Valery Gergiev, Mariinsky Orchestra
Tchaikovsky: Opera “Iolanta”, Symphony No.5
Lucerne, KKL, 2019-01-09
The first of the concerts that Migros Kulturprozent Classics organizes in 2019 took place in the White Hall of the Lucerne Culture and Congress Centre (KKL). At the center of this event was the Mariinsky Orchestra (Mariinsky Theater Orchestra) under the direction of its Principal Conductor, Valery Abisalovich Gergiev (*1953, see also Wikipedia). Orchestra and conductor enjoy a very high reputation—needless to say that the event was very well-sold. Both Gergiev and his orchestra are almost regular guests in Lucerne, therefore don’t require an introduction.
The Mariinsky Orchestra certainly is one of the most prominent orchestras in Russia today. This evening (not for the first time!), they presented a program exclusively with compositions by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893):
- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893): Opera “Iolanta”, op.69 (excerpts)
- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893): Symphony No.5 in E minor, op.64
For me, this was the second live encounter with Valery Gergiev. My first encounter goes back around 20 years: also at the KKL in Lucerne, he conducted Mussorgsky / Ravel’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”, as well as Alexander Scriabin’s Symphony No.4, op.54, a.k.a. Poème de l’extase (The Poem of Ecstasy). I don’t remember whether this earlier concert was with the same orchestra.
My wife and I had seats 3 & 4 in row 19, on the right side of the rear block stall seats. This was allegedly in the acoustically best area in this venue, though I would claim that there are no really bad seats in this hall.
Tchaikovsky: Opera “Iolanta”, op.69 (excerpts)
Iolanta, op.69, is Tchaikovsky’s last opera—a lyric opera in a single act, on a libretto by the composer’s brother, Modest Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1850 – 1916). That again was based on a Danish play Kong Renés Datter (King René’s Daughter) by Henrik Hertz (1797 – 1870). Tchaikovsky wrote this opera in 1891, starting with the final duet, in June, completing the composition in September, the instrumentation in November of the same year. Even though the composer was not convinced of his own work, the opera, which premiered at the Mariinsky Theater in St.Petersburg in December 1892, was reasonably successful. To this day, the opera is not performed very often, and only few recordings exist.
Just in very brief form (see Wikipedia for more detail): Princess Iolanta was born blind and does not know that she is princess, nor is she even aware of her blindness. Her father, King René, keeps her in seclusion. She is promised to Duke Robert. Her father arrives with the Moorish physician Ibn-Hakia who promises to heal the princess’ blindness, provided she is told about her blindness. Her father refuses this, out of fear that in the case of failure, this might make his daughter fall into depression.
Duke Robert arrives with his friend, Count Vaudémont. Robert tells Vaudémont that he wants to avoid the marriage, as he has fallen in love with another woman. Vaudémont finds the entrance to Iolanta’s secret garden and sees her sleeping. He instantly falls in love with her. When she wakes up, Vaudémont notices her blindness and tells her about light and color.
René threatens to have Vaudémont executed if the physician fails to restore Iolanta’s sight. Iolanta, scared about losing Vaudémont, agrees to the treatment. In the end, the treatment works, René cancels Robert’s marriage contract and gives Iolanta to Vaudémont, everybody is happy.
The opera “Iolanta” is set for 10 soloists, choir and orchestra. The excerpts performed in this concert reduced the setting to 5 solo singers:
René (Рене, король), King of Provence (Bass)
In the concert announcement, this role was to be performed by the Russian bassist Stanislav Trofimov. However, the singer had to cancel his participation the night before the concert. Luckily, the organizers managed to hire a replacement—actually more than that: with Mikhail Petrenko (*1975 in St.Petersburg, see also Wikipedia), we heard one of the most prominent bassists today, and actually a member of the Mariinsky Theater ensemble. He currently is performing in Italy, so only needed to travel to Lucerne from Florence. Still even that only worked out at the very last moment: he apparently arrived a mere 40 minutes prior to the concert.
