Russian Shenanigans

By Tanner, Michael | The Spectator, June 17, 2006 | Go to article overview

Russian Shenanigans


Tanner, Michael, The Spectator


Fedora Opera Holland Park Mazepa WNO, Birmingham Hippodrome

Opera Holland Park is suddenly fashionable, even people who have never been near it writing about how wonderful they hear it is and vowing to go, while as usual those of us who have been saying that since it started in 1996 ask ourselves what makes us so implausible that we aren't taken seriously on such matters, if at all. OHP has made a speciality of so-called verismo operas, though what is 'true' about Giordano's Fedora I wouldn't like to say.

Although it ostensibly deals with Russian 'nihilists', mention of them obtrudes in the text with grotesque irrelevance.

It has become a vehicle for prima donnas in the afternoon of their careers, and I think that fairly describes Yvonne Kenny, who takes the title role with dignity and pathos, if not with as much passion as it calls for. Kenny, distinguished artist that she is, does tend to play roles as if they were all the Marschallin, with brave regret and an understanding which all around her lack. But in the love scenes with Aldo Di Toro, who plays her traduced and betrayed lover Loris, she can no longer summon the large quantities of tone required. He can, and he all-told was the star of the evening, the kind of lyric tenor that one sometimes becomes desperate to hear.

What was a moderately enjoyable evening could have been more than that if the conductor, Brad Cohen, had been more idiomatic and above all had got the orchestra to play passionately, rather than with Gallic refinement. In Giordano abandon is all, and sometimes it seemed as if we were being given a lesson in tastefulness.

I have no complaints at all about the musical side of Welsh National Opera's Mazepa, which I saw in the elegant comfort of Birmingham's Hippodrome Theatre, recommended for anyone who wants a refuge from oppressive heat. Mazepa, which is not one of Tchaikovsky's masterworks, but well repays the occasional airing, was sung in excellent Russian by an international cast, the two female roles being taken by native speakers, the male roles not. The conductor is Alexander Polianichko, a dynamic and effective figure, under whom the orchestra played with demonic intensity. Both the overlong overture and the stormy, battle-depicting prelude to Act III were sensational in articulation and violence - I'd love to hear Polianichko take on Fedora - while making it clear that this is not vintage Tchaikovsky. One contemplates this excited music without becoming involved with it, which is just the opposite of the Tchaikovsky we all love.

The work - a long one - is in six scenes, with no straightforward narrative structure, something that seems not to have interested the composer. …

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