Tuesday, 4 April 2017

The Fair at Sorochintsy, Komische Oper, 2 April 2017


Komische Oper, Berlin

Dream Vision ballet sequence
Image: Monika Rittershaus

 

Solopu Cherevik – Jens Larsen
Khivrya – Agnes Zwierko
Parasya –Mirka Wagner
Gritsko - Alexander Lewis
Afanasy Ivanovich – Ivan Turšić
Gypsy – Hans Gröning
Kum/Chernobog, Master of the Demons – Tom Erik Lie
Choral Solos – Friederike Meinke, Paula Rummel, Volker Herden, Matthias Spenke
 

Barrie Kosky (director)
Katrin Lea Tag (designs)
Ulrich Lenz (dramaturgy)
Franck Evin (lighting)


Children’s Chorus of the Komische Oper, Berlin (chorus mistress: Dagmar Fiebach)
Chorus of the Komische Oper, Berlin (chorus master: David Cavelius)
Vocalconsort Berlin
Orchestra of the Komische Oper, Berlin
Henrik Nánási (conductor)


Who would not want to stage a third opera by Mussorgsky? Boris Godunov and Khovanschina are universally regarded as two of the greatest musico-dramatic works of the nineteenth century, even if neither, and the latter in particular, is performed nearly so often as it should be. Thanks are due, then, to the Komische Oper and Barrie Kosky simply for performing The Fair at Sorochintsy for the first time since 1948, in Walter Felsenstein's very first season, let alone for doing it so well. This new production is something of which all who have taken part can justly be proud.
 

There are problems, of course, but there always will be with this work (if indeed one can call it that). If one has to piece together something that cannot fail to be somewhat fragmentary, all the better for active listening and spectating. The theatre is not, or should not be, a place simply to sit back and ‘enjoy’. Richard Taruskin’s New Grove article lists four versions that have been staged. This is the fourth, now standard insofar as one can speak of ‘standard’ for such a rarity: the edition by Pavel Lamm, completed and orchestrated by Vissarion Shebalin, first performed in Moscow in 1932. (An earlier version of this version, as it were, similarly prepared by Shebalin, had been given in Leningrad the previous year.) Even without the textual difficulties – to put it mildly – the listener would most likely experience something of a shock, or at least a surprise, upon hearing the music that is unquestionably Mussorgsky’s. Very little stands in the radical line of Boris. The opera is not a tragedy, but a comedy of peasant life, after a story by Gogol, and the musical style is simpler, closer to a more ‘popular’ conception of what is Russian. Taruskin, having noted that it ‘is frankly a number opera,’ – impossible to dissent from that! – goes on to say that it is ‘possibly modelled to some degree on Gulak-Artemovsky’s popular “Little Russian” Singspiel Zaporozhets za Dunayem,’ and, ‘as traditionally befits a peasant comedy, even the dialogue scenes are modelled not on speech but on folktunes’. Indeed, there is one such recurring theme I half-wondered whether I recognised from The Rite of Spring, but suspect that it was similarity rather than identity. (I should happily be informed and/or corrected!)
 

Shebalin’s orchestration and composition likewise – to my ears, anyway – distance the music from what I have come to think of as authentically Mussorgskian. Brighter, more ‘conventional’ orchestral colouring, seemingly more characteristic of other nineteenth-century Russian composers, Tchaikovsky included, is accomplished, but does not necessarily sound quite ‘right’. Perhaps, though, that is my fault, in expecting this very different work to sound more like Mussorgsky’s other operas than it should. The interpolated music was as follows: before the first and after the third: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Hebrew Song, op.7 no.2; and, between the first and second acts, Mussorgsky’s own ‘Trepak’ from his Songs and Dances of Death; between the second and third, his ‘Cradle Song’, also from that celebrated cycle; in the third act, ‘The Field Marshal,’ likewise from that set.
 

