Even before "glasnost" and "perestroika" became part of the basic American vocabulary, Russian opera was beginning to find a substantial American audience. Now, with the new cordial atmosphere between the two nations, prospects are even better. Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov are familiar as the composers of some of our favorite orchestral music. By the end of this century, we will also recognize them as great opera composers.
This will happen rather quickly because of two changes in the way we experience opera: surtitles in our opera houses and video recordings in our homes. These help audiences to understand opera in all foreign languages, but they are most important for Russian opera because it needs more work; its language, plots and social-historic contexts are much less familiar to Americans than those of"Carmen" or "La Boheme."
Watching a video production of an opera, with subtitles, is a more complete and integrated experience than listening to an audio recording with a libretto. For most people, the visual element conveys information and dramatic effects with a power far beyond that of audio alone. The impact is less than that of a live performance, but the repeatability of the recorded experience makes it easy to deepen your knowledge -- an important consideration in dealing with unfamiliar material.
Under a new agreement with the Soviet publishing and recording company Mezhdunarodnaya Kniga, the American company Kultur Video is distributing Russian opera videos that originated at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow and the Kirov in Leningrad. Celebrating its 10th anniversary as a major distributor of ballet, opera and concert music in video recordings, Kultur has now issued four operas in excellent live performances by the Soviet Union's two major companies.
Most important because it is least familiar is Mussorgsky's "Khovanshchina" (Kultur 1163, two tapes). This opera (in English, "The Khovansky Uprising") tells of a revolt by conservatives in 1682, when the 10-year-old Peter the Great and his half-brother Ivan had just been made czars under the regency of their sister (Peter's half-sister) Sophia. Opposition forces in this complex struggle were ideologically divided and ultimately were defeated by Peter's royal guard, the Petrovsky. They included the boyars (hereditary nobility); the Streltsy (the corps of archers or musketeers), led by the autocratic Prince Ivan Khovansky and his unruly son Andrei; and the Old Believers religious sect, led by the saintly old visionary Dosifei. The forces of modernization are represented in the opera by Prince Golitsyn, but he falls out of favor and goes into exile.
Like so many great operas, this is a story of lust, greed, intrigue and betrayal, with high points that range from the thwarted abduction of a young woman through the onstage assassination of Ivan Khovansky to the mass self-immolation of the Old Believers at the final curtain. This recording (of a 1979 Bolshoi performance) benefits from outstanding performances by Yevgeny Nesterenko as Dosifei, Irina Arkhipova as Marfa (an Old Believer) and Alexander Vedernikov as Ivan Khovansky -- all excellent actors as well as singers. A large and skilled supporting cast is headed by Yevgeny Raikov as Golitsyn and Vladislav Romanovsky as the traitorous boyar Shaklovity. In a presentation of this quality, "Khovanshchina" has an interest and impact close to Mussorgsky's masterpiece "Boris Godunov."
A Bolshoi "Boris Godunov" (Kultur 1138, two tapes), taped in 1978 with Nesterenko in the title role, competes directly with a somewhat later Bolshoi "Boris," also starring Nesterenko, available from Home Vision. They are essentially the same productions in scenery, costumes, stage direction, some of the soloists and, of course, the chorus, which is the opera's true protagonist. Both use the Rimsky-Korsakov adaptation, and either is a great experience -- the most important opera in the Russian repertoire performed by the company for which it is the number one specialty. Nesterenko's voice is fresher on the Kultur tapes, his acting a bit more focused on the Home Vision. The supporting casts are about equal, with Kultur marginally better in the roles of Pimen and Shuisky. As the Polish princess Marina, Arkhipova (Kultur) is vocally fine but visually not as convincing as Home Vision's Tamara Sinyavskaya.
In Tchaikovsky's "The Queen of Spades" (Kultur 1164, two tapes), the 1983 Bolshoi production is visually lavish and cast with three of the company's biggest names: Vladimir Atlantov as Herman, the impulsive and impoverished young hero; Elena Obraztsova as the old countess whom he kills unintentionally while trying to force from her her secret of how to win at cards; and Tamara Milashkina as Lisa, the young woman he loves to the point of desperation. All three sing beautifully, and Obraztsova sets a standard for acting that the other two are unable to match. Atlantov tends to overact when he is not simply striking and holding a pose, but "The Queen of Spades" is an opera in which overacting often seems appropriate, and this is likely to be the definitive video edition for quite a while.
In Tchaikovsky's "Eugen Onegin," the Kirov performance, for which no date is given (Kultur 1165), features several fresh young singers without the kind of name recognition found in Bolshoi productions, but this opera about youthful folly and passion, Romantic excesses and belated regrets is ideal for that kind of performer. The tape from Leningrad clearly surpasses Home Vision's quite good one from the Chicago Lyric Opera. There are no real weaknesses in the cast, but a particular strength is the radiant presence of Tatiana Novikaya, who is totally convincing as the impulsive teenage Tatiana. Her letter scene, one of the most demanding quarter-hours in opera, is magnificent; no smaller word will do. But the whole cast is excellent, right down to the small but juicy roles of Triquet and Gremin. Most notable are Yuri Marusin as the doomed poet Lensky and Sergei Leyferkus in the title role.
For more information on Kultur productions, phone 800-4-KULTUR. Now Playing The Chilean group Inti-Illimani, exiled from its homeland after the 1973 coup that deposed and killed Salvador Allende, used to sing fairly often in Washington -- usually in churches -- during the 1970s. Its music was flavored with progressive politics and the folk rhythms and instruments of the Andes, a fine blend of plucked strings (harps and guitars), wooden flutes and catchy dance rhythms. They are back today at Lisner Auditorium with two world-class colleagues also featured on their latest CD, "Leyenda" (CBS MK45948): flamenco guitarist Paco Pena and classical/eclectic guitarist John Williams. Their music is less political, sometimes more glitzy, but they are still in touch with their folk music roots in dance numbers and in such vocals as "Sensemaya," with a text by Cuban poet Nicolas Guillen -- a wonderfully atmospheric incantation on the death of a snake. There is nothing else in music quite like what Inti-Illimani is doing, and doing superbly.
James Galway, who will be this week's soloist with the National Symphony Orchestra, includes nearly every flute concerto you have ever heard and a few that you probably haven't in "The Concerto Collection" (RCA 69450-2-RC, four CDs for the price of three). Contrasts are strong among the 15 concertos, recorded between 1973 and 1987, from the graceful 18th-century music of Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart and Carl Stamitz to the modern work of Ibert, Nielsen, Rodrigo and Khachaturian and the intriguing "Mandala ki Raga Sangeet" ("A Circle of Raga Music") composed for Galway by John Mayer and using techniques of Indian and Indonesian music. The 19th century was less fertile in concertos for flute and orchestra, but Galway has found two good ones, by Saverio Mercadante and Carl Reinecke, and he plays them, like all the others, with flawless technique.