Iolanta (Иоланта), Blind Daughter of King René (Soprano)
The lyrical soprano Irina Churilova received her education in Novosibirsk and now is a permanent guest soloist at the Mariinsky Theater in St Petersburg, where she debuted in 2013. Since 2008 she is a member of the ensemble at Novosibirsk State Opera, and she regularly performs at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.
Count Vaudémont (Водемон), a Burgundian Knight (Tenor)
Najmiddin Mavlyanov, grew up in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. He graduated from the State Conservatoire of Uzbekistan in 2008. In 2010, he joined the Opera Company of the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Musical Theater. He debuted at the Mariinsky Theater in 2014., where he since often performs the big tenor roles in Verdi’s operas.
Robert (Роберт), Duke of Burgundy (Baritone)
The baritone Roman Burdenko received his education at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory in St.Petersburg. 2006 – 2011 he was member of the Mikhailovsky Theater in St.Petersburg, frequently performed at Novosibirsk Opera, and debuted at Mariinsky Theater in 2013.
Ibn-Hakia (Эбн-Хакиа), a Moorish Physician (Baritone)
The bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin (see Wikipedia for additional information) also received his education at the St.Petersburg Conservatory. In 1998 he won the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and since started an international career as opera singer. He is a member of the Mariinsky Theater Ensemble, performing the big roles of the Russian repertoire, as well as major roles in Wagner operas.
The work obviously was given in excerpts only (the full opera takes over 90 minutes and would also involve a choir). Even though the excerpts chosen feature very little (if any) physical “action”, the opera could hardly be called “semi-staged”: there was no staging, the singers performed without props, not dressed up as in a real opera.
The orchestra used a semi-circular, ascending podium arrangement, offering excellent visibility also to the audience in the parquet. At the same time, there was no need for Valery Gergiev to stand on a podium: he had plenty of freedom to move while conducting and also could maintain eye contact with all musicians. The rear-most part of the podium was yet another step higher up. It formed a narrow stage over the entire width of the podium, for the singers / soloists. All singers entered and left the stage on the left-hand side.
For the opera, the orchestra performed in a slightly smaller configuration (compared to the symphony). I was pleased to see the orchestra enter the stage in a coordinated (though not over-organized) fashion: clearly, a living ensemble with a good mix of experienced / seasoned players, as well as younger generation artists.
Throughout the evening, one could feel the commitment and the experience of every musician: focused, attentive playing everywhere. However, this also had to do with the way in which orchestra and conductor cooperate, as we will see below.
A Russian Opera in Concert Performance
The opera performance consisted of the orchestral introduction, followed by a series of solos, duets, rarely three singers performing behind the orchestra. Naturally, the performance was in Russian, and although most singers were fairly clear in diction / language. Without knowledge of the Russian language, the listener had to guess the meaning, the “emotional progression”, the “mental action” on stage. The booklet did not include the text, let alone a translation, nor even titles and the sequence of the scenes, who was singing in which scene, etc.
The listening experience was restricted to the emotions that the music, the melodies, etc. were able to convey, and with what the singers were able to express with facial mimics, limited body language, minimal gestures. Sure, Tchaikovsky’s music is beautiful, and it does not fail to express the state of mind of the protagonists, their emotions, and it does speak to the listener’s heart. One even could gather the fundamental course of action. Still, overall, listeners who had not seen the opera before remained somewhat “in the air”, i.e., there were limitations to what the performance could achieve.
In my experience, a (necessarily bilingual) projection of the lyrics would not have helped much, would rather have distracted the listener from the performance. These were fundamental flaws / limitations of any semi-stage production in a “foreign” language.
The orchestral introduction gave a first impression on the “functioning of the orchestra”, how it cooperated with the conductor.
