Mariinsky Stravinsky

Stravinsky
Les noces [Four Choreographic Scenes From Russian Life]
Oedipus Rex – Opera-oratorio in two acts

Les noces:
Irina Vasilyeva (soprano)
Olga Savova (mezzo-soprano)
Vladimir Felenchak (tenor)
Gennady Bezzubenkov (bass)

Oedipus Rex:
Oedipus – Oleg Balashov
Jocasta – Zlata Bulycheva
Creon/A messenger – Evgeny Nikitin
Tiresias – Fyodor Kuznetsov
A shepherd – Alexander Timchenko
Narrator – Tim Pigott-Smith

Chorus and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre
Valery Gergiev


Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 25 February, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Stravinsky’s “Les noces” or, more properly, “Svadebka”, is one of the most extraordinary scores to emerge from the composer’s remarkably fertile imagination. In its final incarnation, its scoring for four pianos and percussion was an unprecedented and unique sonority; Stravinsky having first envisaged the use of an orchestra even larger than that required for The Rite of Spring.

In many ways it may be considered the most ‘Russian’ of all his works, and the impresario Diaghilev – to whom it is dedicated – reportedly wept when Stravinsky first played over to him what he had written in 1915. For Stravinsky, the work’s gestation and final working-out took place over an unusually long period, as it was not until 1923 that “Les noces” was first presented by the Ballet Russes in Paris.

In this performance under Valery Gergiev, it was, above all, theballetic quality that was registered most strongly, since the music really ‘danced’ – and in a most exhilarating fashion.

It helped, of course, that the singers were singing in their nativetongue. Too often, in Western performances of this demanding work, one has the impression of singers wrestling with the linguistics. This was, naturally, not the case with the forces of the Mariinsky Theatre, and so passages like the dense fourth scene depicting the Wedding Feast, where sometimes different voices are singing completely different texts, the multi-faceted layering of Stravinsky’s writing came across with unusual clarity and force.

Valery Gergiev directed with surprising physical restraint but elicited a performance of, at times, elemental power; this is not to suggest that more reflective passages – brief though they may be – did not receive their due. Indeed, their poignant expressiveness was most touching.

The band of pianos and percussion played with individual and collective skill and virtuosity, the pianos being alternately vehement and delicately etching the figuration where required, whilst the percussion negotiated their demanding parts with considerable aplomb. These fine players should have been acknowledged in the programme.

The vocal soloists were, perhaps, less successful overall. Olga Savova was powerful – and though I did not care for the addition of supposedly expressive ‘swellings’ in her opening incantation, soprano Irina Vasilyeva was an effective exponent of this difficult music. Bass Gennady Bezzubenkov also sang the final lines of the work with additional emoting, which rather spoilt the ending, but his characterful delivery elsewhere was appropriate. Curiously, in the second scene, in the short passage where the bass soloist has a duet with a soloist from the chorus, the latter’s line was allotted to all the chorus basses. Tenor Vladimir Felenchak did not posses the ‘lungs of steel’ which Leonard Bernstein asserted were pre-requisites for this part, and attimes he was all but overwhelmed in the balance.

The full chorus was absolutely splendid throughout, though I’m sure its impact would have been all the greater had they not been seated. The hand-clapping, in the final tableaux, was omitted. However, any incidental reservations were rendered insignificant by the magnificent impression of the whole. One really sensed this was a Russian community coming together in earthy – if not hedonistic – celebration. Pierre Boulez’s performance – very different from Gergiev’s – at Proms 2004 was a memorable experience. This Mariinsky rendition will also be recalled for its special qualities. Both attested to the power and invention of Stravinsky’s miraculous masterpiece.

Regrettably, the performance of “Oedipus Rex” which followed was not in the same league. Eschewing the baton, which he had deployed in “Les noces”, Gergiev seemed unable to elicit sharpness and precision of attack in this very different score.

Interest was to be found in the orchestral writing – which was extremely well played. Instrumental detail registered most tellingly. The clarinets bubbling up beneath Jocasta’s denunciation of “lying oracles”, the plangent bassoons accompanying the shepherd, snarling muted brass and a sinister low piano – and much besides – were dramatically projected, but divorced from convincing vocal portrayals, their effectiveness was minimised.

Oleg Balashov seemed out of sorts, with tentative entries, under-the-note pitching and, in his first solo, resorting to singing a phrase an octave lower. The central role was, therefore, compromised. Zlata Bulycheva was a fruity, vibrant Jocasta – her lower notes were most impressive, less so the higher resister. But I’m not at all sure that this ‘Slavic’ timbre was what Stravinsky had in mind for this particular music. It certainly did not make for security of intonation and rhythmic accuracy.

Other members of the cast had difficulty in projecting from a platform at the rear of the stage, and there were often considerable problems of balance which the conductor seemed to be unwilling to address.

Replacing an indisposed Christopher Lee, Tim Pigott-Smith narrated the story rather laconically, though not ineffectively. But was it really necessary to amplify this distinguished actor’s voice? He was seated next to the conductor and I feel certain that projection would not have been a problem for him.

The chorus seemed reticent in the mighty opening, but its members gained in strength, and their fervent singing was undoubtedly the highlight of this otherwise disappointing, if not actually insecure, performance.

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