Magazine article The Spectator

Stuck in a Time Warp

Magazine article The Spectator

Stuck in a Time Warp

Article excerpt

There seemed to be two strong reasons for welcoming the Kirov's return to Covent Garden for a concentrated Verdi season. First, there was the Royal Opera's ignominious abandonment of its planned mounting of all Verdi's operas, to culminate in this centenary year of his death. Some were performed in concert only, some not at all. Second, there is the Kirov Opera's phenomenally high reputation, which is due in the largest part to its kamikaze artistic director, Valery Gergiev, who is conducting 11 of the 12 London performances. A subsidiary ground of interest is the alleged existence of a specifically Russian tradition of Verdi performance, which might cast new light for us on works with which we may be too familiar in their western European, or international, style. Listening again to Pearl's magnificent nine-- CD set `Singers of Imperial Russia' shows that there was indeed once an extremely fine set of singers performing Verdi, along with many other great composers, in a distinctive manner. That, however, was almost a century ago, and one wonders how well someone singing Italian opera in the way that, to take an obvious example, Chaliapin did would go down now. In any case, that tradition was extinguished many decades ago, and there is little evidence of a recent renaissance of something both idiosyncratic and welcome. The great Sergei Leiferkus, for instance, hasn't been heard here in a lot of Verdi, and when he has it has not been in any distinctive national mode.

Expectations were pitched high for the season at Covent Garden, but even if they hadn't been the opening performance of Un ballo in maschera couldn't have been seen as anything but disastrous, and in all artistic respects. Only the grimmest determination to enjoy themselves can account for the rapturous applause on the part of an audience which had paid stratospheric prices. Ezio Frigerio's set designs are cumbersome, needing huge gaps between scenes and enormously prolonged intervals for changing; and also cluttered, action-- inhibiting and action-obscuring. As for the direction of Andrei Konchalovsky, it is the most powerful negative case I have yet seen for abandoning old ways of producing opera, often seeming to be a parody on the level of Anna Russell, and making a work which is one of Verdi's subtlest, most elegant and passionate, most persuasively tragic, into an inane costume drama.

Whether anything can be done about the acting of Russian opera singers is a question that became more acute as the first week, with its four productions in markedly different styles, wore on. The final moments of Ballo, which should be, easily and usually are, heartbreaking, became a joke as the stabbed Riccardo, played by Ivan Momirov, staggered round the stage, rolled down the stairs and got up again. This unfortunate singer was announced as having symptoms of flu on the first night, so it was hard to know how far his pinched, strangulated, sub-Pavarotti style was a temporary infirmity; but there were indications that much of it was his normal way of sounding ardent. His rival and friend Renato (this was the 'Boston' account of the score, not that it makes much difference) was sung accurately but with stunning lack of involvement by Sergei Murzaev, and his illicit beloved by Olga Sergeeva. She produced gusts of shrill tone, nothing resembling a legato line, and her Act II aria was a shapeless wreck. …

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