China Opening

The Kirov Opera made the most of Puccini's warhorse, and then some.
The Kirov Opera made the most of Puccini's warhorse, and then some. (Valentin Boronovsky)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Kirov Opera and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater is back in town for its yearly mixed bag, combining original and sometimes exhilarating strengths with startling and provincial weaknesses at the Kennedy Center.

On balance, the strengths prevailed Sunday afternoon when the troupe's general director and conductor, Valery Gergiev, led a mostly Russian and Eastern European cast in a performance of "Turandot," the Italian composer Giacomo Puccini's evocation of ancient Peking.

A distinctly odd mash of cultures and, indeed, the physical production of this "Turandot" is not promising. The set calls to mind a pretentious Chinese restaurant, from either the provinces or the 1970s, now reduced to serving egg roll amid antiquated banners and cutout spheres. The lighting is mostly dark, the costumes are drably utilitarian, the wigs straight out of Halloween.

Still, "Turandot" is probably the most intellectually interesting opera Puccini composed ("La Boheme" and "Tosca" make their appeals in different ways); it combines near-Schoenbergian dissonance with sumptuous orchestration right out of Richard Strauss. It made an effective vehicle for Gergiev and -- in partnership with the best of his singers -- he mostly redeemed the afternoon.

There was little bel canto on Sunday ("can belto" might be a better description), but there was something primal and magnificent about the tension Gergiev established from the very beginning of the opera -- the Darwinian do-or-die ferocity that sets winds against strings, chorus against orchestra and soloist against soloist. Forget the Olympics -- there's blood sport aplenty at the Kennedy Center Opera House right now.

Of the three leading characters, Irma Gigolashvili's slave girl Liu was the most fully dimensional as the soprano sang with a desperate and haunting sweetness. Vladimir Galuzin, billed as a tenor in the role of Calaf, strikes me as more naturally a baritone: He seemed more comfortable in the dramatic utterances in the lower register than he did in the big aria, "Nessun dorma," which was sung with fervid intensity but with an unwonted steeliness. (It was cheered to the rafters anyway -- who can resist this music?) The hard-voiced Irina Gordei was appropriately fearsome as Princess Turandot in her more glacial moments, but rather less convincing when she tried to melt in the finale.

Andrei Spekhov, Alexander Timchenko and Andrei Ilyushnikov took on the yoked roles of Ping, Pang and Pong with little sense that these three, creatively wound up and properly synchronized, can be an operatic answer to the Marx Brothers. Gennady Bezzubenkov made a spirited, emotive Timur, Viktor Vikhrov creaked convincingly as the Old Emperor, and the Maryland Boy Choir sang with vigor and clarity.

Still, it was Gergiev who won the afternoon. Whenever this man steps in front of an orchestra, you know that something is going to not only happen but Happen.

His interpretation was impulsive, unbridled, even downright sloppy at times, but it was never less than fully alive. And that, after all, is the first and most essential virtue of successful musicmaking, especially in a riot of color and passion like "Turandot."

The opera will be repeated Thursday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; tonight, Gergiev and his troupe take on Wagner's "Parsifal."

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