NEW YORK — VALERY GERGIEV'S skills as a conductor, and particularly a conductor of opera, were probably the greatest revelation of the Kirov's visit. His way with the Shostakovich orchestration of Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" was spine-tingling in its impact; his Prokofiev proved to be a riot of superbly guided textures, colors, and rhythms; his Tchaikovsky "Queen of Spades" was simply the finest account of the score I have ever heard. The orchestra itself is one of the finest - every bit on the level of the Met's or of Vienna's on a premiere night.
A tangible sense of what Gergiev can accomplish with his orchestra can be heard on a new recording of Mussorgsky's "Khovanshchina," [Philips 432 147-2, 3-CD]. It's the first in what promises to be a long list of Russian works to be recorded by Philips at the Kirov. I have always resisted this opera, but after hearing Gergiev's performance, with his superb cast, I am now persuaded that it deserves the stature its advocates have always claimed for it.
The work was recorded in the Maryinsky Theatre, with the singers on the stage and the orchestra on the auditorium floor. It allows for excellent balances between singers and orchestra.
Gergiev - who gives us all the music Mussorgsky composed - infuses the score with the sort of dramatic conviction and deep understanding that makes one understand why the score is held in such reverence in Russia.
Also worth noting is Gergiev's account of the Prokofiev "Romeo and Juliet" ballet score, again with the Kirov Orchestra, [Philips 432 166-2, 2-CD]. He tells a story in his conducting, and the orchestra is in equal partnership in this narration. This is not only the equal of those recordings of the score with great symphony orchestras, it surpasses even the best in its theatrical persuasiveness. Indigenous works highlighted
The United States debut of the Kirov Opera has been a bracing reminder of the unique impact of an important Russian opera company in its indigenous works.
The Kirov opened with Prokofiev's study of horror and madness, "The Fiery Angel" - a bold statement in itself for such an unfamiliar work. In fact, the company had turned it down altogether in 1926 and only got around to staging it last year, in a co-production with the Royal Opera, Covent Garden.
London-based director David Freeman has created a stark statement - on David Roger's near-naked black-walled stage - of a frenetic work that explores Renata's life-long obsession with the fiery angel Madiel. For the demons she sees everywhere, Freeman uses 10 men clad only in brief briefs, and painted head to toe in white. They are a constant lurking presence, now on the stage, now hanging on bars that hang on the perimeter walls.
The roles of Ruprecht and Renata are wickedly difficult to sing, yet both baritone Sergei Leiferkus and soprano Galina Gorchakova made their music sound effortless, even natural. The large cast performed well. And orchestrally, it was a consummate account of the score, consummately played.
Tchaikovsky's "The Queen of Spades" was presented in conductor and former Kirov head Yuri Temirkanov's bland production, albeit with pretty sets by Igor Ivanov.
The opera rises and falls on the strength of the tenor singing the role of Herman. Gegam Grigorian showed much of the required musical sensitivity and all of the needed blazing, stentorian top range. At her best, Maria Gulegina, as Lisa, revealed a vibrant soprano with unforced high notes.
At a later performance of the opera, the Kirov offered proof of the depth of its roster. As Lisa, Gorchakova flooded the theater with her sumptuous, effortless soprano. Vladimir Galuzin brought handsome looks, a superior acting ability and intermittently thrilling singing to his Herman. Aleksandr Gergalov was the now tenuous, now splendid Prince Yeletsky and Lyudmila Filatova, now an impressive character actress, made a riveting countess.
For Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov," Gergiev chose the rarely heard Shostakovich orchestra.
The production is borrowed from Royal Opera, Covent Garden, staged by the late exiled Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsy. Done in two long acts, the action unfolds on a gritty unit set (designed by Nikolai Dvigubsky), rubble piled in the corners, dominated by a huge arch - presumably the Kremlin's - under construction. It serves as an omnipresent reminder of the politics and power of Russia's rulers functioning at the crushing expense of the Russian people.
The Russian people were embodied by the remarkable Kirov Opera Chorus, who were capable of the mightiest of noises, the most moving of laments, and everything in between. In the title role, Nikolai Okhotnikov brought great personal warmth to his perhaps too-human-scaled portrayal - at least for the vastness of the Met.
In the Polish Act, Borodina (Marina) showed why she is one of the exciting new stars on the international scene today, whole Grigorian (Dmitry) proved nigh ideal vocally. The frosting on the cake in this act was Leiferkus's sinister and chilling Jesuit priest, Rangoni, easily demonstrating that he is one of today's finest operatic singers and actors.