There’s an art, clearly much-perfected in St. Petersburg, of making a little go a long way. When Verdi’s grand commemorative musical machine is mounted in London– which it is, with great regularity – you’ll usually find an orchestra of around 90-odd, plus a chorus of anything ranging from 120 to 240. But Valery Gergiev runs a tight ship back home and even more necessarily on tour; and so, both tonight and even more strikingly in last night’s infrastructurally remarkable Parsifal, the Mariinsky’s orchestra numbered no more than 70-odd (with just 46, as opposed to the standard 60, strings) and a chorus of less than 60, tout court. Closely grouped together on the Barbican platform as if huddling together for warmth, you could be forgiven for anticipating that the thinly-assembled forces would produce only a certain amount of sound and no more, at best hopefully gaining in inner-part clarity what they would inevitably lose in volume. But this is to reckon without the Russians’ musical commitment to the matter in hand: they might very well be standing out in Silk Street en masse, half-frozen, producing more smoke than a steelworks with bare minutes to go before curtain up; but come the hour (somewhat delayed, par for the Gergiev course as LSO regulars know well), their concentration is a thing of wonder. The sheer, staggering weight of sonority unleashed in the Parsifal I shan’t forget as long as I live: and the engulfing torrent of fatly upholstered, richly dramatic sound they produced tonight was such as to beggar belief. Less, with them, is plainly more. Much, much more. I have no idea how they do it: I’m just glad they do.
Given that the Mariinsky chorus is a professional, paid opera group, I’m a little surprised at their relatively indistinct diction in what must be a deeply familiar Latin text (though it is possible that the conventions of Russified Latin – like that of the German equivalent with which I am, unlike the Russian, familiar – entails phonetic differences from the modified Harrovian form still practised here). But their musical response is beyond reproach, embracing effortlessly all levels of dynamic from the all-but inaudible at the start to the almost deafening in the Dies Irae. Their tireless energy and precision, buoyed along by Gergiev’s ideally-paced direction – once, and once only, in the Lacrimosa, I thought the tempo too slow – gave the performance its overall distinction: that, and the fabulous playing of the band, whose blinding brass need to defect here immediately to replace the sorry, crack-prone crew atCovent Garden.
Three of the four soloists I was familiar with, though I’ve only heard Ildar Abrdazakov live as Basilio in Il barbiere (shamefully, the only role he’s performed at Covent Garden, and that only last year). Mrs. Abdrazakov, aka Olga Borodina, I first heard all of twenty years ago, as Dalila. Utterly impassive and slightly disdainful, like a Piero della Francesca Madonna, she commands the mezzo line in the Requiem as only very few have managed before her, and even fewer today. In the best parts of her voice, the incomparable declamatory power remains, like some Old Testament prophetess reading the riot act to a race of sinners, stentorian and stern. I do slightly wonder if this is what Verdi had in mind for the part: Maria Waldmann, for whom he wrote it, and whose potential absence elsewhere nearly brought about a cancellation, was the first Amneris at La Scala, in 1872. The Liber Scriptus in the Sequence was even rewritten after the original 1874 performance of the Requiem the better to highlight her chest notes. These, it goes without saying, Borodina has in abundance. But the diminuendo jump to the last pianissimo note of “proferetur” and “continetur” in the opening lines now rather catches her out: and generally high(er) notes are negotiated and placed with some caution, as her always low-set voice settles ever-lower with age and use. I can’t help thinking that the lighter, more flamboyantly mezzo-y tones of a Garanca might be a bit more what’s required. Still, in her marmoreal, matronly way, Borodina nails it. As does hubby, the best I’ve heard live since Ruggero Raimondi in his prime (rather more years ago now than it is wise for me to admit to) with a fine, deaths’ head Mors stupebit and a most magisterial Oro supplex.
About the tenor soloist, Sergey Semishkur, whom I last heard battling bravely (but unsuccessfully) against the acoustic in St. Paul’s in Mahler 8 under Gergiev (a performance still washing up and down the nave there as I write), I’m just a tad less enthused. The tone is bright, forward, rather clarion in a slightly reedy, Slavic sort of way: not at all unsuited to the task at hand, in fact. And the voice is both well-schooled and evenly produced (more than could be said of several of last night’s soloists, the Parsifal included, for whom Semishkur would have been much better casting). But he’s one of those nervous tenors, (unnecessarily) worried about his upcoming top notes – all present and correct, in fact – who then visibly belabours his breathing for what’s ahead, in the process alas throwing his timing out either by anticipation, or, twice in the Ingemisco, by coming in fractionally late. Somebody needs to sit him down and have a quiet word about this before it gets worse, and begins to afflict his performance more noticeably than it already does.
Hand on heart I do not know why a conductor of such supreme skill and operatic experience as Valery Gergiev would so completely miscast his soprano soloist in this work. Viktoria Yastrebova is an appreciable singer: but she looks (and sounds) about twenty, with a slightly raw-toned, somehow unfinished edge to the voice, which is big enough, but girlish and glassy. Last night in Parsifal she sang the First Flower Maiden, surely more the sort of weight both of role and responsibility she should be undertaking at this early stage of her career, rather than the crucifying obstacle course Verdi wrote specifically for his absolute artistic (and other) innamorata, Teresa Stolz, who was the first Aida at La Scala (and Forza Leonora: and Elisabeth de Valois). Given who it was written for, and in what manner – think of the appalling all-guns-blazing orchestral and choral racket against which Verdi evidently expected Stolz to be able to crank out audible high Bs and Cs – I would say that NO soprano who hasn’t already sung Aida – and sung it magnificently – should go anywhere near the Verdi Requiem, which for the soprano is every bit as demanding (and yes, that includes Schwarzkopf. O boy, does it include Schwarzkopf!).
Last time I heard Gergiev conduct it live – in the same hall, with LSO forces, for the Verdi centenary in 2001 – he had Renée Fleming on the top line. Far from ideal as she was – insufficient weight, weak middle register, ill-defined chest, and with an unexpected catastrophe on the high B-flat in the Libera Me – she still had more of what the role requires than poor Yastrebova has or, I’m pretty sure, ever will. The girl should be singing Gilda, and maybe eyeing Luisa Miller, not thrown in at the deep end trying to keep her head above water in this killer of a piece. As for the Recordare and Agnus Dei – the duets with the mezzo – it was like the vocal equivalent of seeing a Cessna parked next to a 747. That she emerged relatively unscathed, and even managed a reasonable, if somewhat rusty, B-flat in the Libera Me (a regular graveyard for all sopranos) is credit to Yastrebova’s technique. And she must be profoundly musical: in the self-defeatingly difficult unaccompanied pieces – the Pie Jesu in the Sequence and the Lux Aeterna: why ever did Verdi write them? – she alone kept the quartet in tune when either the mezzo or the tenor took the usual tonal wrong-turning. But more quiet words are needed if such silly miscasting is not to be repeated (as I fervently hope for her sake it isn’t). For a company that nurtured Netrebko – who actually could sing deep-end Verdi if she weren’t so preoccupied by ill-suiting bel canto excursions – it’s bizarre that anyone could have thought this advisable.
So: a bit of a mixed bag on the soloist front, with the marrieds emerging clear winners (one of the very, very few times I have ever heard a perfectly evenly cast quartet of them was at the Proms four years ago, with Urmana, deYoung, Calleja and d’Arcangelo, under Belohlavek, pretty much perfection all round). But the impassioned playing and singing of the Mariinsky forces, and the no less fine conducting by Gergiev – all done and dusted in 80 minutes – was a wonderful thing to have encountered all the same, and I’m very glad to have heard it.