The Kirov Opera Triumphs in US Debut

A staging at the Met revives image of Russian Opera

MANY aspects of the Kirov Opera's US debut at the Metropolitan Opera House have been impressive, but without question, its artistic director and principal conductor Valery Gergiev has been the real revelation.

The maestro has that rare gift in opera, the ability to allow an orchestra its full range of dynamics and colors while at all times being alert to the singers on stage, an ability he weds to an astonishingly vivid dramatic sensibility.

I had a chance to sit down with him recently. His schedule had been out of control since he arrived in town. Not only was he in great demand for interviews, he also had to worry about full-dress rehearsals on the days of the respective premieres, helping his singers figure out an alien acoustic in a house far larger than their own (the Met seats over 3,800, the Maryinsky an absolute maximum of 2,000), and determining just how his orchestra was going to sound there as well.

As Gergiev is well aware, the past two Russian opera troupes to visit New York in recent years - the Bolshoi last summer, and the National Opera of St. Petersburg last winter - were received with less than glowing reviews. So the Kirov triumph comes not a moment too soon.

"Can I say something even before you ask me?" Mr. Gergiev asks. "What I feel about this visit - there are a couple of important things. First of all the reputation of Russian opera as a whole: I'm not pretending that only the Kirov is able to do something well, but at the same time I really wanted to leave New York - in the 10 days - with a feeling that here was not another fiasco.... There was a depressive feeling about Russian opera's reputation - that everything is so-so, and that everybody good has l eft, that the companies cannot stand, that the competition is too high.... This is no good."

He refers to the Kirov's soaring reputation in Europe, thanks to tours and to many telecasts, seen on the BBC, on French, Italian, and, most recently, Japanese national television. "You can't see it in America," he notes with a touch of regret. "That was another reason why I wanted to bring the Kirov to America, or we wanted, better to say - even if I am planning myself, personally, most of what happens, nearly everything. I think this visit is quite important, to do something new, to show what is now co ming from Russia."

I observed that, in many ways, Russia is the last holdout of national performance style, since the glorious French tradition is defunct, and the Italian is in disarray. Clearly the Russian style is still thriving, but can it survive the new open-door internationalism that is already a part of the new Russia?

"This is a very difficult question, though important. What I really want to do is to find a group of Russians - Russian-based, Russian-born directors, and designers, the creative-team part, the people who are giving impulses ... this is very important. I really don't want to import many things. The situation in the country is so exciting, so dramatic, so live, so energetic, that ... this must naturally produce a group of people who are able to speak a new impressive language. This is my biggest hope, an d my most difficult task. Most difficult. It's more difficult than to conduct!"

This led us effortlessly into the subject of the Kirov Orchestra, with which Gergiev will tour the United States next fall. He feels that they understand each other so well now, that he has no worries about repertoire. "We have spent three or four years working a lot together - tours, recordings, and so on - and it has become the most pleasant part of my work. I can plan anything. The chorus is also good, and they have changed completely the way they work.

"The competition inside company is quite high. This is a good thing about an ensemble, if it is strong and big. The competition is like the market situation - it's not about money, it's about prestige, importance, and the demand for high quality from everybody - smaller role, bigger role, it doesn't matter. I expect that this extra tension, this extra competition, brings also extra energy and positive results, because people work hard.

"You know, the character of our work is completely non-Russian. Look at what happens in Russia: Most people stay still and wait for changes. We didn't wait, we just moved. Immediately. We told the company four years ago, `We will learn five operas of Mussorgsky.' Ah! There was a shock.... They never ever thought it was possible because, simply, it was not organized. Of course you can't do it just to make people work very hard. You have to finally give them reasons: Recordings; TV; tours."

Gergiev is selective in his choice of where the company will appear: Edinburgh; Hamburg; Rome, Milan, and Florence, Italy; Amsterdam; Munich and Frankfurt, Germany, for instance. "I chose the better halls, the better festivals, and it helps a lot because my singers understand that with Kirov they make an enormous international reputation, but they don't feel the same attention from international society and press as when they are together with the company."

I asked him if he was worried that as Russia's most visible spokesman for Russian opera, he might get pigeon-holed as a Russian-only musician.

"No,. no, no!," he says. "I don't do only Russian music. Of course!"" In fact, the work that earned him the directorship of the Kirov was Wagner's "Lohengrin." And when the Kirov traveled to Spain, it brought Verdi's "Otello," with Placido Domingo in the title role.

Meanwhile, the Kirov takes up Gergiev's thoughts and energies. He began there in 1978, two years after winning the Herbert von Karajan Conducting Competition at the age of 23. In addition to the Kirov Orchestra tour, his international plans include a New York Philharmonic debut in Jan. 1993, and later in the year, a new Tchaikovsky "Eugene Onegin" at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. There is talk of a co-production with the San Francisco Opera, and he hopes to be able to bring the Kirov's nearly-legendar y "Khovanshchina" to the Met sometime in the future.

"Khovanshchina" has conquered everywhere, even in Moscow - the Bolshoi Opera's home. "That was the beginning of the recognition that the Kirov is better than the Bolshoi: We came to their home." Gergiev says. "I understand that they were saying `Ooh, what voices, what an orchestra!' It was the beginning of this recognition."

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