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Maryinsky Theatre Disappoints at the Châtelet


By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 27 February 2003Valery Gergiev's laudable attempts to modernize the Maryinsky's look brought two questionable productions to Paris, one of which was receiving its company premiere at the Théâtre du Châtelet on this visit, Rubinstein's The Demon. Director Lev Dodin, a well-respected theatrical personality who made a mess of the Queen of Spades at the Bastille a few years ago, seems to have erred in the direction of taking no chances whatsoever. The singers did not particularly interact, there was no sense of drama - to the extent that one did not really care what happened to the characters - so that it all resembled the sort of thing one is said to have seen 50 or 100 years ago, except that the sets by David Borovsky were nowhere nearly as attractive as what we might have seen in earlier days. Clothing the Demon in an everyday outfit does not really actualize the drama, while giving Tamara a dress, hairdo and makeup that make her look matronly does not help our understanding of the work. Unfortunately, Rubinstein was not a composer on the same level as his contemporaries, so that there are few memorable moments in a work that seems to go on for a very long time, a feeling amplified by running the prologue and first two acts together so that intermission came only after 100 minutes or so.

The sonorous bass-baritone of Evgeny Nikitin in the title role lacked personality, while Marina Mescheriakova's virtually inaudible lower register was totally out of balance with her almost-shrieked high notes. Natalia Evstafieva's Angel and Ilya Levinsky's Prince Sinodal were somewhat more effective, even though the former had little to do but stand around, while the latter lacked conviction as an actor. We also wonder what in fact were the contributions of Yury Vasilkov and Youri Khamoutianski, credited respectively with choreography and movements, as there was none of the former and precious little of the latter in evidence. Valéry Gergiev tried his hardest to bring the evening to life, and almost succeeded. For those of us who had never previously encountered the work, and probably never will again, the experience was certainly interesting, if far from shattering.

We had higher hopes for the following evening's Eugene Onegin, but once again directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser were sabotaged by their designer-in-perpetuity, Christian Fenouillat. The moving walls with swashes of color were replaced by walls composed of blocks of granite, only the first scenes functioning well, with a kitschy forest in the background. For some reason the dancing sequences were fudged or omitted, something unthinkable for a company with the Maryinsky heritage. The Polonaise that opens Act III became background music for an outdoor scene with people arriving at a ball, the Gremins among the guests. The interview between Onegin and Gremin also took place outdoors as did the final scene, both framed by the massive walls. All of this might have worked had the singers possessed more imposing voices and especially more imposing personalities. While seeing a young cast, close in age to the characters they are portraying, has its charms, neither Irina Mataeva (Tatiana) nor Vladimir Moroz (Onegin) succeeded in arousing our compassion for their plight, the former's Letter Scene leaving the audience tepid and their final duet ineffective. The secondary couple of Ekaterina Semenchouk (Olga) and Daniil Shtoda (Lensky) fared slightly better, but the latter's small voice did not really have any impact.

Gergiev did his single-handed best to compensate for the inadequacies of his cast, but the battle was rough. In such circumstances making the audience stay in their seats until the end of Act II (almost two hours) before the single intermission and then returning for the 35 minutes of Act III is an act of cruelty. May we remind those concerned that although we understand their desire to give the drama a sweep of continuity, audiences are sufficiently accustomed to using their brains that they can make the jump in time with two minutes in their places.

Talking a few years ago to the director of another theater, I asked if there was a possibility of him bringing back the Maryinsky for repertory seasons as had already been done several times. He told me that it would be possible only if the company changed its production policy, updating its approach. I fear that they have now landed in the worst of all worlds, replacing productions that might have been old-fashioned in the eyes of some with new productions that look modern but barely function.dramatically. Nor should we forget that there are many in the audience who prefer the old in which the singers are often more comfortable and better able to give their best. A major problem is that singers today are discouraged from manifesting individuality, something that gave opera its force 40 or 50 years ago. There are precious few singers today capable of holding an audience in the palms of their hands even if they can sometimes execute more in the way of technical niceties (smoother coloratura, trills, etc.). Singers and conductors are now more passive, which is perhaps another reason that directors have become so prominent.

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor of Culturekiosque.com..

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