the Kryukova Canal from the Mariinsky. The target date for this is 2011.)

Michael Johnson



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