Festival of Russian Musical Theatres. ‘See the Music’ – Such a different theatre!
Alexander Matusevich continues his narration about the performances of the Third Russian Festival ‘See the Music’. The Chamber Music Theatre ‘St. Petersburg Opera’ showed two plays on the stage of the theatre ‘Helikon’ in Moscow.
Following the great Boris Pokrovsky, Yuri Alexandrov has founded the Leningrad Chamber Music Theatre more than thirty years ago, which is after 1991 proudly referred to ‘St. Petersburg Opera’ and by lapse of time never ceases to amaze the audience. He brought two of his completely polar works to the festival ‘See the Music’ this year. They are so different that you wonder how one master can be so comprehensive. Alexandrov is a creator: he knows how to stage plays in different ways. He can be convincing in the traditional way and set the performance in an outrageous one. The Maestro shows lyrics, drama, farce to the audience in the plays and his works can be buffoonish, as well as heroistic. Even though what is difficult to accept is always professional. It is problematic to agree with ideas and methods of the artistic director, nevertheless, it is impossible not to admit there is a message that Alexandrov wants to deliver to the public, and he exactly knows what he wants and how to achieve this. Many works by Alexandrov are controversial but they are always impeccably professional. With all the colossal differences, these were the two new for Moscow performances shown at the festival.
However, for Saint Petersburg these two plays are also quite new. Operetta by Robert Planquette ‘Les Cloches de Corneville’ appeared in the repertoire of the theatre right before the New Year’s Eve 2017, and Charles Gounod’s opera ‘Faust’ was revealed in May 2017. The first opera is especially interesting.
Not so long time ago extremely popular comic opera (as defined by Planquette himself) with conversational dialogues (not with patters) has definitely faded today. It is rarely remembered in native for comic opera France, not even to mention Russia where something can be learned about this genre only in reference books and scientific research.
Yuri Alexandrov took up the forgotten, in fact, opus and considered its current rarity, he decided to introduce this genre to the audience.
No author's theatre, no concept could be seen in this performance. This is a good old operetta, which is set brightly, cheerfully, with buffalo cancan, with jokes and beautiful costumes (artist Vyacheslav Okunev) of the corresponding era (the action takes place in Normandy in the gallant XVIII century). In short, it is absolutely traditional. The only scenery is set for both acts, but it is beautiful and textured, depicting a castle wall with periodically opening windows and bridges lifting down on chains.
The mysterious light of Irina Vtornikova remarkably draws an atmosphere of a riddle, which is so relevant in this pretending to be a detective-mystical (of course, given in a playful operetta key) play. Vivid mise-en-scène, in which literally every character exists naturally, is decorated with choreography of Nadezhda Kalinina. It is definitely not possible to set comic opera without dancing within the performance.
As good and proper in opera theatre, the operetta played by the skillful troupe from Petersburg is filled with decent vocal and therefore it demonstrates completely different level of embodiment and becomes volumetric and sophisticated. The Maestro Alexander Goikhman manages the orchestra and chorus in an expert manner, providing the soloists with all-round support and always bringing them to the forefront. The soloists have simply enchanting diction, which is surprising for domestic operatic practice, every word sung is understandable, and this is reached not at all to the detriment of the vocal, its academic character. Alexandra Zarubina appeared in the role of playful Serpolette. Elena Tikhonova (Germaine) demonstrated the noble but not heavy vocal in the opera. Witty fisherman Grenicheux performed by Vladislav Mazankin was especially remembered for his expressive play. The vocals of Egor Chubakov (The Marquis) turned out to be not only qualitative but also regal and captivating. A beautiful, leveled baritone delighted the ears of those who came to the hall the whole evening. Anton Morozov has impressive vocals in the role of the Bailiff. Sadly, it is the only appearance in his part.
What about Planquette and his operetta? Light, elegant music, full of charming melodies, sophisticated and at the same time simple based on French urban folklore cannot fail to like it. There is no special depth in it, but this is not at all required in the particular genre. At the same time, this operetta cannot be called empty and entertaining. It has its own charm, dramatic logic and, undoubtedly, its own style. Natalia Chernikova’s verse dialogues were too straightforward and frankly unpretentious in syllable and they a little spoiled the picture. However, there were not many of them because Planquette’s operetta is a very conventional operetta.
The second performance ‘Faust’ (by C.Gounod) is a completely different product. This new author’s work of Yuri Alexandrov is sharply directorial and very tough in essence. At the beginning of the opera, the audience sees the Dr. Méphistophélès’ clinic, where in advanced years Faust is shown as an experimental one, who is tied up with wires with sensors. His rejuvenation is more of an illusion achieved by passing a high-voltage electrical discharge through the brain of a former scientist (according to Faust’s physical condition, he is no longer able to do science for a long time). This impulse gives Faust a new sensation, new visions which the viewer sees on the stage all four acts of the opera. Frankly, these visions are very unpleasant: an unbridled crowd of zombies in gray tights and with unimaginable strident red accessories (this is a society in which Marguerite and Valentin live), they are like monkeys jumping and sneering at each other. The main dramatic plot line of the clinic and the conducted experiment accompanies the action throughout the entire performance. Apparently, the authors of the performance wanted to emphasize the perniciousness and inhumanity of any social, biological or any other experiments through frightening the audience with the reality of creating monsters.
The demierge of this terrible reality is Dr. Méphistophélès who is all in white during the whole performance. Obviously, it is not a mockery of the common ‘image of an angel’ (characters with positive traits used to be dressed in white), but only a hospital gown and as soon as it is an experiment, everything should be sterile in the clinic. Undoubtedly, Méphistophélès impersonates creativity, but where it could lead? The climax scene is not for the weak-nerved viewers: a pregnant Margarita is placed on a couch and the experimenter personally and publicly aborts her, scattering somewhat bloody around the stage. The final chorus with Christian exclamations sounds in this scene somehow uncomfortable and unconvincing: as if a positive outcome from all this ‘hell’ is very, very doubtful.
Despite a very unusual interpretation, Alexandrov still remains faithful to Gounod and Goethe: the characters are not distorted, the relationships of the characters with rare exceptions (for example, Méphistophélès explicitly sticks to young Siébel) are built according to the libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, and most importantly, the meaning of the great work are preserved. The scenography of Vyacheslav Okunev is absolutely consonant with the tasks of the director: it is dark, functional and vulgar; it paradoxically combines the elements of carnival and inauspicious motives and inhuman actions. Glossy black and red curtains, alternately blocking the scene, bring a touch of recognizable glamorous and fierce today’s world.
Maestro Maxim Valkov doesn’t quite cope with the refined style of the French opera, perhaps it comes from stage direction and the performance itself: it is very difficult to keep soft undertones and romantic charm in the flow of sound, having such brutal visuals on stage. In general, the central lyrical couple is successful: Sofia Nekrasova is not filigree in terms of the quality of singing, but solid Marguerite, Denis Zakirov is a resonant, tenor-like convincing Faust. Interesting, juicy baritone Vladimir Celebrovsky was good in the party of Valentine. There was enough charisma in the character of Méphistophélès and in the bass of Yuri Borshchev. Victoria Martemyanova (Siébel) is also quite in the right place, although, her singing is more convincing than the character's scenic image (for some reason with a tint of a buffoonery).