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March 1, 2010

'Onegin,' 'Boris Godunov' performed in concert by Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra

For the better part of a decade, thanks to a kick-off donation from the fallen-from-grace, recently sentenced philanthropist Alberto Vilar, the famed Mariinsky Theatre from St. Petersburg has been a regular visitor to the Kennedy Center, bringing opera, ballet and more. Although other donors have stepped up along the way to keep the association going, this year's Mariinsky trip to Washington is -- sigh -- the last in the official 10-year deal. No word yet on any future arrangement.

With the globe-straddling Valery Gergiev as artistic and general director, the Mariinsky -- known as the Kirov during the communist era -- has enjoyed renewed attention and admiration. One of the coolest things about its visits is the opportunity to experience the value of an old-fashioned ensemble-style company, with a reliable, resident troupe of singers who switch back and forth from major to minor roles with ease and (apparently) grace. Before the jet age started, this sort of family-style company was much more common. There's a lot to be said for such cohesiveness.

The 2010 Kennedy Center programming shows some signs of fiscal restraint. There's only one staged opera this time, but hardly a low-budget item: Prokofiev's suitably large-scale "War and Peace," March 6 and 7. This week, two concerts of opera excerpts will be offered -- a Borodin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov evening March 3; a sample of Tchaikovsky works March 4 (with high-profile soprano Anna Netrebko in scenes from "Iolanta").

The Mariinsky visit opened last weekend with two operas presented in concert form, Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" and Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov." 

The "Onegin" cast on Friday night featured what might be considered one of the company's 'B' roster of artists, but the lack of star power did not dim the solid musical values, the palpable sense of involvement in the drama (even without scenery or costumes, there was a good amount of genuine acting displayed by the principals on the edge of the stage).

Gergiev conducted, as he prefers to do, without a podium. In a few passages of the score, he didn't seem terribly engaged, allowing phrases to plod along, and he failed to secure totally tight playing from the orchestra (I got the impression the musicians were simply tired). But most of the opera came vividly to life nonetheless; Gergiev had the softest, subtlest moments communicating with great poetic impact.

Alexey Markov sang the title role with a firm baritone and increasingly powerful phrasing. As Tatyana, Irina Mataeva's voice tended to turn edgy at the top, but her singing was otherwise lovely in tone and expressive shading. Sergey Semishkur revealed a youthful sound and affectingly ardent style in the role of Lensky. Mikhail Petrenko offered considerable tonal warmth and smoothness in Prince Gremin's aria. There was character-rich vocalism from Ekaterina Semenchuk (Olga), Andrey Popov (Triquet), Svetlana Vitman (Larina) and Elena Vitman (Nurse).

Sunday afternoon's performance of "Boris" was to have been conducted, like everything else in this DC visit, by Gergiev, but he got called to Vancouver to participate in closing ceremonies at the Winter Olympics. In his place stepped

Pavel Smelkov, who brought a sure, sensitive touch (and a lot of hair) to the assignment. Performed without intermission and more or less in Mussorgsky's original version, the opera had terrific sweep. The choral outbursts registered mightily; the orchestra produced volcanic and delicate sounds with equal skill.

Evgeny Nikitin gave a noble account of the title role. Whatever he lacked in depth and roundness of tone, he made up for with interpretive weight; the hallucination and death scenes were sung with particularly gripping force. Petrenko was again impressive, this time as Pimen. Dmitri Voropaev sang the Fool's lament eloquently (too bad that, in this version of the score, the lament did not return as the opera's final, haunting word). The rest of the large cast delivered effectively.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:52 PM | | Comments (1)


The opera excerpts evenings sound interesting, but what possessed this company to bring 2 of the less than half-dozen Russian operas reguarly done in America (in concert form, with "B" casts no less) and a huge stage production that the Met production (presented just last December) was largely based on? Duh! I realize the need to stay pretty main-stream, but Prince Igor, Ruslan and Ludmilla, Sadko and A Life for the Tsar, just to name a few, are eminently worthy works that are hardly ever heard in this country and (in New York at least) have shown they can draw a Metropolitan size audience for multiple performances - surely they could have sold out a theatre about half the size at the Kennedy Center.

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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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