Opera: From Russia with love

The Enchantress Royal Festival Hall (Saturday)

The Enchantress - Tchaikovsky's eighth opera - assumes a position of some strength between his two operatic masterworks, Eugene Onegin and Queen of Spades, and is more extravagant with notes than either. It's a big and protracted piece, and the journey it makes from rural idyll to inferno, from contentment to contempt, from haven to Hades, is its most remarkable feature. The first music we hear is homely, homespun, the music of folksingers and their songs, music of the land. This is 15th- century Russia. But before the prelude has run its course, a fabulously elaborate melody, full of imperial promise, takes wing in the strings, reminding us of an altogether grander and more exotic heritage. By the close of act one, hard on the heels of an extraordinary ensemble, a capella, involving most of the 14 principals and chorus, Tchaikovsky starts subverting the folk elements, turning them in on themselves. A fiery dance gives notice of tragic events to come. Over three hours later, sorrow is sown in an ineffable male voice chorus (a simple part-song as haunting as anything this composer ever gave us) and the terrible consequences of sexual hypocrisy and familial dysfunction self-destruct in a whizzbang finale with Tchaikovsky once again evoking the Dante of Francesca da Rimini. Value for money? Not half.

So why, then, is this often beautiful and bizarre piece - an unsettling mix of headiness and austerity - so rarely heard, you ask? Too many notes? Perhaps. But it's the quality and the organisation, the dramatic cohesiveness, of those notes. Listen to Onegin and the miracle is in the concision. You couldn't add or take away anything. Not one note. The Enchantress could shed fistfuls and only sharpen its act in the process. But that would be a different opera, and Tchaikovsky believed in this one. So does Valery Gergiev. In Saturday night's concert performance, courtesy of the Royal Opera, he scoured the enormous score as if belief alone could turn it into a masterpiece. The Royal Opera Orchestra played for him in that full-on Russian way that makes no distinction between the good, the bad, and the inspired, while a healthy front-line of Kirov and Bolshoi singing talent lent idiomatic stiffening to an excellent (and largely British) supporting cast. In the title role, a femme fatale born into quite the wrong century (Bizet's Carmen and Berg's Lulu should be so audacious), Galina Gorchakova was not what she might have been a couple of years back. For sure, when she sang of the "endless horizons" of her native land, of "the wide expanse [that] fills you, enters your soul", the singing came from somewhere, the dusky timbre took hold. But whilst the big notes still resonate with a will, the brightness, the ring of confidence, has gone from the voice, and the subtler inflections (at a premium) are not well supported; interest flags.

Which could never be said of the sensational Larissa Diadkova (Princess Evpraksia). This was indomitable singing, mind, body, and soul making a drama out of the crisis of every confrontation. Her big scenes with Gegam Grigorian (as Yuri, her son), Nikolai Putilin (as Prince Nikita, her husband), whose upper reaches sounded somewhat dry and impaired on this occasion (too many "white" notes), and most especially Vladimir Matorin as his clerk Mamyrov (what a distinctive Slavic basso this is) were what made the evening really hum. If scorn can be registered in terms of its chill-factor, then her bottom notes took us into the realm of cryonics.

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