The contrast was striking. A week ago, an American classical star sang America’s national anthem at the Super Bowl: Renee Fleming offered a restrained but still slightly ornamented, slightly pop-tinged version of the song. Tonight, the opening ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics did not lack for spectacle and glitz, and the Russians also put some of their own classical stars front and center. But when it came to the Russian national anthem, the organizers played it straight. The anthem was sung by the Sretensky Monastery Choir, in an austere, lovely, no-nonsense choral arrangement, with band accompaniment.
Classical music, of course, has more of a role to play in Russia’s evocation of its culture and history than it does at the Super Bowl, where one sensed an attempt to downplay it. From the very opening video, music was a tangible presence at these ceremonies: in the recitation of the Cyrillic alphabet, with each letter standing for an important Russian figure or entity (Television? Really?), at least Tchaikovsky and Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes made the cut, though literature and the visual arts were better represented (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Pushkin; Kandinsky and Maleevitch).
And opera was worked right into the opening number, when a tremendous chorus garbed in Cossack costume came out singing arrangements of the Polovitsian Dances from Borodin’s “Prince Igor,” an opera that coincidentally had its first-ever performance at the Metropolitan Opera the night before the Games started.
I had a twofold sense of deja vu. First, my own first viewing of “Prince Igor” was in an Olympic Stadium, when the Bavarian State Opera in Munich staged the work in that city’s former Olympic arena in the 1980s. Second, the massive production for this opening ceremony was the work of George Tsypin, a New York-based Soviet-born designer whose work I have seen often in opera houses from Salzburg to the Metropolitan Opera to the Kennedy Center, where he was responsible most recently for the sets of the Mariinsky’s production of “War and Peace.” He has also worked extensively with the director Julie Taymor, and anyone who saw “The Lion King” on Broadway or “The Magic Flute” at the Met probably had some of the same sense of familiarity at the colorful Russian pageant that began unfolding, to the strains of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” as the ceremonies continued after the athletes had made their way into the stadium.
The spectacle was considerable, involving sets the size of jet planes, amazing computer projections, and large numbers of people in a visual pageant that set out to present a cross-section of Russian history. From the “Rite of Spring,” we moved to Soviet-era film scores (the ballet scenes), a bit of Alfred Schnittke, and through an English composer’s symphony meant to illustrate Constructivism. Finally, there came a “Swan Lake” excerpt — we had to have Tchaikovsky in there somewhere — accompanying a flock of dancers spinning like dervishes, glowing in black light.
All of this was conducted by Valery Gergiev, Russia’s tireless and ubiquitous superstar, but in this regard, at least, the Russians, or at least NBC’s coverage, did no better than the organizers of the Super Bowl. Just like the New Jersey Symphony last week, the Russian State Symphony Orchestra, even under the baton of one of Russia’s most famous musicians, went unacknowledged on-air.
And finally came the real moment when Fleming’s performance, at least theoretically, got a run for its money. If Fleming is the most famous American soprano, Anna Netrebko is the most famous soprano nearly everywhere else. Long famous for her looks, her fashion sense, her voice, she has gotten her albums on the European pop charts, is no stranger to stadium concerts, and is a logical star for Russia to parade at its Olympics. She came out to sing the Olympic Anthem, whatever that is, as a show-stopper.
Classical music may have gotten a bigger spotlight at Sochi than it ever would have gotten at a comparable American event. But in the anthem medal contention, going head-to-head, Fleming won hands-down. It started on the fashion front: if Fleming’s gown looked a bit overdone at the Super Bowl, it was the height of elegance compared to Netrebko’s number, which looked like it was designed for a doll at FAO Schwarz. It continued on the song front: Fleming had the better song to sing. And it finished with the presentation. Netrebko sang the song perfectly straight, and seemingly as loudly as she could, but it is not a vehicle of much interest or expression, and she couldn’t give it much extra in either department. It was perfectly adequate, and utterly unremarkable. To a newcomer to opera, her allure might not even be evident.
The initial medal count: Russia 1 for a creative, other-worldly opening. And USA 1 for its anthem. Let the games begin.