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Kirov Opera: Hitting All the Wrong Notes

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 19, 2005; Page C04

What were they thinking?

The "Kirov Spectacular" -- which opened last night at the Kennedy Center Opera House -- proved the sort of celestial vaudeville that should have . . . well, gone out with vaudeville.

It seemed a generous program -- some three hours of selections from ballets and operas performed by the Kirov Ballet, Opera and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, under the direction of Valery Gergiev. But the pieces had little to do with one another (indeed, they could almost have been chosen by lottery) and the musical performances were too often shopworn and lackluster -- a scanty reward for those who managed to find their way to the Kennedy Center through the cold, clotted streets of pre-inauguration Washington.

A drab, unremarkable "Czar's Bride" by the Kirov Opera, with Olga Trifonova and Yevgeny Nikitin.

The evening began well, with the overture to Glinka's "Ruslan and Lyudmila" -- peppy, Russianized Rossini, conducted by Gergiev with his trademark headlong vigor. Within the past couple of days, it was decided, somewhat mysteriously, to make this long program longer by incorporating the "Black Pas de Deux" from "Swan Lake" into the proceedings, and here the show began its own swan dive, for the orchestra sounded tired and blanched (despite a nice hint of Gypsy throb to some of the solo violin playing). This is hardly the best of Tchaikovsky to begin with, and it sounded especially rum in the rigid, clattering performance it received last night.

George Balanchine's ballet "La Valse" takes Maurice Ravel's famous orchestral fantasy of the same name as its finale, which depicts decadent Europe waltzing its way into the apocalypse of World War I. (I believe it was the poet and novelist Siegfried Sassoon who was never able to listen to the waltz theme from Richard Strauss's "Der Rosenkavalier" again because it reminded him so much of the sweet, lost summer days just before August 1914.) This elegant, finely crafted, unmistakably Gallic music comes no more naturally to Gergiev than would "Pomp and Circumstance," but he led an urgent and colorful, if far from immaculate, performance last night. Judged strictly for its musical value, Riccardo Drigo's "Le Corsaire," which followed immediately, is stupefyingly banal oompah stuff, and here the usually electric Gergiev conducted as if he himself were bored to tears.

I am at a loss to explain the presence of Act 4 of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Czar's Bride" on any sort of gala program. It may work well in the context of the three other acts, but it is drab and unremarkable, and the singing -- by Yevgeny Nikitin, Olga Savova, Sergey Aleksashkin and Olga Trifonova, among others -- was quavery and attenuated. Nor did it help that the scene seemed to be set in some particularly grimy quarter of the Moscow subway.

All in all, the second half of the program offered better music: George Balanchine's "Rubies" (set to Igor Stravinsky's "Capriccio"), a somewhat gruffly sung but emotionally potent scene from Tchaikovsky's "Queen of Spades," a tender rendition of Saint-Saens's "Swan" for cello and orchestra (who can resist this miniature, no matter how many times we hear it?) and Scene 4 from Rimsky-Korsakov's "Sadko," probably the musical highlight of the evening. Still, despite the vitality of this last performance, it was impossible not to notice that the designated singers were too often happy to be mere shouters. Eastern intensity is all well and good, but there remains something to be said for hitting notes in their center and not merely somewhere in the vicinity.

Indeed, if this tossed-off motley was meant to inspire admiration for the unique skills of the Kirov ensemble, it had the opposite effect. One was left with the sense of a struggling provincial company that had somehow won a trip to Washington, the better to present tired goods in a fancy package.

The program will be repeated tonight at 7:30 and Saturday afternoon at 1:30.

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