Music Review of the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra at the Kennedy Center

HIGH NOTE: The Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra, in "Eugene Onegin" last week, performed more gems, notably Tchaikovsky's "Iolanta."
HIGH NOTE: The Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra, in "Eugene Onegin" last week, performed more gems, notably Tchaikovsky's "Iolanta." (Sarah L. Voisin/the Washington Post)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 6, 2010

There's a fine line between local color and provincialism. It's a line that the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, chorus and soloists, under Artistic Director Valery Gergiev, walked for most of two evenings of opera excerpts in concert at the Kennedy Center this week. They walked it, that is, until the superstar soprano Anna Netrebko showed up Thursday night and showed everybody how it's supposed to be done.

Local color is the Mariinsky's calling card. A main attraction of the Mariinsky's near-annual Washington visits has been that they allow audiences to hear Russian singers performing Russian repertory. This means we get to hear a lot of wonderfully dark, full voices: Ekaterina Semenchuk's full-throated, earth-mother mezzo, or a whole passel of basses with ink-black lower registers, including Mikhail Kit and Mikhail Petrenko.

The flip side is that audiences also get to hear a real Russian opera ensemble -- and that's where the provincialism rears its head. The Mariinsky troupe encompasses singers of all ages, from young, earnest, callow tenors such as Sergei Skorokhodov (who sang with Netrebko in Tchaikovsky's "Iolanta") to erratic veterans such as Kit, some of them at the schlumpy end of the fashion spectrum, singing night after night in one role after another until -- like Edem Umerov, who sang in Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh" and Mussorgsky's "Khovanshchina" one night and Tchaikovsky's "Mazeppa" the next -- their voices are showing audible strain.

It's like a baseball team, the players subject to change from night to night at the manager's discretion, and some of the players, on Wednesday and Thursday, were definitely Class AAA. Evgeny Nikitin, slated to sing Prince Igor, didn't even make it off the disabled list; Kit pinch-hit, sounding slightly foggy.

Taken together, the two evenings evoked a folk museum, displaying dusty treasures of Russian opera before the faded backdrop of a painted theater curtain. There was Rimsky-Korsakov's urbane "Kitezh," in which the composer executed delicate a cappella choruses and a rip-roaring battle scene with aplomb, but also a hint of preciousness. There were the raw cadences of Mussorgsky, only slightly smoothed over in Rimsky's orchestration.

There was Borodin's "Prince Igor," a straightforward number opera in which Gergiev and the orchestra got so frantic that it was almost hard to make out the familiar outlines of the Polovtsian Dances (that's "Stranger in Paradise," to many) in the chaotic welter of sound that foamed up from the stage.

And there was Tchaikovsky, trying his own hand at local color with "Mazeppa" and represented very poorly by a little Mozartian intermezzo from "The Queen of Spades" -- poorly, because the program indicated that we were getting Act II, Scene 1, leaving the audience to scan the stage fruitlessly for signs of Herman and Lisa (the opera's protagonists), only to be given pastoral shepherds and shepherdesses instead, an evanescent pastel in place of the expected strong color.

All of this could come to vivid life if given vivid performances. And vivid, certainly, is something that Gergiev aims for when he tears into those "Prince Igor" dances or the battle scene in "Kitezh," with manic abandon. Yet the orchestra seesawed between strong moments (like the delicate colors that shimmered in "Kitezh," under the gentle watercolor wash of the chorus) and a desultory autopilot. Moments of sheer coarseness -- heavy-handed string passages or the raucous blare of the brass -- may have reflected a concept of immediacy and vigor that Gergiev generally holds; refinement is certainly not what he's after.

It's not that all of the singers were indifferent; just that few were truly imposing. Gennady Bezzubenkov showed integrity as Prince Yuri in "Kitezh," Semenchuk offered her dark warmth in "Prince Igor," and Alexey Markov sounded far more even and strong in "Iolanta" than he had in the title role of "Eugene Onegin," a few days before.

"Iolanta," though, was in another league, and it was all thanks to Netrebko. The evening took on a new energy as soon as she walked on stage, wearing a pale-blue gown a-sparkle at the top with crystals; and she seemed to rouse the entire evening from sleep at the moment her character woke up. Regardless of whether she's a good actress, Netrebko is a stage animal, and she riveted the attention and gave impact to a slender story as she sang with shining ease a role beautifully suited to the size and color of her voice. Was it perfect? No. But it was something you wanted to listen to. Here, at last, was Russian opera, with a Russian singer, offered on the international level that the name Mariinsky seems implicitly to promise. Something exciting had finally happened, culminating in a substantial high note from Netrebko, and the audience was eager, at last, to have a chance to applaud.

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