A Gogol opera would almost seem made for Barrie Kosky, offering magic, sex, exoticism, and of course grotesquerie. He and his production team certainly do a fine job here. Katrin Lea Tag’s set designs are relatively spare, without being minimalist; they provide an excellent frame for Kosky’s always detailed, convincing Personenregie. There is no doubting the mastery of his craft here. Costumes are undogmatically suggestive of when and where one would expect: no fetishisation, but again a way into the drama. The Dream Vision ballet sequence is, unsurprisingly, an exception to any hint of spareness. The sudden appearance of St John’s Eve on Bald Mountain seems bizarre, even incongruous, but one comes to feel that is part of the point (which, in a sense, of course, it is). Kosky’s fantastical imagination here runs riot. One does not necessarily understand, although one may feel compelled to attempt interpretation nevertheless. It is spectacle in the best sense, though, mysteriously changing what we have seen and heard forever.
 

The lavish banquet for diabolical beings with pig heads (Chernobod, Master of the Demons, speaking to us with hellish amplification) has been clearly prefigured, moreover, in the second-act scene in which Khivyra has her assignation with the priest’s son, Afanasy Ivanovich. After some sexually inventive shenanigans with the contents of her larder, she must hide him quickly, her husband, the drunken peasant Cherevik and others returning. Stuffing him as far as he will go into a pig’s head is, rightly, both absurd and absurdist, and yet also preparing the way for what is to come. Jens Larsen and Agnes Zwierko both gave strong, characterful performances in those two roles, a fine sense of theatre contributing to their musical success. As their daughter and her suitor, Parasya and Gritsko, Mirka Wagner and Alexander Lewis also shone brightly, their lyrical moments beautiful indeed, stylish and on occasion even heart-rending. As so often in this house, there was a very fine sense of company, all contributing to something greater than the sum of its parts. (If only British houses still retained such a thing as a company in that emphatic sense.)



Henrik Nánási shaped the action well, in an account of the score that seemed to relish rather than to feel any hint of embarrassment towards the interpolations, revisions, orchestrations, and so on. It did not sound like Boris, for it could not. The orchestra was in any case on excellent form: precise and colourful, supportive and spectacular. So too were the magnificent choruses, their members’ acting as impressive as their command of the musical and verbal text. That goes for the children too. All choral singers had clearly benefited greatly from the preparation offered by David Cavelius (also the furnisher of arrangements of three of those four interpolated items, the ‘Cradle Song’ remaining, touchingly, in its original form) and Dagmar Fiebach. No wonder Nánási brought Cavelius forward. Olga Caspruk made an excellent impression as bandurist, returning us to a Ukraine that, imagined or otherwise, inevitably provoked complicated emotions in 2017. What to make of it all? That was as much up to us as the performers: in this problematical work, just as in many others, that will always, quite rightly, be the case.


(This first night performance may be viewed here on The Opera Platform, for the next six months.)


2 comments:

Alexander said...

I look forward to seeing this in May. Khovanshchina is indeed all too rare, but the UK has actually been doing better with it in recent years than it has with Boris - the ROH performance of the latter with Terfel is the only one we've had in my time, and of course that only of 1869. When is this country going to see the second and better version again? On the other hand, Welsh National Opera will be reviving their Khovanshchina (Pountney) in the autumn, alongside Onegin and From the House of the Dead as a trilogy of operas that have Russian settings, which means Birmingham alone will have seen two staged performances in the last four years. The April, 2014 Birmingham Opera site-specific production, under the title of Khovanskygate, was one of my great nights at the opera, as piercingly relevant a staging as I've ever seen of anything; it made the work's comments on Russian autocracy sound like they could have been written last week, which indeed, they probably could have been.

I must be one of the very few Western Europeans who has actually seen Zaporozhets za Dunayem / Cossacks in Exile, in Lviv (Ukraine's most patriotic city) on the day after Ukrainian independence day, back in August, 2013 when the country was still just about hanging together. It's tuneful and anodyne and I don't imagine I shall ever really feel the need to see it again, even if the opportunity should arise.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thanks, Mark. I especially appreciate the report on Nánási, who will conduct Elektra here in the fall.