Opera review: White Nights Saint Petersburg

In Prince Igor, the orchestral accompaniment under Pavel Smelkov was not as disciplined as when Gergiev was in the pit.

Viktoria Yastrebova (370) (photo credit: Natasha Razina)
Viktoria Yastrebova (370)
(photo credit: Natasha Razina)
From May to July, St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Opera hosts the White Nights Festival. One of the most impressive performances that I attended was Mussorgsky’s opera Khovanshchina, and the most imposing soloist was baritone Nikolai Putilin, who took on the daunting role of the Boyar Shaklovity. With his powerful voice and imposing stage presence, he brought out the dynamism of the role.
This was a performance to cherish.
Another exciting voice in Khovanshchina was that of great Russian tenor Vladimir Galuzin as Prince Vasily Khovansky. Bass Ildar Abdrazakov was most convincing in the challenging role of the priest, Dosifei, who unsuccessfully tried to negotiate peace between the opposing parties and, in the end, underwent immolation with the other Old Believers.
This particular performance marked the jubilees of mezzo-soprano Larisa Diadkova and bass Sergei Aleksashkin. Diadkiva was an impressive and impassioned Marfa.
In Borodin’s opera Prince Igor, pride of place again went to Nikolai Putilin, who took on the title role. His monologue, when bemoaning the fate of Russia, the capture of his army and the subjugation of his country by the Tartars, was one of the great moments in the performance.
Here was this consummate artist notching up another triumph only three days after his unforgettable performance in Khovanshchina.
Tenor Yevgeny Akimov was very credible as Igor’s son in this relatively small role.
But his love scene with the Khan’s daughter was a very tame affair, devoid of passion – unlike the fiery tempestuous liaisons of Verdi’s and Puccini’s lovers. In Italian and French operas based on historical themes, interpersonal relationships are paramount; in Russian operas of this genre, however, these relationships are only secondary to the unfolding drama.
The other stand-out in the performance was Vladimir Vaneyev as the ungracious brother of Igor’s wife, who tried to mount an insurrection to overthrow his brother-in-law.
In La Traviata, Viktoria Yastrebova’s Violetta was a real tour de force. She portrayed the tragic role of the doomed courtesan to perfection. She successfully floated her high notes but also exerted wonderful control in the pianissimo passages.
This is a major voice to be reckoned with.
Equally exciting was baritone Vasily Gerello as Giorgio Germont. Their interaction in Act 2 produced some of the greatest singing of the night.
All the above productions were classical.
There was none of the avant-garde currently prevalent in Europe. One exception was the scintillating new production of Aida at the Mariinsky Concert Hall. Here, director Daniele Finzi Pasca pulled out all the stops to give a modern, innovative and riveting production. Towering above the stage were glass pillars that changed colors. These descended in the final prison scene to mimic the incarceration of Aida and Ramades. This opera also featured Mariinsky principal singers. The most impressive was the Amonastro of baritone Vladislav Sulimsky.
What was missing, however, in both Alfredo in La Traviata and Ramades in Aida was the passionate lyric Italianate tenor sound.
The Mariinsky orchestra was at its best with Valery Gergiev in Khovanshchina. Equally stirring and dramatic was the Aida led by Andrei Petrenko. In Prince Igor, the orchestral accompaniment under Pavel Smelkov was not as disciplined as when Gergiev was in the pit. Nevertheless, in all the operas, including La Traviata, the orchestral performance was of a very high standard.
Perhaps the real star in all the performances was the brilliant Mariinsky choir directed by Andrei Petrenko. Especially notable were its magnificent bass and baritone sections.
The other main operatic venue of St. Petersburg is the Mikhailovsky Theater, which also has an illustrious history and was the site of several notable premieres. I attended a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Stanislav Gaudasinsky’s staging was classical, but the penultimate ball scene made spectacular use of chandeliers and draping curtains. Boris Pinkhasovich in the role of Onegin was the real stand-out.
Tatiana Ryaguzova as Tatiana delivered a dramatic, impassioned letter scene, with lovely woodwind and brass orchestral accompaniment.
However, in the more fortissimos passages, she tended to force her voice. The sonorous bass Andrey Gonyukov as Prince Gremin did a sterling job in extolling Tatiana’s virtues in his one great aria.