Opera and orchestral premi`eres kick off Soviet-American festival

``Making Music Together,'' the ambitious Soviet/American music and dance festival, opened last Friday here amid financial uncertainty and some vocal anti-Soviet protests. The program of Soviet orchestral music was performed by the Festival Symphony Orchestra (FSO). And Saturday night was devoted to the US premi`ere of Rodion Shchedrin's 1977 opera ``Dead Souls.'' The entire three-week event was the brainchild of two unusual personalities: opera impresario Sarah Caldwell and Soviet composer Shchedrin. In certain respects, they are kindred spirits. Both keep a wily eye on media attention as much as on artistic quality. Miss Caldwell's Opera Company of Boston remains principally a showcase for her not-inconsiderable talents as director and conductor; Mr. Shchedrin, who is best known on these shores for his cleverly orchestrated ``Carmen Ballet,'' based on Bizet's tunes, is one of the USSR's most visible creators of ballets, (mostly written for his wife, the legendary Maya Plisetskaya), symphonies, and operas.

It is fitting that Shchedrin should have approached Caldwell to organize a festival of musical sharing which, on the face of it, would seem an impossible feat to pull off. After all, Miss Caldwell's greatest triumphs came from other ``impossible'' projects: Schoenberg's ``Moses and Aaron,'' the uncut Berlioz ``Les Troyens,'' and her unforgettable presentation of Prokofiev's ``War and Peace.''

And so it was with ``Making Music Together.'' At the eleventh hour, it looked as if there wouldn't be enough money. And at the last minute, the opening concert was moved from the Wilbur Theater to Tremont Temple.

The performing groups are made up of Americans and some 250 Soviet musicians, dancers, and actors. They have been getting along very well indeed, and their energy and alertness to the music have been unexpected bonuses.

As for that opening concert, it got off to a rousing start with Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Seiji Ozawa leading the ensemble in three selections from Prokofiev's ``Romeo and Juliet.''

From then on, Georgian maestro Dzhansug Kakhidze led the US premi`eres of three works, Andrei Petrov's Violin Concerto, Shchedrin's ``Self-Portrait,'' and Giya Kancheli's Sixth Symphony. The Petrov, superbly played by '82 Tchaikovsky Competition winner Sergei Stadler (he should be heard regularly in the US), was the one work that, on first hearing, seemed to have a viewpoint, a consistency of articulation, and a sure command of melodic gesture.

Shchedrin's ``Self-Portrait'' proved a dour, protracted study in less-than-appealing orchestral textures that sounded neither especially personal nor particularly descriptive. And it shared with Kancheli's Symphony an infatuation with arid adagio writing. At least Kancheli's muse had some drama to it, particularly the first seething, terrrifying climax. Unfortunately, the work overstayed its welcome though.

All three pieces seemed short on genuine inspiration - a problem that troubles so many American composers as well. And it must be said that when governments get involved in programming - as surely the Soviet regime had to be involved - the best is not always heard, but rather the work of those who are politically acceptable.

``Dead Souls'' revealed a different sort of Shchedrin, however. Clearly the theater inspires and challenges him. And if the opera does not altogether avoid the impression of craftsmanship masking a certain lack of inspiration, that craft is so skilled, so attuned to the Gogol text on which the composer based both his libretto and score, that it manages to win one over almost completely.

In his savage comedy, Gogol attacks the evils of land ownership and serfdom that were at the core of the Russian economy of his time. Shchedrin's score captures the wailing, plaintive world of the peasant and of Mother Russia - with singers both onstage and off and with use of a two-tiered set. The tale that unfolds is of the chameleon-like Chichikov, who tries to become wealthy by buying up landowner's dead serfs as collateral for a bank loan.

The opera is at its most remarkable during those interludes, and those moments when the action was staged on the upper level - the coachman Selifan's powerful scenes, and most particularly the haunting, agonized ``Lament of the Soldier's Wife.''

The production is the Bolshoi's, with Valery Levental's bold sets, and Alexei Maslennikov's broad yet detailed direction.

Most of the principals were imported, including the remarkable Chichikov of baritone Igor Morozov, the Nozdrev of Alexander Dedik, and the Korobochka of Nina Gaponova. And director Maslennikov, who is also the USSR's finest character tenor, put his memorable stamp on the role of Selifan.

In the pit, Kakhidze led the FSO in an authoritative, idiomatic performance. And, despite the presence of a very loud prompter, the onstage events proceeded with few hitches.

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