Grand-operatic sensibilities turned loose on a masterwork of world literature, containing the ruin and founding of civilizations... I knew I wasn't going to see a fully-staged production of Berlioz' Les Troyens for some time. I also know that travel to St. Petersburg is not in my near future (more's the pity.) So this week's Carnegie Hall concerts with Valery Gergiev and the orchestra, chorus, and soloists of the Mariinsky were welcomed with jubilation. (The split--Acts I and II on Tuesday, III-V on Wednesday--was irksome, but I noticed a considerably fuller house for the second half, and there were mid-concert departures both nights, so I may be in an unwearied-by-Berlioz minority.)
I can't imagine what Maestro Gergiev would do on a podium; here he stood in the midst of his orchestra (in a space curved forward like a proscenium in reverse) behind a music stand. And "stood" is a misleading verb. On the second night, his movements were usually limited to an encouraging sashay to one side or the other, or a few steps back to give scope to his cues for the chorus. In directing the frenetic fall of Troy, however, he fairly danced, darting and swooping with the movements of the music itself. There were moments when, directing the chorus, he actually left the ground with both feet. Nor did this come across as histrionic distraction; the orchestra and the chorus reflected his energy.
Indeed, although the soloists acquitted themselves respectably on the first evening, the chorus and orchestra shone. The structure of the opera, of course, favored them, with the March of the Trojans, as the horse is led into the city, exhilaratingly good. (I would have appreciated a little more unfettered fire from Ekaterina Gubanova, the evening's Cassandre. She knows she won't be listened to; she shouldn't come across as resigned. Her Chorèbe, on the other hand, Alexei Markov, was one of the stand-outs of the evening.) The orchestra likewise--from brass fanfares to floating clarinet solos, with plenty of percussion along the way--scintillated with mingled foreboding and exaltation. Their precision was especially appreciated by me as an aid during the orchestral passages where they were responsible for making us see the fearful Ascanius, Hector's ghost, and the burning buildings. The chorus saw us out with a foreshadowing bang: Italiam petimus.
Frankly, after Tuesday night, I was a little worried about Enée, Sergei Semishkur. Whether it was a question of having an off night or pacing himself, he reached credible heroism on Wednesday, to my relief. The poignant "Inutiles regrets" was rewarded with the audience's only mid-act applause (none the first night.) Tuesday also had me worried about the conventions of concert-opera: Cassandre and Chorèbe had stood modestly apart during their scenes, and I did not think I could handle this, among other things, with similar limitations. Enée and Didon, fortunately, were quite comfortable moving about, so the arc of "Nuit d'ivresse" had appropriate embraces. Agitated pacing galore also occurred, naturally. The orchestra and chorus were equally adept in providing ambient grandeur, and I never felt that the sundry processions and ballets dragged. Dmitry Voropaev, as Hylas, provided an interlude of remarkable beauty with "Vallon sonore." (Here as elsewhere, the French diction was... Russian. But I personally didn't find it too much of a distraction... and kept reminding myself that I'm probably fortunate in not understanding what French singers do to Russian.)
I am saving the best for last. When it comes to Ekaterina Semenchuk's Carthaginian queen, Gloire à Didon! Her voice, sweet and full, filled the hall with a seeming effortlessness. Her scenes with both Anna and Enée were beautifully sung and acted. Vulnerability having been established early on, her tragedy was poignantly believable. In madness she became sublime, her phrasing fluid enough that her agony never seemed to be mere vocal fireworks. Deducing from my own experience, I can only guess that the reason for the audience's silence (with only scattered applause) after "Ah! ah! je vais mourir!" was due to awed respect rather than indifference. Certainly she was rewarded with thunderous applause and bravas when, after four company bows, solo bows were finally taken. Without further ado, I will conclude this post of embarrassingly grand-operatic dimensions by directing you to a (fortunately captioned) Russian TV spot with interviews and rehearsal excerpts.