Valery Gergiev conducted “Iolanta” from score, but without baton (not even his famous toothpick!). His conducting technique is very unconventional, to say the least. For the most part, it consists of vague wagging movements with one or both his hands (never, ever would he use symmetrical gestures, of course). More often than not, the shaking of hands was supported by a wild, titillating movement of his fingers. It looked like a mix of modeling tones and phrases and maybe trying to tickle every bit of musicality out of the orchestra?
Rarely only, his arm and hand gestures would define a precise beat. This made the listener wonder how the musicians ever could play in a coordinated fashion. But they did, and so, one could only conclude that in rehearsals and performance, is magically able to convey his intent to the ensemble! I obviously have never watched Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886 – 1954) but he is the one other conductor who was famous for not using conventional technique, and for starting concerts with seemingly erratic, if not uncontrolled movements of his baton. Certainly in this concert, I had the impression that this technique worked really, really well. However, I doubt that this would function nearly as well with orchestras other than his own.
The Mariinsky Orchestra may not be at the very top on an international scale—like: the string sound seems not quite as silky and smooth as with other ensembles. However, I definitely enjoyed the richness in colors, the characterful voices of the wind soloists (definitely all woodwinds, certainly also the horns). I also noted that in the performance, Gergiev did not try controlling every single wind solo. Rather, the soloists were given the freedom to shape their melodies and phrases.
Interestingly, in the opera performance, Gergiev did not have or need much (conspicuous) support by the concertmaster or other first desks. Yes, these had leader function (up to the first double-bassist), but mostly just within their local group. After all, as soon as the singers appeared, the key interaction consisted in Gergiev coordinating singers and orchestra. Overall, the vast amount of experience and self-control in the orchestra was obvious, throughout the opera performance.
For the following, I will (for once) not follow the performance by “movement” (aria, duet, etc.), but rather describe the performance of the singers, in the order of their appearance.
Princess Iolanta — Irina Churilova
An impressive voice with a distinct “Slavonic timbre”—though certainly not excessively guttural. I particularly liked the singer’s vibrato: she started her part sotto voce, with virtually no vibrato at all. For a long time, it felt as if she was effortlessly filling the venue even when singing softly (p), if not mezza voce. Of course, it later turned out that she commands over substantial reserves, raising to an impressive volume, with excellent vibrato control, from virtually flat up to very expressive, dramatic (but never excessive), broad swaying. And towards the end of the opera, she fills the listener’s heart with warm, intense emotions.
King René — Mikhail Petrenko
Mikhail Petrenko’s qualities were instantly noticed: his warm, dark, but melodious timbre, the full volume, his excellent, clear diction, and how he effortlessly reached down into the darkest bass areas. His expressive voice instantly filled the stage with its presence—marvelous singing that fully deserved the spontaneous applause after his duet with Ibn-Hakia. Too bad this role was relatively short only!
Ibn-Hakia — Evgeny Nikitin
I didn’t perceive Nikitin’s voice as a typical, menacing baritone role: it features a truly excellent, low tenor register, excellent volume control (smooth decrescendo and messa di voce), a bright, but still warm baritone timbre, with plenty of dramatic and expressive reserves.
Duke Robert — Roman Burdenko
In this role, Burdenko’s voice featured a mellow timbre. He can build up an impressive volume, using a beautiful, melodious legato.
Count Vaudémont — Najmiddin Mavlyanov
At least initially, Mavlyanov’s tenor seemed the least impressive of the voices, with a slightly covered timbre (for a tenor voice), and tone transitions weren’t always quite clear / sharp. Later, though, he, too, built up an impressive volume and brilliance, calling for an extra applauses. Not at the least, this was thanks to Tchaikovsky’s beautiful melodious invention!
