Classical: Opera - The Russian whirlwind


WHERE TO start, how to describe the impact of the Kirov Opera on London this week? Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades on consecutive nights - dark, cautionary tales, the one a work of reckless daring and only sporadic accomplishment, the other a fully formed masterpiece - but both delivered here in performances from a conductor - Valery Gergiev - whose hotline to the spiritual core of a piece can give it the kind of immediacy rarely encountered in these days of flashy reproductions.

I believe that his reading of The Queen of Spades was among the greatest operatic performances that the capital has ever heard, blessed by an almost perfect cast, hair-raising choral work, and playing of such virtuosity and fierce pride from the Kirov Orchestra that all technical considerations simply evaporated. The storm in Hermann's soul raged through the Barbican on Tuesday night and none who braved it will ever forget it.

On Monday, an ill wind had blasted the same premises - the sound of young Dmitri Shostakovich bucking the establishment. Stalin will have been there in spirit, if only to repeat his angry exit. But this time the Red Army Band played on, decibel piled upon decibel until someone, somewhere got the message. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is cartoon soap opera, a coarse, fabulously vulgar tirade against the system that spawned it. Katerina Izmailova is only Lady Macbeth to those who use and abuse her. To Nikolai Leskov, who wrote the original story, and Shostakovich, who gave voice to its protest, she is the embodiment of Soviet womanhood - bored, bullied and buggered. In every sense. She takes her own life before the system can do it for her. But it's never over, not even after the fat lady sings; it's never over bar the shouting. And there's a lot of shouting. Most of this cast - and certainly Larissa Shevchenko as Katerina - could call home without a telephone. It's anti-opera, in a sense, petty humanity pitted (with diminishing returns) against all that extra brass - the fat, smug, militaristic voice of the establishment.

The orchestra gets all the best tunes, and the more dastardly the deed, the jollier the tune. Gergiev's orchestra responded with strident enthusiasm, while his gallery of great Russian caricatures hogged the front of the platform with no need for costume - the faces and voices said it all. The chorus - and what a chorus - are entrusted with the last word, the voice of Mother Russia resigned to her suffering.

There is resignation, too, on the final page of The Queen of Spades. But no one in this opera is fighting the piece, and nothing in this performance could come between it and us. From the moment in the Prelude where the pulse begins to race, the horns springing impatiently from the traps, Gergiev kept the score palpitating. Already we were in Hermann's head, sharing his obsessions, identifying with his fears, primed to hear them voiced with thrilling intensity by Vladimir Galuzin's tenor.

This performance set the tone for the evening. But Galuzin was well- met by Galina Gorchakova, their big notes together like comets across a blackened sky. Then there was the extraordinary Irina Bogacheva as the Countess, commanding attention with every syllable, every regal turn of the head, so real as to have you believing that all the Countess's yesterdays were her own. Gergiev shrouded her memories in spectral tremolandi so fine as to be almost beyond hearing. I've rarely heard concentration in an audience like it.

At the close, one felt again the weight of history as the chorus movingly delivered their benediction and Tchaikovsky's violins shyly ascended with Hermann's soul. Soul - that's what it's all about. Russian soul. Gergiev has it, this performance had it. In abundance. We've no right to expect better.

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