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September 18, 2006

Iberian Nights: David Conway goes to the Opera in Tbilisi

Posted by David Conway

Verdi's Rigoletto
Rimsky-Korsakov's Tsarskaya Nevesta (The Tsar's Bride)
Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Centre/ Symphony Orchestra of the State Theatre
conducted Yaroslav Tkalenko
Paliashvili State Opera Theatre
Tbilisi, Georgia
13th and 15th September 2006

Zakaria Paliashvili's Absalom and Eteri
Orchestra and Company of the State Theatre
conducted Zaza Azmaiparashvili
Paliashvili State Opera Theatre
Tbilisi, Georgia
17th September

Despite - or rather, in no small measure due to - its decrepitude, there is an enchantment to the old quarter of Tbilisi, whose twisting cobbled streets descend to the river between rows of gently decaying houses laden with decorative ironwork and overhanging verandas, sometimes decanting on a little square or skirting round a crumbling church. It is the Orient as perceived by an English opium dreamer of the 19th century or as invented in the bizarre drawings of Sidney Sime.

The churches are important to the scene - whatever their state of repair, they are full. Georgia prides itself on retaining its attachment to Christianity since, according to legend, the Jews of the ancient capital of Mtskheta (a name which demonstrates the Georgian language's attachment to infeasible agglomerations of consonants) brought with them, from a visit to Jerusalem, a fragment of the robe of Christ, whose crucifixion they had witnessed. And it is the inbuilt contrarian nature of the country which also contributes to its charm - a fragile democracy whose inhabitants still have a soft spot for their local boy Stalin, a Caucasian state that harbours a vague hope of joining the European Union, a country which is not ashamed to name the road leading to its international airport as "President George W. Bush Avenue".

So it is perhaps not all that surprising that Tbilisi's Paliashvili Opera House, on the main drag of Rustaveli Avenue, is one of the world's most spectacular Moorish extravaganzas. It is true that in classical times the name "Iberia" applied both to Spain and to the region of Georgia, but there seems no other reason for the presence here of this gigantic structure, dating from around the 1880s. Despite suffering damage from time to time from events in the country's complex political history, it is presently nicely restored and the auditorium, surrounded by six galleries of boxes is worth a visit in itself. It knocks every English "Alhambra" into a cocked hat.

My previous musical experiences there had been mixed. Verdi's Masked Ball, earlier this year, with local singers, had been vocally strong, orchestrally acceptable, but, in terms of staging, mediocre, the production being a leftover from Soviet times, and using the "alternative" storyline set in Boston rather than Stockholm. It was impressive however to read in the programme that the first performance of this opera in Tbilisi had been in 1863, only four years after its premiere. At that time I would have thought that the population of the town scarcely exceeded the numbers on stage. A later visit to Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet I cut short after the first act - the dancing was fine but the orchestra was quite comically appalling, with a brass section that would have been rejected by even the most desperate Salvation Army band.

But guest performances there by Galina Vishnevskaya's Moscow Opera Centre promised well. Vishnevskaya's singing days are over, but she and her husband (the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich) succeeded in 2002 in bringing together sponsors, and the powerful political influence of the Mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov, to develop an opera centre "between the conservatoire and the theatre" to support rising singers and develop new productions. Political relations between Russia and Georgia are presently at a threatening ebb; two of the country's provinces, with Russian support, are in armed insurgency, and Russia has recently banned imports of Georgian wine and mineral water, savaging the country's economy. But the Georgians have more sense than to blame Russian artists for Russian politics and the house was full for the two productions, Verdi's Rigoletto and Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride.

The hallmarks of both productions were similar; pared-down sets, concentration on lyric and expressive singing, careful direction of flow of physical movement of individuals and groups. The principals of the orchestra were obviously under strict instructions to turn up in person, rather than send their first-year pupils. The results were, in all, absolutely first-class, placing the music squarely upfront, delivered by performers who were fit for any stage in the world. If some of the stylistic tics of stage movement were a little precious for my taste- as I frequently find in Russia - that was a very small price to pay.

Every time I come to Rigoletto I find myself bowled over by the intensity and profusion of the melody it contains. The plot, looked at by itself, seems unbearable - Rigoletto is systematically deceived by every character in the opera, (including his daughter and his hired assassin), except of course by Count Monterrone, who instead curses him. Bleak, or what? But every bar oozes lyricism - even the scene where the murderer Sparafucile insinuates himself into Rigoletto's acquaintance (a great favourite of mine) is underlined by an almost saccharine cello melody. Every solo, every ensemble is passionate and memorable.

In Yuri Baranov we had a Rigoletto who powerfully conveyed despair and rage; Irina Dubrovskaya was the most compelling Gilda I have heard in years. Pavel Paremtsov, a late substitute in the role of the Duke, worked his way fully into the role by the second act, and by Act IV was splendid (as of course he must be for La donn’ è mobile). Evgeny Plekhanov deserves a special mention as the youngest-looking Sparafucile I have ever seen, clearly the sort of yob who would pimp his sister and murder any wayfarer, and yet still be able to hit that vital bottom note in Act I. They and the rest of the cast sang the whole piece to its limits; the whole was utterly convincing. The quartet in the last act is still ringing in my ears, days later. The cast (and Mme. Vishnevskaya, who was in the audience) were rightly applauded at great length by a packed house.

