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S & H International Opera Review

S. Prokofiev, Ognenniy Angel ("The Fiery Angel"), The Bol’shoi Theatre, Moscow, 24th April 2004 (NM)

Fiery Baptism

"Is this the same Tatiana?" exclaims Evgeny Onegin - unable to believe the captivating heart-throb in front of him is the gauche girl he rejected so recently. "Is this the same Bol’shoi?" was on everyone’s intermission lips – surely this wasn’t the same house where the acting was more wooden than the scenery, and the band appeared to be sight-reading?

After multiple false starts, and a wait of three years, Alexander Vedernikov this evening unveiled a reborn Bol’shoi Opera. The premiere was the Bol’shoi’s first staging of Prokofiev’s "Fiery Angel" – stupendous singing, credible realistic acting, gripping ensemble action, eye-popping sets, dazzling lighting – and above all, committed performances from the Bol’shoi Orchestra and Chorus. From standards that would disgrace a provincial Rep, Vedernikov has staged work which is not merely worthy of a national centre of excellence – this is world-calibre work, at long last.

Careful musical preparation is evident everywhere. Prokofiev’s kaleidoscopic orchestration is allowed to shine with magnificent playing, and new sense of pace that stretches from beginning to end. At long, long, last, there is an ensemble cast of soloists, partnering and counter-balancing each other – instead of the weary parade of "I have done it this way for 30 years, laddie, and I am not changing now" which has been the Bol’shoi’s wretched hallmark so sadly often.

Oksana Krovitskaya excels in the title role – lyrical and melodic where needed, confrontational and spasmodic where the character demands it. At last we have characters on the Bol’shoi stage, who evolve and change as a result of the action, and emerge as different people at the end. Valery Alexeev’s credentials were clear as one of the few worthwhile aspects of the recent disastrous Mazeppa. As Ruprecht he reveals an ardent burning lyricism with an effortless upper range – world-class singing indeed. But whereas a normal Bol’shoi cast would then oscillate between the excellent and the execrable, this cast is uniformly spot-on, with no weak links. Vyacheslav Voinarovsky quickly won audience favour as a preening and petulant Mephistopheles, a foil to the powerful and arresting performance of Vadim Lynkovsky as the Inquisitor. Larisa Kostiuk brought both vocal and emotional gravitas to the Mother Superior, and Roman Muravitsky wrestled successfully with the dense orchestral texture accompanying Agrippa’s refusals to aid Ruprecht. Maxim Merkulov made a compelling performance from the entirely mute role of Prince Heinrich. It would be even better to be able to report that this was a Bol’shoi Theatre cast – but most of the main roles were invited performers of other theatres (Alexeev from Mariinsky, Krovitskaya now works entirely in USA, Kostiuk from Helikon etc). However, at least the pressing need to hire able singers who can credibly act their roles has finally been heeded and acted-upon.

The set is a phenomenal achievement in its own right – designed by Georgy Tsypin, it begins as a decrepit Petersburg courtyard (complete with crummy soviet lift), and ends with collapsing walls, huge folding rooms spilling-out from the upper storeys, and Renata ascending into heaven on the lift, now neon-lit and teetering precariously forwards. Quick-changes are effortless – Agrippa’s alchemical laboratory is especially effective. If this set does not scoop the Awards, there is no justice in heaven. But upon it is the outstanding work of Francesca Zambello, directing the action with a power and conviction that would embarrass many "straight" theatres – the most exciting work to have been seen in the Bol’shoi since her Turandot, in fact.

No, thank God, this is not the same Tatiana, and it is not the same Bol’shoi. This is the Bol’shoi which Russia deserves and needs – a vibrant, living, ensemble which plays genuine theatre, and not backward-looking "concerts in costumes". Its coming is long overdue, but it is at last here – and let Russia rejoice that finally you can see work on Theatre Square that’s the equal of the finest anywhere in the world. Welcome home - we’ve missed you.

Neil McGowan


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