As last time, I left it a bit long to write this (having rather too much work-related writing to be done in December) but will attempt to remember what I can. As with most of the previous operas reviewed here (excepting Tosca and the Wagners) I didn’t know this one at all until recently. However, I decided this time to do some ‘homework’. I have one friend who always listens to recordings and reads up on operas before seeing them for the first time, and another who scorns such behaviour – myself, I can appreciate the effects both of knowing a work really well and the impact of hearing great music for the first time. So, this time I decided to familiarise myself with a recording (1991, Ozawa, Freni/ Atlantov/ Hvorostovsky/ Forrester etc.) which was good, but had the disadvantage that I then couldn’t help making frequent comparisons during the live performance to the one I’d been listening to on CD.
I’d heard many bad things about the set/staging of this production, but it didn’t seem particularly offensive to me – although as I was in the Upper Slips I could only see about 2/3 of the stage plus a lot of tops of singers’ heads and Paulina’s ample cleavage. The set just seemed a bit nondescript, apart from the huge pile of snow which turned up on the stage after the interval. This snow proved a divisive point for critics, but I quite liked it, even if it did have no business being in the Countess’s bedroom. I also though it was very cool when it split in two and blue light shone out of it to represent the river (having a general inclination for minimalist stagings involving pretty lights); however, as Liza wandered casually into the gap rather than, say, leaping, several people near me didn’t realise she was supposed to be dead (especially as she wandered on stage again later on, not looking much deader than before). Costumes didn’t make much impression on me at all, except possibly Yeletsky’s offensive salmon-pink outfit with mustard-yellow socks (why?) Tomsky putting on a dress during the Mozart-pastiche, and Gherman running round in his grubby long underwear and boots in Act 2.
The orchestra sounded generally very good throughout, although I wasn’t convinced by the tempi chosen for some of the music. As usual, I had a particular ear open for the woodwind. The flute section, although sounding lovely in the few exposed passages, didn’t really have an awful lot to do this time; the same goes for the clarinets, although I would like to give a particular mention to the bass clarinet (Marina Finnamore, I think), which sounded lovely in its brief solo moments. So, the overture was great, but having set up so well, the opera then takes a nose-dive by having a scene full of irritating shreiky brats. Horrid noise. But I suppose they weren’t there for that long, and soon after that I had a very happy surprise in the discovery of a tenor that I actually like. Vladimir Galouzine was absolutely excellent as Gherman, and I shall certainly be looking out for him in the future. Attempting to describe the voice I can come up with vague words like ‘smoky’, ‘metallic’, etc. but in the end all I can really say is that it did it for me. It was unfortunate that he was made to look so unappealing – like a shouty drunk tramp staggering around – but this is a comparatively minor detail, and he certainly threw himself into the part, presumably in the manner directed. The other voice I particularly liked was Larissa Diadkova as the Countess. Her singing was lovely, in a soft, understated way (although her physical portrayal of an old woman was not, being rather hammy.) I thought Mlada Khudoley sang Liza very well but didn’t do much in the way of acting.
On the recording I’d been listening to previously, I really disliked the tenor (Atlantov) and hence many of the bits where he featured heavily. However, I adored Hvorostovsky’s Yeletsky, and listened to ‘Ya vas lyublyu’ a quite excessive number of times. Sadly, William Dazely came nowhere near (not unpleasant, just weak), so my favourite aria of the opera was rather a disappointment, as well as being taken far too fast. I also particularly like the supporting role of Paulina (especially the ‘Romance’, her first solo), but Enkelejda Shkosa’s voice, while I don’t have any criticism of it, was personally not at all to my taste.
The final scene at the card table didn’t come off particularly well, and I was confused by the dancing men who lay on their backs and kicked their legs in the air for a while every now and then. I wondered if it might be some kind of piss-take of the stereotypical Cossack dance? Also, I’m informed that on the side of the stage I couldn’t see, they were later playing ‘spin the bottle’ and two of the chaps had a big snog, but I think this may be my friends winding me up, knowing my liking for finding gay subtexts.
A last thought: The character of Gherman is often referred to as ‘mad’ or ‘crazy’, but I disagree with this. He’s also sometimes described as manic-depressive (which is more accurate), but his behaviour could also be consistent with autism. Agree? Disagree?