Music: A tsar rises in the east

Helen Wallace on classical music
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The Independent Culture
Boris Godunov

London Coliseum

Les dialogues du Carmelites

Royal Albert Hall, London

Tradition is slovenliness, as Mahler said. But what's wrong with a bit of laissez-faire? The Bolshoi Opera's badly bewigged and bastardised version of provided an evening of almost illicit pleasure to a London audience brought up on slavish adherence to the score, on sharp, shiny sets, and on invigorating interpretations. Not that this pageant didn't have a certain magnificent consistency, from the lengthy set changes and endless curtain calls to the loud prompts and unidentifed crashes backstage. This was real theatre impinging on a normally slick ritual.

The sets dated from 1948: jewelled colours glowed dimly through 50 years of grime; cloth walls flapped, a vast, grubby papier mache stove wobbled. And I may have been imagining it, but wasn't it the overpowering smell of Moscow wafting from the stage - that unmistakable mixture of sweat, oil and floor-polish? Still, no dust has settled on the Bolshoi's real treasure: Russian vowels swilled in the mouths of Russian singers whose voices plumb the depths.

This was the company's first visit to London, and as if to throw down the gauntlet to Western worshippers of the Ur-text, they brought Mussorgsky's Godunov in its 90-year-old Rimsky-orchestrated version. Scholars have since resurrected Mussorgsky's more visionary and daring original. But in one of those satisfying twists of sophistry, this version is now being touted as "the most authentic production possible of the that took the world by storm 90 years ago". Who could argue with that? Well, several critics are all of a twitter at the stitch-up of scenes and Rimsky's naughty-but-nice orchestrations which plump up and gild the raw material.

The swapping of the final and penultimate scenes leaves you with two scenes that end with the same, plaintive aria of the Simpleton (delivered by Leonid Bomshteyn with taut eloquence), and the opera ends with the death of Boris instead of the entrance of the new Tsar-pretender. Then there were the missing "Polish" scenes, in which the conniving Cardinal `sorimarry the Pretender in order to spread the Catholic faith to Russia; thus, when four Jesuits turned up chanting in Latin in the Forest Clearing, they looked like a bunch of Father Ted's priestly colleagues who had wandered on to the wrong set.

Acting wasn't high on the agenda, but who cares if the production is static when the singers are this good? Vladimir Matorin gave a moving but understated performance as Boris, in the grip of grief rather than madness after his indelible act of treachery. Pimen (Alexander Kisselev), Shcelkalov (Yuri Vedeneyev) and Grigory (Vitali Tarashchenko) made our lithe Western tenors and baritones sound like anaemic pipers. Marina (the venerable Elena Obraztsova) gave an extraordinary display of chest voice, scooping up her notes from well below the tenor range. Mark Ermler conducted an orchestra which had an impressively blended string sound. In their awkward ostinati the violas were wonderfully accurate; the cellos were lean and light, and there was a bloom to the bassoon sound. Brass rasped and blared in true Russian fashion as the Pretender made his final entrance.

Costumes were timelessly opulent, but the wigs were coiffured with erect beards and pudding-bowl haircuts and there were ever more ghastly shades of brown in the chorus. Some of the surtitles were startlingly casual: "We're having a breather," said the crowd when admonished to begin their pleas to Boris again in the Prologue. In one "breather" I heard that a chorus member was out at the back door of the theatre, fur hat in hand, offering his singing services to passers-by. All in good fun, but a salutary reminder of the dire conditions these singers survive in. "Pray God will have mercy on suffering Russia," says Boris's retinue. Quite.

It was France that was suffering on Wednesday night in Opera du Rhin's semi-staged version of Les dialogues du Carmelites at the Royal Albert Hall. The opera's recent staging at English National Opera perhaps accounted for a small audience. Those who enjoyed it in the theatre may not have wanted to risk the doomed acoustic of the Albert Hall. What they missed was fine French singing and a performance of such stark simplicity that the opera's genius was laid bare. Everything conspired against its success: to see this most intimate of theatre pieces in the RAH was like watching figures on a distant television screen underwater. The murky acoustic threatened to cloud what was not the most piquant playing, under Jan Lathan- Koenig. Lighting of industrial coldness nearly destroyed the fraught and sensitive atmosphere created by the singers. The sudden spotlighting of Sir Henry Wood, that unlikely religious icon, acquired an awful and absurd significance as the Prioress claimed responsibility for the nuns' vow of martyrdom. But when the lights came down on a stage littered with guillotined nuns in white sheets, that one saw a devastating human spectacle - and not a Chinese laundry - was proof of the effectiveness of the performance.

The tale of an order of Carmelite nuns massacred in the Revolution - and of one young neurotic novice in particular - does not sound promising operatic material. Strangely, Poulenc's score, with its suave urbanity, also comes near to shattering our suspension of disbelief. Here comes one of his jaunty um-cha-cha tunes in the midst of the Prioress's death scene; the alarm of the arrival of Blanche's brother is spiced with louche interludes. When Blanche escapes the convent, to discover that her father has been murdered, the melody stretches upwards with cat-like sensuality.

But perhaps it is this unlikely meshing of the bourgeois, the erotic and a deep religious conviction that gives the music its power. Poulenc evokes the loneliness and claustrophobia of the sick-room. (His own lover was dying as he wrote the work.)

Blanche (Anne-Sophie Schmidt) gave an uneven characterisation, but Sister Marie's almost cruel severity was well captured by Hedwig Fassbender. Nadine Denize's Abbess gave a truly agonised vision of the future terror, and Patricia Petitbon's Constance, with her shrill, near-sexual desire for death, stole the show.

Michael White returns next week

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