Tchaikovsky: Iolanta (plus Shostakovich's Symphonies)

Anna Netrebko, Piotr Beczala, Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra/Valery Gergiev

Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden; 6 August 2009

Anna Netrebko in IolantaIt is no mean feat for a small provincial town to mount the first four European performances of Tchaikovsky's last opera, Iolanta, with a star cast, Rachmaninov's first opera Aleko, and crown it all with five brilliant evenings of Shostakovich symphonies with the Mariinsky Orchestra under Valery Gergiev.

The logistic demands alone of moving the entire stage production, chorus and orchestra and cast from St. Petersburg , the task of accommodating and catering for such numbers during a luxurously long rehearsal period, would have strained not only the capacity of great metropolitan centres - it would also have been unlikely to gather large enough paying audiences for nine performances in a hall seating 2500.

And yet this is what the Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden, Gergiev's favourite venue outside his Mariinsky home fortress, managed in its short Summer Season. Apart from the artistic significance of such a major event, one could, or even should, muse over the fact that 2600 tickets in the astronomically highly priced category were sold, and more than 16,000 visitors attended the nine performances.

Many of the more objective reviews raised the question of whether without Anna Netrebko's so blatantly commercialised star qualities, the performances of Iolanta would have been sold out so early, even after it became known that Rolando Villazon would have to withdraw from appearing. The unfair aspect of this equation of somewhat sour taste is that Netrebko has qualities as a singer, as a superbly charismatic stage presence, as a highly winning and natural personality and as a musician still willing and able to learn and submit to advice from her peers, that would be hers even without the worldwide adulation - hype to which she is subjected.

Be that as it may, even if lured by her presence, nine almost full houses for demanding performances in a provincial town, hold some promise for the future of popular interest in classical music, so often claimed to be on a dangerously downward trend. And if it takes arena performances, galas, and the commercial exploitation of the stars, and the need for profits for the recording industry to achieve this, so be it.

Anna Netrebko in IolantaWith the best of will and respect for Rachmaninov' s genius, Aleko, his early one act opera, offered before Iolanta, is not likely to make the heart beat faster of any admirer of verismo. He was barely 17, a student and protegee of Arensky, when he composed the work in only 17 days and submitted it as an examination piece demanded by his teacher. Winning the highly significant Gold Medal at such a tender age was the beginning of his meteoric carreer, yet to the end of his life struggling with emotional problems of choosing between freedom and conformity with an ossified society and obsessive selfcriticism, so much colouring all his compositions. The roots of his masterly orchestrating technique and his so easily flowing melodic torrent are already shown in Aleko.

1892 and 93 were annos mirabiles in the history of opera - one more reason why Aleko never made the grade. In those two years there was a virtual explosion of masterpieces, still with us. La Wally by Catalani, Pagliacci by Leoncavallo, Khovanshchina by Moussorgsky, Iolanta and The Nutcracker performed on the same day in the State Opera and in the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Manon Lescaut by Puccini, Falstaff by Verdi, Hansel and Gretel by Humperdinck, and Cavalleria Rusticana appeared just two years earlier.

Iolanta is one of the few operas by Tchaikovsky with a happy ending. An innocent and pliant daughter of a king, born blind , is not allowed to become aware of what blindness means, but she is to to become an erotically charged and gloriously happy woman through physical love giving back her eyesight.

The Iolanta offered Ana Netrebko a role to display her ability to display both by acting and the subtlety of her voice-colouring the entire gamut of credible impersonation of the development of a timid and innocent young girl into a fully grown up radiant and beautiful woman. There are many allusions by analysts to Tchaikovsky's complex emotional life so shortly before his death. The opera was one of his last works and during the Soviet era the heroine's recovery which resulted also in ecstatic and obsessive religious manifestations, glorified by the composer's most lush orchestration and brilliant use of choral singing, was frowned upon. Sporadic performances were allowed only without this happy ending.

In todays Russia, such scenes, glorifying renewed power and influence of the majesty of the Orthodox Clergy, enjoy great popularity and conscious support by social engineering. The staging of Boris Godunov showing the joyful submission of the populace to a murderous tyrant, are given a central importance in sumptious staging. One can take it for granted, that the apparently still delayed re-building of the Bolshoi Theatre will open one day with a Boris never ever seen with such pomp and circumstance in the opening scene.

The choice of works in Gergiev's programmes often have political significance. In Aleko Rachmaninov tried to express his longing for an existence unfettered by the stifling social atmosphere, and he thought finding relief by integrating himself into a gipsy social environment, where he hoped to be free at last. The more intensely he integrates himself, the more the unbridgeable dichotomy between two worlds become blatantly apparent and he murdering his lover and a rival out of jealousy, acting in conformity with what he feels is what is expected from him, tragically becomes an outcast in both worlds.

