By way of a follow-up to Rachmaninov's lugubrious anti-Semitic fairytale The Miserly Night, this year's slice of Russian arcana at Glyndebourne is Betrothal in a Monastery: a neo-classical sweet-nothing written when Prokofiev was in the throes of a mid-life romance, and designated, in his words, as "champagne à la Mozart or Rossini."
Regardless of Prokofiev's aspirations, Betrothal is more Cava than champagne, and a headachey one at that. Set in Seville, and based on Sheridan's libretto for Linley's 1775 parody opera, The Duenna, the plot is an inelegant collage of comic clichés. Three sets of lovers, including a middle-aged Jewish fish merchant and a plain, older woman, assume various disguises to outwit their matchmaking friend and/or father, Don Jerome, who is fat. Such was Prokofiev's wishful identification with the four lovelorn youngsters that, as in Don Pasquale, the comedy, such as it is, hangs entirely on the older and less attractive characters' lack of self-awareness, while the score is a diatonic bran-tub of vulgar vignettes, kitsch patter-songs, and over-egged arias that, very occasionally, nod in the direction of Andalucia.
Daniel Slater's hyperactive production does its best to dress this piglet of an opera in a pretty poke; using a Goya-esque ballet to highlight the patriarchal subtext that Prokofiev, himself in love with a woman half his age, ignored. As might be expected, the singing is of a high quality, not least from the drunken monks: another easy target. Lyubov Petrova is a perky Louisa, Vsevolod Grivnov a lyrical, if stolid, Don Antonio, Andrey Breus a smooth Ferdinand, and Nino Surguladze a show-stealing Clara in "Noch' bayukayet Sevil'yu". But my heart was won by the more mature cast-members: Viacheslav Voynarovsky's pettish, spherical Jerome, Alexandra Durseneva's supremely confident Duenna, and Sergei Alexashkin's knowing Mendoza. Under Vladimir Jurowski, whose idea it was to stage the opera, the London Philharmonic Orchestra play superbly. Nonetheless, this pseudo-Spanish frippery is a profligate waste of time and talent.
There is no Russian for overkill, or so one Russian friend told me at the opening night of the Mariinsky Theatre's London season. Hence Shostakovich's surreal 1928 castration fantasy, The Nose, has no less than 78 roles, not to mention the whirling hassidic taxi-drivers who cavort across the stage in the orchestral interludes in Yury Alexandrov's high-spirited, over-designed production. Under Valery Gergiev, the orchestra produced an archly anti-beautiful, frenzied sound that was, at times, quite ear-splitting. Of the vast, energetic cast, Andrei Popov, as the haute contre Chief of Police, was outstanding.
In theory, I could have seen seven Russian operas this week. I drew the line at four, only one of which, The Queen of Spades, is a masterpiece, though the first night of Opera Holland Park's production was nearly scuppered by an ailing Kazakh tenor. On any other week, it would be impossible to find a replacement at three days notice. But thanks to the Mariinsky - who had three tenors with the role in repertoire - OHP now have a new Herman, Viktor Lutsiuk, and can continue with their finest show this year.
Conducted by Stuart Stratford, directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans, and designed by Jamie Vartan, Tchaikovsky's opera was by far the most musically satisfying experience of last week, despite the excision of the Act II divertissement, and despite the tenor. Lloyd-Evans has set the opera in the first decade of the 20th century, lending it a tense social context (serfs watch every move from the scaffolds before assassinating the Tsarina), and affording one utterly magical image of "la Venus Moscovite."
Kazakh aside, the casting is superlative, with Orla Boylan a radiant and thoughtful Lisa, Mark Stone a beautifully restrained Prince Yeletsky, Carole Wilson a chilling, tragic Countess, and rising stars Antonia Sotgiu and Matthew Hargreaves as Polina and Tomski.
Back in Covent Garden, the Bolshoi began its London residency with Francesca Zambello's production of Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel: a greatly superior score to Betrothal but one so shrouded in archaic booey-ooey as to be utterly exhausting. By the end of Part One, I had ceased to care whether Renata (the wonderful Tatiana Smirnova) was possessed by an evil or a good spirit, and whether necromancy, catoptromancy, or exorcism was the solution. Still, Zambello's staging of the growing hysteria among the nuns was genuinely disturbing, Alexander Vedernikov conducted brilliantly, and the lurid colours and goose-pimple glissandi of the orchestra were exceptionally vivid. But basta! It's time for some music from somewhere else.
Betrothal in a Monastery, Glyndebourne Festival Opera (01273 813813) to 25 August; Queen of Spades, Holland Park Opera (0845 230 9769) to 4 August; Fidelio (01273 813813) to 3 August The Merry Widow (0845 841 1111) to 14 JulyReuse content