Jack Leo

Die Walküre and Aida in St. Petersburg

The Maryinsky Theatre has undertaken Wagner's Ring cycle, which started a year ago with Rheingold. The second installment, appropriately Die Walküre, was premiered in June. Wagner has only recently come to the repertory here, and it is understandable that the usual style of performing Wagnerian opera is still not very familiar here. However, the Maryinsky forces, under the ever inspired baton of Valery Gergiev, gave a very good performance.

The task of producing the opera fell on Gottfried Pilz, who had designed the set for Rheingold. Now the production was a one-man show, with Pilz also designing the sets and lighting, in addition to directing. Pilz doesn't have much experience of producing opera, but he has collaborated with several major producers, most notably Götz Friedrich, for whose Helsinki Ring Pilz designed the sets. It is obvious that Pilz owes much to Friedrich's style, but predictably he lacks the late Friedrich's psychological insight and his sense of continuity. On the whole, his directing could have done with some more thinking through to make his concepts clearer. The set had a permanent motif of a large square table with a hole in the center, which was used as Hunding's dinner table (with the ash tree coming out of the hole) in the first act and a table in Walhalla in the second. It had a white cover in the third. The third act was the best of the three, depicting a snow-covered mountain top. There were about twenty Valkyries flitting about the stage, but this did not seem excessive. The fire was portrayed using a simple red curtain that was being waved by stagehands, a surprisingly evocative effect. Only the unnecessary appearance of Loge to guide the fire seemed a little silly. The first two acts were clumsier. The first act was fairly straightforward, except for dark figures tormenting Sieglinde during the prelude. She was dressed much like a waitress in the 1920s, and Hunding and company looked like gangsters from the same era. In the second act, Wotan was likewise dressed in a suit, and Brünnhilde made her first appearance dressed more like a ringmaster at the circus than Valkyrie, with a top hat, tail coat and carrying a pair of wings. She donned something more appropriate for the Todesverkündigung scene, luckily. The stage was dominated by a projected image on the back, a white circle crossed by a red line - Wotan's spear? - and this was mirrored on the floor of the stage. There was some fine lighting, particularly in the Todesverkündigung scene, and for the most part the directing had been sensible. This all came apart in the last ten minutes of the act, starting with Sieglinde seeing her tormentors from the first act again. The fight was immensly clumsy, and it seemed that Hunding killed himself on Wotan's spear. Fricka appeared and the curtain came down with her struggling with Wotan. What was the reason for that? As I mentioned, the third act was the best, but even here some unnecessary images were projected onto a screen to represent Wotan's imminent arrival. Similar images had been used in the other acts as well.

Musically, the major attraction here was Plácido Domingo as Siegmund. The supertenor, now 60 years old, is still very capable of delivering the goods. His voice may have lost some of its bloom, and it has never had the volume of a true Heldentenor, but it has a suitably baritonal warmth, and Domingo sings with impeccable style and musicianship. His technique is virtually beyond reproach, and because of his excellent projection, his voice can always be heard over the orchestra. His acting may have been somewhat routine, and his German not quite idiomatic, but this was still a performance by one of the last real stars, so I really can't complain about those.

His Sieglinde, the young Mlada Hydoley, sang with a pleasant, lyrical voice, well balanced with that of Domingo. She sounded perhaps a little light for this role, but evidently had enough reserves. Her portrayal wasn't quite as ecstatic as one might wish, but she is a fairly young singer, and this was a highly promising performance. Olga Sergyeva, the Brünnhilde, sang with confidence and style, even if she isn't quite a true dramatic soprano. Unfortunately, her German was barely comprehensible, but she still managed to convey a sense of what the music meant. Vladimir Vaneyev gave a penetrating performance as Wotan, singing with great sensitivity and colouring his tone. His voice turned dry when singing forte but some of his mezza voce singing was mesmerising, and thankfully he did quite a lot of that. His monologue in particular was impressive, and considering how easily this becomes nearly twenty minutes of complete boredom, this was quite an achievement. Svetlana Volkova was a fine Fricka. Gennadi Bezzubenkov didn't make the required impression as Hunding, sounding stained and short winded.

Valery Gergiev conducted the Maryinsky Theatre Orchestra with inspiration and power. Contrary to modern practice, Die Walküre should not be taken at a uniformly slow pace - after all, this is one of Wagner's most ecstatic scores, and thus should be conducted with fairly brisk tempos. Gergiev certainly did, but not without being able to slow down when necessary, and give some more sensitive moments their due. This was first class conducting indeed, and no doubt Gergiev's interpretation can only deepen in sensitivity to the scores demands. Needless to say, the orchestral playing was similarly first class.

Aida was the revival (reconstruction) of and old production, dating all the way from the early 20th century. This was a delightfully old-fashioned production, with plenty of glitter and gold. This could have been a very uninteresting evening, but luckily, with world class singers, this kind of production really comes into its own.

This time, Plácido Domingo was in the pit. He had recently conducted Aida in Los Angeles, and had not received very favourable reviews, so I was pleasantly surprised by his conducting. This was a thoroughly professional performance, and Domingo was able to keep everything well under control. There was a sense of routine about his conducting, though, and the performance didn't really come to life until the third act, but all things considered, I was expecting something much worse. Domingo got perhaps more than his share of the applause, but his natural modesty shone through as at the end he threw his bouquet of flowers to the orchestra, to whom they were really due. Once again, the orchestral playing was more or less above reproach, and showed that this is one of the best opera orchestras in the world.

The Maryinsky boasts some of the world's best Verdi singers at this time. Gegam Grigorian is the worlds leading spinto tenor, and normally the role of Radames poses no difficulties for him. Unfortunately, he had an off night, and his singing was strained particularly in his lower register. However, this did not stop him from giving some ringing top notes. Grigorian is not very big on sensitivity, and his acting is fairly basic, but his genuinely italianate singing makes up for these defects. There don't seem to be any defects whatsoever in the singing of Olga Borodina, who sang Amneris even though she was announced not to have fully recovered from an illness. Her warm, radiant mezzo rang out unstrained, and she her portrayal was dignified and highly impressive. Irina Gordei sang the title part stylishly with a secure, fairly large soprano voice, but her singing wasn't at Borodina's level and her tone has a certain sharpness to it.

I have long been of the opinion that the role of Alberich would be best served by a Verdi baritone (just imagine Tito Gobbi in that role!). I was now more or less proven correct as Viktor Tchernomorchev sang the role of Amonasro. He had sung the part of Alberich in Rheingold a year ago, which I heard in Mikkeli. He had been given an award for his excellent interpretation in that role, and now he brought all the same intensity to Amonasro. He also sang a fine Renato in Mikkeli a couple of weeks later. His voice has a suitably metallic ring, and his singing was powerful but sensitive when needed. The Ramfis of Sergey Aleksashkin was reliably sung but not very intimidating.