Anna Netrebko in IolantaAleko happened to be performed in Germany just a few days before the annual Remembrance Day to commemorate the mass executions resulting in the virtually total extinction of 500,000 victims from the Gipsy and Sinti communities.

In this context, Gergiev's choice of the most political works of Shostakovich is also significant. Although no composition by him lacks a rich underground flora of his passionate hostility to an inhuman and tyrannic regime, in no other work than in his 13th Symphony, the Babii Yaar, dedicated to the memory of the murder of 33000 Ukranian Jews, largely carried out by Ukranian Militia and a mob, but initiated, armed and supervised by the Wehrmacht, did he dare so blatantly and courageously give went to his shame and outrage about Soviet efforts to keep either silent abut this terrible event, or their spurious effort to describe its victims not as Jews, but simply as Soviet Citizens killed by the Wehrmacht. Antisemitism is deeply ingrained in the social fabric of Russia, and Shostakovich despised and fought against it throughout his troubled life.

Its first public performance was shielded by police cordons, ignored by the press and even Mrawinsky, the great conductor balked at conducting it. It was only Kyrill Kondrashin who dared to face the wrath of the Establishment. Performances of this work in the Russia of today, and particularly in Germany, still have a dark undertone, although coloured from two different aspects. In Germany, the performance of that work is always used by the leading media to put deep an accusing finger in their own still open wounds. In today's Russia , history is now being re-written and many of the wounds of the past are no longer so openly probed.

The five symphony concerts gave a wonderful panorama of some of the most significant and best loved Russian orchestral works. In the view of respected German music critics Georgiev's mastery, restraint combined with unleashing powers of so specially Russian character, his soloists, Alexei Volodin in the Rachmaninov Second and Third Concertos, Denis Mateuev (piano) and Timur Martynov solo Trumpet (in the First Piano Concerto) and Sergey Khachatryan in the First Violin Concerto, all submitting their extraordinary virtuosity to Gergiev's unmatched knowledge of these scores, gave a real festival atmosphere to these events. One can only marvel how a large orchestra, and Gergiev at their head, day by day without a single break, managed to show themselves on top form, and still being able to answer the demands of enthusiastic audiences with brilliant and demanding orchestral and solistic encores.

There was some dignified speculation in the critical assessment of Anna Netrebko's re-appearance after her baby-pause. The shared impression of perceptive critics was, that while not losing her superb piano control in her highest levels, that area had became perceptibly thinner, her voice tending to become more deeply coloured in the mezzo regions. While she responds to the demands of the PR Operations making her the most famous living Russian woman, or a diva assoluta in sold out Arena or Gala performances, she does this in a responsible and dignified manner. She seems to be wishing slowly to leave behind her Mimi and Violetta period. She already retired from the planned transfer of her Salzburg Violetta to the Metropolitan. She may be aiming at last to sing Lucia di Lammermoor in the planned production in 2010/11 of the Berlin State Opera.

The replacement of Rolando Villazon by the Polish tenor Piotr Beczala satisfied the critical opinion, and, indeed, while Villazon's irresistible charm was bound to escape Beczala, he was not outshone by Netrebko, but by his sheer physical presence and colourfully powerful voice, managed to create a different chemistry from the one we all came to love between Villazon and her, and in which she was no longer the dominant , somewhat comforting partner. The couple have already appeared many times together and there is mutual respect and understanding between them, even if without that by now almost legendary loving and yet pure bond between Villazon and her. Most serious critics agreed that updating the action of this fairytale into the drab thirties, letting Iolanta vegetate in a hospital-nightshirt in a black-and-white doll's house, with the King appearing in a black stormtrooper uniform and her suitor just coming from a tennisparty, dressed in white, completely spoiled the atmosphere of this gently starting and gradually shimmeringly beguiling soundpicture. Iolanta already has brilliant interpreters, a conductor born to the task of directing it, but it still waits for a sensitive producer, who can put this fairytale in an imaginative frame, using impenetrable darkness and slowly emerging radiant light to match what the composer had in mind, and what the cast already so well understood. Deutsche Grammophon, I think rightly, decided not to use this production for a DVD recording.

After a summer break, the Festspielhaus plans 120 performances for the next season, studded with some quite sensational ones, and so will maintain its place as a vital musical centre in the heart of Europe.

By Francis Shelton

Photo credits: Andrea Kremper

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