The last time I saw The Tsar's Bride was in a hidebound leftover Soviet production at the Bolshoi, and I was bored stiff. The Opera Centre's version was a revelation. Stripped not only of cumbrous scenery but also of its chorus, this production also concentrated on seeking the work's emotional heart. The story-line, like Rigoletto and many of the best operas, centres on lust and power at Court. Those who can't be bothered with it can skip now to the next paragraph. Grigory fancies Marfa, the fiancée of his friend Ivan, and has abandoned his mistress Lyubasha. He intends to gain Marfa's love though a magic potion, but Lyubasha intervenes, substituting a poison. In any case, Tsar Ivan IV (that's Ivan the Terrible to you and me) kiboshes everyone’s plans by choosing to marry Marfa himself. She goes mad, fiancé Ivan is executed, Grigory kills Lyubasha.

At the time the opera was written (1899) no vocal representation of the ruler was allowed on the Russian stage and thus Tsar Ivan appears only in mime in the background. But in fact the psychopathic behaviour of Grigory, well conveyed by Sergey Sheremet, is clearly a corollary of that of his Tsar.

The disruption of the love affair between Marfa (Oxana Lesnichaya) and Ivan (Georgi Protsenko) would be more moving if they were better drawn in the libretto. Ivan has an excellent aria in Act I where he sings of his travels (Rimsky-Korsakov is always good on this topic, as in the Wedding–Guests' songs in Sadko, or indeed in Sheherezade), which Protsenko delivered in fine ringing tone; but otherwise his character is dull; while Marfa only gets a chance to come into her own in her final mad scene. The weight is carried by Grigory and Lyubasha, who is described in the first scene by a nobleman as a chyudo-devka (wonder-girl). Oxana Kornievskaya, singing Lyubasha, was a wonder-girl indeed; her act I unaccompanied song, lamenting the lot of woman, filled the enormous house with its passion and commitment.

Rimksy-Korsakov's music is in some ways a disappointment. That it was possible to write a love-potion opera in 1899 as if Tristan und Isolde did not exist is I suppose in itself interesting. The composer in fact originally thought of setting the topic as an opera some thirty years earlier and I wonder how many of his early ideas persisted. Although there are flashes of the inventive composer of The Golden Cockerel and the lyricism of Sadko, the sombreness of the subject seems to me to have perhaps cramped Rimsky's invention. Some of the ensembles seem to reflect a Taneyev-like concern for intricate counterpoint, quite out of Rimsky's usual line.

Nonetheless the work as a whole - which remains a standard item in the Russian repertoire - undoubtedly deserves reinterpretations when they are of this standard. The conductor Yaroslav Tkalenko showed himself to be just as capable of bringing a full Russian sound from the Tbilisi orchestra as he had a full Italian sound two days earlier. Laurels all round.

After the visit of the Opera Center, the Tbilisi Opera season proper opened with, as is customary, Absalom and Eteri by the Georgian composer Zakaria Paliashvili (1871-1933). Paliashvili was a pupil of Taneyev in Moscow and became head of the Conservatoire in Tbilisi and a founder of the Georgian Philharmonic Society. As with many composers of his period, he was actively interested in collecting local folk song, and this influenced his compositions. Absalom and Eteri, first produced in 1919 (at the time of the First Georgian Republic), is based on folk-legends and immediately became a centre-piece of Georgian culture. The national anthem of the present Republic includes some of its melodies.

One must of course be careful in attempting to comment on a national treasure, but I was from time to time irresistibly reminded of the Great National Opera with which tourists are threatened in Malcolm Bradbury's immortal Slaka.

The Tbilisi production of Absalom and Eteri dates from 1986 and that perhaps might also be the vintage of the veteran lead performers who are clearly great favourites with the local public. They performed in the ancient tradition of can belto, with two decibel levels; loud and very loud.

As a work of art the opera appears to have some failings. The story-line (actually in effect a variant of The Tsar's Bride, with a jealous lover poisoning the object of his desire) is light and there is little dramatic impulse. Nearly all of Act II, for example, is a sequence of folklorist choruses and dances, colourful enough but not much advance on the Polovtsian Dances of Borodin's Prince Igor, which date from around the 1880s (and don't let's forget that the Rite of Spring was premiered in 1918, the year before Absalom and Eteri). Nor does Paliashvili let himself go enough with the folk-music material available to him. You hear much livelier folk-singing - and see much snappier folk-dancing - at many a Tbilisi night spot (some of it of superb quality). What virtues the score does have are hampered by a leaden and four-square production. Some varnish-stripping, à la Vishnevskaya Centre, would do it the world of good.

My God, I hope I still get a visa on my next entry after that!

David Conway's previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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