Opera: KIROV OPERA Usher Hall and Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

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The Independent Culture
Myth, magic, mysticism. Telling tales from old Russia. In Leningrad, you tell them the way your forefathers did, or not at all. The Kirov Opera may finally have rejoined the mainstream of European culture, but how long before western influence changes the habits of a lifetime? Should they, will they, resist? Their latest staging of Rimsky Korsakov's The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh looks awfully familiar. Check out the archive photographs in the programme book: the gaudy Camelot costumes, the painted cloths, the dappled gauzes, the forest glades, the pantomime bear, the cut-out minarets and papier-mache cathedral bells. Nothing has changed: it's the same old picture-book - just a newer and brighter edition. Shows like this one don't get directed, just reassembled. Carry on Kitezh? That's about the size of it.

So, treasure it as a collector's item, dismiss it as tradition doomed to extinction, but don't imagine that like "the invisible city" it will disappear overnight. Nor should it. These are cynical times we live in, and there is something genuinely charming, yes even touching, about this kind of theatrical innocence. lt just needs to be better. A whole lot better. There never was any mystique about weekly-rep pantomime.

But close your eyes, as I did, and Valery Gergiev's wonderful Kirov Orchestra straightway opened up magic casements on the imagination. From the verdant shimmer of Korsakov's "forest murmurs" to the brassy roar of the advancing Tartar hordes (wide-vibrato trombones and horns flaring magnificently), their wholeheartedly "primary" response to this beautiful (and, yes, sophisticated) score was of a colour and cast to make all other comers sound positively counterfeit. Westerners are inclined to toy with this music; the Russians play it. It's the same with the voices. This Kitezh was not especially well sung - indeed, in some instances quite poorly sung. But it's the character of these voices - an unpasteurised quality - for which there can be absolutely no substitute. Some, like Galina Gorchakova's, are great voices, though on this particular night her Fevronia amounted to little more than the best efforts of a soprano in trouble. She sounded tired, underpowered, unsupported, unable to find the length of her phrases.

And that is worrying, since on the previous night she had sung up a storm in the much smaller role of Gorislava in Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila.

No staging this time. No gauze, no glitter, no ham. Just a rare opportunity to get beyond that "pops" overture (and with Geriev coming off the starting blocks like a dervish, even those Russian fiddlers were entitled to cheat a little) to the three hours or so of music beyond - some of it remarkable. Not for nothing did they dub Glinka "the father of Russian opera". Russian classicism, Russian bel canto effectively began and ended here. And yet the epic tone remains true to the spirit of Russian folklore: huge strophic arias, elaborate narrations. Why even the coloratura is cast in epic terms with all the attendant instrumental obbligati: like the extraordinary solo piano of the first and last scenes, almost as if the teller of this fantastic tale were reliving his dreams in another place, another time: an elegant Viennese salon, perhaps?

Once again, there was history in every well-marinated performance. Larissa Diadkova's opulent mezzo shone bravely in Ratmir's impassioned "Dream of love", replete with yearning cor anglais, there were "Magic Dances" (Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours" a la Russe), full-throated choruses (the feeling of one big happy ensemble is quite irresistible with this company). And from the moment Gergiev launched his big-boned cello section into the overture's first hummable tune, you knew from the palpable fizz of excitement where all the motivation was coming from. You can see the Kirov staging on BBC TV in the autumn. For my money, hearing was belief enough.