In the duet with Duke Robert, I felt that the concert setting didn’t always work in favor of the singers: in a typical opera setting, the orchestra is in a pit, relative to the orchestra, the singer’s voice reaches the audience more directly. Acoustically, it would have been preferable to have the singers perform in front of the orchestra, in order to establish proper / better balance. However, this prevents the close visual contact with the conductor. I should say, though, that Gergiev worked with a slightly reduced orchestra size, which certainly helped the balance.
Towards the end, in the duet with Iolanta, the tenor may not quite have reached the vocal quality and intensity (and “stage presence”?) of the soprano, his highest parts may have felt a little bit pushed, occasionally. However, in these sections, Tchaikovsky appears to have asked for more of a Heldentenor than a lyrical role.
Summary & Music
None of the melodies / themes are nearly as catchy as those in the subsequent symphony: to a large part, the opera is written in a recitative / accompagnato style: there are no arias in the classic sense (let alone in da capo form). The first time listener will barely walk out of this opera, humming highlight melodies. Still, the music easily manages to fill the listener’s ear and heart with its intensity, the warm emotions. And that the music isn’t catchy by no means implies that isn’t beautiful—quite to the contrary!
Above all, however, for almost an hour, we enjoyed five top-class voices. I only wished the booklet had given more details about the selection of scenes, if not also the text, or at least outlines thereof. A hypothetical “people don’t understand a word anyway” is not an excuse for this omission. The way it was presented, the listener experienced an opera that was largely reduced to its emotional content. Even that one sometimes was a vague guess.
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.5 in E minor, op.64
Symphony No.5 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) is the middle one of the composer’s last three symphonies—all very well-known. So, I’ll just mention that Symphony No.5 in E minor, op.64, premiered in 1888, in the year of its composition. This was at the Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg, with the composer conducting. The symphony features four movements:
- Andante — Allegro con anima — Molto più tranquillo
- Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza — Non allegro — Andante maestoso con piano
- Valse: Allegro moderato — Trio
- Finale: Andante maestoso —Allegro Vivace — Molto vivace — Moderato assai e molto maestoso — Presto
3 flutes (& piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba, timpani, strings.
I have previously written about concert performances of this symphony: first from a concert in Zurich, on 2017-06-25, later in the same year, at KKL Lucerne, 2017-08-17, and finally last year, at a Philharmonic Concert at Zurich Opera, on 2018-01-14.
After the intermission the orchestra was slightly larger: it now used parts of the “stage” area in the back, there were more violins. The first violin desk now featured the first concertmaster with his impressive posture. This was of particular importance, as it soon turned out. Valery Gergiev conducted without score, and again (of course) with his bare hands.
I. Andante — Allegro con anima — Molto più tranquillo
Dark colors in the A clarinets dominated the beginning, a relatively slow pace, mellow articulation and contours. The initial Andante showed absolute calm, Gergiev took plenty of time for the long fermatas, as if he was depicting the width and depth of Russian landscape. The symphony instantly caught the listener’s heart and mind.
In the Allegro con anima, the music remained flowing, the articulation soft, at a moderate, unexcited pace, with sometimes almost epic breadth. Gergiev took the movement through the strong waves of emotions, seemingly amplifying, almost over-emphasizing Tchaikovsky’s rubato: it seemed close to a miracle how he managed to control the orchestra with his vague, fuzzy, trembling gestures! Of course, this wasn’t just the orchestra exactly knowing the conductor’s intent: throughout the symphony, the concertmaster played a key role in coordinating not just the violins, but most, if not all of the orchestra: often, the musicians were mainly watching him, while keeping track of Gergiev’s gesture using peripheral vision.
One key feature of the performance clearly was in Gergiev’s highlighting of the composer’s clearly annotated tempo variations. Yet, the tempo concept didn’t feel exaggerated, rather was compelling throughout. The other general observation was with the relatively soft contours: Gergiev avoided harsh articulation and contrasts, saving resolute articulation for the beginning of the coda. The one minor quibble in this movement was with occasional, minor intonation issues with the wind instruments (woodwinds?).
II. Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza — Non allegro — Andante maestoso con piano
Throughout the symphony, Gergiev continued (almost) attacca, here with the gentle, elegiac melody lines in the strings, into which the horn played its beautifully mellow solo, then joined by the clarinet. This intense warmth of the emotions! And again, strong rubato highlighted the change between lyrical and the highly emotional segments. Compared to the opera, the string sound seemed to exhibit more character, was more pronounced, and compared to the opera, the orchestra appeared to be more coherent, seemed to have grown together.
One “highlight moment” in this movement was in the long general rest / fermata, the compelling transition to Tempo I in the second half, at the pizzicato, prior to [G] in the score. This wasn’t the only transition which seemed utterly convincing. What also came to mind was the concept of an “emotion painting”. It’s hard to say how much this is in Tchaikovsky’s music, and how much Gergiev’s interpretation (and the orchestra’s performance) contributed to this: the outcome, the live experience was excellent, for sure!
III. Valse: Allegro moderato — Trio
The Valse again started with soft, flowing contours. But of course, that was just the beginning. When the violins start their spiccato assai on semiquavers, the movement turns into a virtuosic masterpiece. And the orchestra’s performance was truly masterful, maintaining excellent coordination through all of Gergiev’s ritardandi and accelerandi, which at best could be vaguely guessed from the conductor’s vague, nervous finger gestures. Yet, nothing seemed mere show in this performance: neither the virtuosity, nor the extreme ritardandi and fermatas.
IV. Finale: Andante maestoso —Allegro Vivace — Molto vivace — Moderato assai e molto maestoso — Presto
A masterful performance, just like the Valse: beautiful throughout. Yet, Gergiev resisted the temptation to exaggerate indulging the melodious bass lines. The performance had momentum, but remained (properly controlled). Also the sound balance was excellent throughout, did not exhibit the brass dominance that is sometimes observed with performances of this movement. Yes, there was a shiny sound of the brass section. However, it never turned oppressive (sure, the excellent acoustics in this venue also played an important role in this). I could not resist feeling thoroughly enthralled by this performance, and I sure wasn’t alone in this!
Overall Rating: ★★★★½
Encore — Tchaikovsky: “Waltz of the Flowers” from the Ballet “The Nutcracker”, op.71
In response to the standing ovation, Valery Gergiev concluded the performance with an encore. He chose the famous “Waltz of the Flowers” (Valse des fleurs / Вальс цветов, Tempo di Valse), the No.13 (act II, tableau 3) from the Ballet “The Nutcracker” op.71 (the final movement in the “Nutcracker Suite”, op.71a).
Needless to say that the musicians know that waltz (almost) by heart. Minimal conducting was required, the orchestra for sure was delivering a very good, if not excellent, and “authentic” performance (historically speaking, at least). And yes: people love that music, the harp solo alone was both fascinating and enchanting—but:
Why the Encore?
In a way, the Valse des fleurs was an obvious selection, as the ballet had actually premiered together with the Opera “Iolanta”, op.69, in December 1892, in the Mariinsky Theater, see above. However, it was unfortunate that in this concert, the two pieces were separated by the Symphony No.5—a strong piece, in a really strong performance. The Valse des fleurs is beautiful, lovely music, sure. However, it can’t compete with the emotional and expressive power of the final two symphony movements. In a way, the all-too catchy waltz theme buried the impressions from the symphony in the listener’s mind: as much as I appreciate Gergiev’s generosity in having the orchestra perform this waltz as an encore after 10 pm. No encore at all would have been the better choice here.
From a historic perspective, it might be interesting to experience the entire Opera “Iolanta”, op.69, followed by the entire ballet “The Nutcracker”. However, I think this exceeds the scope of today’s concert life. However: why not offer the encore prior to the intermission, as explicit substitute for a closing piece? Or, somewhat unconventional, insert the anticipated encore after the intermission, prior to the symphony???