Magazine article The Spectator

Russian Revelation

Magazine article The Spectator

Russian Revelation

Article excerpt

Opera

Russian revelation

The Mariinsky Theatre

The Barbican

The Mariinsky Theatre of St Petersburg paid a concentrated visit to the Barbican last week, performing four theatre pieces on three evenings. I failed to see the first, a concert performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's meretricious opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, so my palate was clear for the second evening, a double bill of Stravinsky, two of his supreme masterpieces, both dense, compact, overpowering in the energy and intensity they conveyed.

The first was the ballet (not danced) Les Noces, a precursor of minimalism, but laden with content and for all its repetitiveness and wilful ignoring of the changing moods of the text, indeed very largely of the characters who sing it, a work that conveys without expressing the anticipation, joyfulness, apprehension and pain of a wedding, both for the two participants and for their attendants. This is perhaps the one work in which Stravinsky achieved his aim of being interpreter-proof: the only aim for the performers is precision, accuracy, and this was achieved to stunning effect at the Barbican. I felt at the end of the 20-plus minutes as if I'd had an enormous injection of a life-enhancing drug.

It's characteristic of Stravinsky's genius that however sombre, even tragic, the subject of the work he creates, and however powerful its impact may be, there is a more primitive level at which delight in the act of creation itself is the first impression made on the listener/spectator. Oedipus Rex is a prime case of that. It never really needs staging, and all we got were a few gestures from the slightly too emotional Oleg Balashov in the title role, and a too histrionic speaking of the Narrator from Tim Piggot-Smith. Stravinsky was surely right in regretting the existence of the narration, but realising that it's irritatingly integral to the work. It needs to be recited in a purely informative way, with no inflections of concern - unless you go way over the top like its author Cocteau. Apart from that, and a few ragged choral entries, the performance was close to the ideal.

There is room for variations of interpretation here, from a highly chiselled classicism to a more expansive lyricism and, when needed, ferocity. Valery Gergiev naturally opted for the latter, and at some points the dangerous closeness of the idiom to that of film music of the great days of the epic was accentuated. But then though the work is austere, it is also florid, and David Nice's admirable programme notes were right to remind us of Stravinsky's love of Verdi. …

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