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March 8, 2010

Mariinsky Theatre wraps up Kennedy Center visit with explosive 'War and Peace'

For local fans of Russian opera, the past decade has been a remarkably rewarding period, thanks to the just-about annual Kennedy Center visits by the Mariinsky Theatre, an association that has come to an end. Not that the company only brought its national repertoire over (there were some engaging Verdi and Rossini productions along the way), but the Russian fare invariably proved memorable. After all, we're talking an obvious idiomatic authority here.

That sense of ownership was palpable throughout this year's visit, devoted entirely to Russian opera. Last week's schedule included two concerts of excerpts from works by Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov that revealed the company's strengths -- and weaknesses (some well-worn voices, occasionally uneven orchestral and choral work).

How refreshing it was to hear those eternally popular "Polovtsian Dances" from "Prince Igor" performed in context, and how satisfying to hear them delivered with such a visceral drive. Valery Gergiev summoned terrific sonic richness and color from his forces in those dances, as he did in scenes from "The Invisible City of Kitezh" and "Mazeppa" (in the latter, soprano Victoria Yastrebova, as Maria, served notice of some serious star potential). And it was quite a luxury having Anna Netrebko singing the title role in a sampling of "Iolanta"; her sumptuous voice and sensitive phrasing brought the character strikingly to life.

The danger of having Netrebko on hand -- in a dazzling new Valentino gown, by the way -- was that she

rather eclipsed the company with a voice that had more penetrating power than anyone else, men included, and a certain electricity in the phrase-shaping that eluded many of the Mariinsky regulars. Still, those concerts afford much pleasure for the opportunity to soak up all those soaring melodies and vivid orchestrations.

Capping the Mariinsky residency was the company's gargantuan production of Prokofiev's four-hour "War and Peace" over the weekend, the only staged item in this year's visit. This is the version that drew lots of attention when it was presented at the Metropolitan Opera some years ago (especially after a supernumerary fell off the globe-suggesting, steeply raked, often moving set and landed in the pit). It packs about as much eye candy as opera scenery should (the designer is Geroge Tsypin), and it also serves the action with cinematic fluidity.

I enjoyed seeing it again. A few details of Andrei Konchalovsky's stage direction struck me this time as a little unimaginative or clumsy (a lurching dance for the chorus), but there's just no getting around the cumulative visual thrust of a production that boasts swirling, ever-changing skies; bodies being tossed about by cannon fire; and a really cool vision of the burning of Moscow.

It's not easy, especially after the war part in "War and Peace" asserts itself, to remember the complicated love story at the heart of Tolstoy's story, but this staging allows for an affecting intimacy where it counts. On Sunday afternoon, Gergiev ensured that those romantic scenes, with their lushly lyrical music, were beautifully etched; the passage for the dying Andrei and the regretful Natasha proved particularly affecting.

Those two roles were admirably performed by Alexey Markov and Irina Mataeva. Neither singer produced stop-in-your-tracks tonal power or a totally distinctive timbre, but both artists offered insightful phrasing and thoroughly fleshed-out portrayals. If Alexei Steblianko had some trouble in the upper register, he also sang with terrific ardor and communicative impact as Pierre. Sergei Skorokhodov (Anatol) and, especially, Ekaterina Semenchuk (Helene) provided dashes of vocal and theatrical spark to the performance. Mikhail Kit brought dignity and style to the role of Rostov. Gennady Bezzubenkov would have made a greater impression as the Russian war hero Kutuzov had he summoned something like a heroic sound. Alexander Nikitin provided sufficient force as Bonaparte. Mikhail Petrenko, a stand-out throughout the Mariinsky's visit, did another animated, vocally telling performance as Old Prince Nikolai.  

Chorus and orchestra delivered some compelling waves of expression on Sunday. And Gergiev, apparently feeling none the less for wear after leading "War and Peace" at the Kennedy Center the night before and the premiere performance of Shostakovich's "The Nose" at the Met the night before that, conducted with his usual flair.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:30 PM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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