All of these singers were truly outstanding in their roles. Big voices taking on big roles, and relishing being on stage with the full Sydney Symphony Orchestra in full flight under the baton of Vladimir Ashkenazy, with the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs fabulously providing the chorus (and a handful of minor roles) If you love lush romantic opera, then this was a night to remember.
And yet, it was, in some ways, not as fulfilling as if it had been staged. Granted, being able to see who is singing what when, makes it much easier to follow the story and understand what is going on, compared to listening on CD or the radio, but nothing matches the emotional impact of seeing something like this, with this sort of cast, fully staged. And I can't see that happening in a long time, which is a big pity. The emotional devastation of the triple deaths of this opera did not come remotely close to the shock/horror/awe/amazement/numbness that I felt at the end of Lucia this year. Yes I was exhilarated, but not "bludgeoned into insensibility" as I would expect I would have been, if I saw this in the theatre. There is only so much emotional response you can get from singers standing in evening dress and singing from book (or not, in the case of our Russian cast)
But, why was it so good, regardless? Well, quite frankly the cast, and the conductor. Ashkenazy may not be the most precise conductor, but he knows how to wring out emotion and atmosphere, and colour from an orchestra. Yes, there were places where the ensemble was a bit ragged (mostly, it must be said, from the orchestra) but they were working clearly to bring out the effects wanted. And they were restricted to only a couple of places (that I noticed). What was more problematic for me was that our seats seemed to be in direct firing line of the trombones (despite being well back in the hall) so that when they fired up, we heard them then we heard everything else underneath them.
And the cast. Stuart Skelton in the role of Ghermann, bringing his Wagnerian stamina to a role that needs a similar voice to the big Wagner tenor roles. Its long (almost 3 hours) and he sings in every scene, most as the dominant figure. His is a big, bright, pingy sound, the sort that you long to hear sing Walter von Stolzing, rather than Siegfried. Here, he cut through the heavy orchestration (excepting the occasional trombone problem mentioned earlier) with ease. Perhaps not sounding as ease as he has when I have heard him in German or English, but this was (I believe) his first outing as Ghermann. As such, this was truly impressive. I look forward to hearing him growing into this role more in the future.
Andrei Bondarenko, who last year shot to fame in the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, winning the Song Prize, was an impressive Yeletsky, Lisa's fiancé at the start of the opera. Here he showed that his prize was no once off, this is a baritone with a huge voice (it seemed the biggest where I sat) of great beauty. His singing was probably my personal highlight in a very impressive night, but I could be showing my baritone prejudices too. He sang without score, and left me wanting to hear him sing more. I suspect all the big Russian baritone roles lie ahead, as well as the great Verdi baritone roles, which he will sing with ease.
Also truly impressive was Deborah Humble, who I heard earlier in the year in Die Tote Stadt, and thought this is a voice to watch. Well, judging by this performance, I want to hear her sing a lot of Russian music, her voice seemed to revel in it. Where as the German of Korngold's music was more an impressive display of pleasing sound, this was an outpouring of emotion, wrapped up in an aural rich melted chocolate, rich, thick and very enjoyable. It almost made me wish that her role as Pauline was bigger, but, she did get great music to sing as Pauline and in the "pastoral" in the second act.
Dina Kuznetsova as Lisa? Well, I loved her voice, but at times I wished her top notes were freer, sounding a little tight at times. Not badly, but enough that I wished for say, Dame Kiri's top notes, sitting on the top of her beautiful rich midrange. Make no mistake, this is a big beautiful voice, with enormous power, but a couple of times I was wishing for secure floated high notes as needed, but they came out tight. Having said that, Lisa is a huge role, and this was a performance of many strengths, and emotional depth, mostly sung from memory, and with a clear sense of the character she was playing.
Our Countess, to be honest was not really old enough. Would anyone want to hear an 80 year old singing this role though? Regardless off looking far too young, Irina Tchistjakova was a convincing older woman vocally. She portrayed someone no longer wanting to live and yet hanging on, making life for others miserable successfully. Again, we had the Russian singer off book (well, she has sung it before, no doubt many times) And yes, again, a singer with the voice to carry off this role, not just an older performer with the acting skills to pull it off. (although she was probably the oldest lead)
As Tomsky, Jose Carbó once again proves himself far more versatile than people expect. As Tomsky, the Countess's grandson* and Ghermann's friend, he tells the tale that sets off the obsession to find the secret, in a voice that, while sounding a little underwhelmed beside that of our Yeletsky's, was certainly not small. His scene in the pastoral, and his aria in the final scene were proof we should be hearing much more of him in Russian. Onyegin perhaps Opera Australia?
Of the other minor roles, none stood out as bad, or particularly miscast. My biggest gripe with the minor roles was simply that all of them would have benefited from having someone work with them to bring out more characterisation on stage. They sounded fine, but watching four performers who sing of interactions with each other, while standing behind music stands is a bit, well, odd. That most of them were younger singers with less experience meant that some coaching would have made a big difference.
Having said that, if a lack of action on stage in a classical concert is the worst thing you can say about someone, I think you can say they did well.. In fact it is safe to say everyone on stage was pretty damn amazing. And for that, I thank them, and the Sydney Symphony for setting up the concert.
By the way, here is Bondarenko singing Prince Yeletsky's big aria. (After singing Don Giovanni's champagne aria) Its the best thing I could find of him, but does not begin to capture the sheer volume of luscious sound he produces.
(This performance can be heard on Sunday 9/12/12 at 7pm on ABC Classic fm, via their website (here) - that is Australian Eastern Daylight Savings Time, if you are overseas)
*Pushkin refers to Tomsky as the Countess's grandson, its not mentioned in the opera. Where as Lisa is her grand daughter in the opera, and an orphaned ward in the story.