Music: Thrills of a Russian seduction

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The Independent Culture
A SYNOPSIS can be the most insidious betrayal of an opera. Of course, operas have plots usually derived from a more or less linear narrative. From page to stage, though, a convulsive transformation takes place. For a start, music accommodates only so many words, causing cracks in the story; but those cracks fill with music that imparts a dreamy continuity not apparent in any summary. That's not to argue for dispensing with programme notes. But a summary of what happens in an opera like Tchaikovsky's The Enchantress might render it dramatically ludicrous. There's passion, betrayal and sorcery, but there's also low comedy, social unrest and a portrait of the nuclear family in fission. Only hallucinatory music makes it cohere.

A century after its St Petersburg premiere, The Enchantress finally reached London in two Royal Opera concert performances at the Royal Festival Hall. There were no surtitles, so we had to follow three and a half hours of action by means of the libretto in the programme. A tall order, but watching the singers, listening to the music and keeping abreast of the plot ensured maximum concentration; and lo! The Enchantress proved thrilling, involving, dramatically cogent: everything the history books say it isn't.

It helped that, under Valery Gergiev, soloists, choir and orchestra were in blazing form. Gergiev conducted the first two acts with a baton, and the last two, in which the chorus sings less, without. To watch his hands draw their elaborate arabesques is already to feel the seductive ardour of the music, and they clearly worked their charm on his performers. Gergiev had a sextet of Russian singers whose ease with Tchaikovsky's idiom underpinned the opera's success, and no doubt helped the Anglophone supporting cast to sound more Russian.

In the title role, Galina Gorchakova proved that, whatever the critics say, she's still an exciting singer, the voice rich and intense, capable of coy flirtatiousness as well as adult sensuality. No wonder both Prince Nikita and his son Yuri succumb to her wayward charms; but, like Carmen, she pays with her life, her corpse dumped into the river by order of Nikita's wife. Before that, though, her fleeting happiness in Yuri's arms was ecstatically captured by Gorchakova.

Gegam Grigorian's Yuri improved the more desperate the character's situation became, and Nikolai Putilin got the raddled passion of Nikita's midlife crisis. Singing two parts, Vladimir Matorin proved a genuine Slavic bass, one it would be good to hear as Boris Godunov. And among many smaller roles, Paul Whelan's lanky Potap stood out. The augmented chorus was precise and thrilling, nowhere more so than in the remarkable a capella ensemble for 10 soloists and chorus that brings Act One to a climax. The star, though, was Larissa Diadkova, whose contralto incarnated the hellish fury of scorned wife and mother.

If the opera's brand of magic realism was this effective in concert, think what an imaginative production might achieve. Whether the company sees fit to stage rarities like The Enchantress when it returns to Covent Garden depends in part on whether it finds a director as instinctively theatrical as Nicholas Payne, who last week announced his move to English National Opera. Payne's vision has been crucial in boosting artistic standards during the Royal Opera's recent traumas. He will be a hard man to replace.

Few performers can make the journey from Bach to bluegrass seem logical, but Yo-Yo Ma at the Wigmore Hall performed that unlikely feat by means of an encore, an Appalachian waltz from his recent Nashville album. A Nashville album by a classical artist of Ma's stature? Some would dismiss it as rancid crossover, but Ma sees a coherence. Partly as a means of promoting his TV series Inspired by Bach, Ma had toured Bach's Cello Suites throughout Europe, and here he played numbers one, five and six.

In the first, he gave full rein to his sense of fantasy, his daring way with the music's line supported by a dazzling array of colours. If he was slightly less convincing in the fifth suite, his performance of the last was electrifying. In the Prelude, bearing down hard with the bow, he conjured up an eerie, buzz-saw sound that, to these ears, forged the link with folk fiddlers: after all, hillbilly music can be traced, in an unbroken line, back to middle-European forms that existed in Bach's day. This is not, I should say, something that Yo-Yo Ma exaggerates, but the rhythmic and interpretative freedom of his playing makes the connection at least tenable. He's a charismatic performer, able to create a world whose gravitational pull draws his audience in.

On Wednesday (Royal Festival Hall), Kurt Masur conducted the London Philharmonic in a concert dedicated to Klaus Tennstedt's memory. Anne Sofie von Otter was billed to sing Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde alongside Herbert Lippert, but when she withdrew, Florence Quivar deputised. I yield to no one in admiration of von Otter, but perhaps in this inst-ance Quivar was a better bet. Her voice, with its generous vibrato, is sumptuous, and if her enunciation of German consonants was blurred her tone suited the music's effusive emotions.

Mahler gives the tenor a tougher time, and it's hard not to wince at the tortures he visits on his hapless victim during the opening moments. Lippert coped well, there, and when the voice had the chance to work in less strident mode, he showed real warmth. Yet this is the mezzo-soprano's show, and Quiver was bewitching, especially in the whispers of "Ewig ... ewig" (for ever and ever) that finally take this song back to the earth whence if came. Conducting, Masur didn't gloss over Mahler's raucous vulgarity, but he was best leading the orchestra through moments of hushed awe. The LPO's low strings were in fine form, and there was palpable menace at the beginning of the Abschied (Farewell), the taut harps reining in the orientalist excesses. A worthy tribute to Tennstedt in repertoire at which he excelled.

The second programme in Yo-Yo Ma's series 'Inspired by Bach' is on BBC2 tonight at 6.30pm. It continues on 14 Feb (8.05pm), 15 (4.25pm), 21 (8pm) and 22 Feb (4.30pm).