Changes at the Kirov Opera Mirror Russia

The company seeks closer ties to the West while preserving and upgrading its native repertoire

THIS city has the feel of what Berlin must have been like between the wars. Inflation is rampant and poverty widespread. Politics are conducted in the street with a mix of rambunctiousness and desperation; there are ominous signs of anti-Semitism, isolationism, and resurgent Stalinism. Much of the beautiful 18th- and 19th-century city is dirty and in decay, but at the same time, the streets are bustling and vital. In spite of it all, creativity thrives amid anarchy, even at the Kirov Opera.

In a city changing as quickly as St. Petersburg, Russia, one might expect to find the opera neglected, or cast aside as obsolete. Happily, the opposite is true.

While the young artists who gather outside the opera during intermissions sense themselves at the center of a historical moment, the opera itself is looking back to the great tradition of Russian music. Under the dynamic leadership of artistic director Valery Gergiev, the Kirov is mining the native operatic repertoire and coming up with works that are startlingly relevant to present-day Russia. Among these is a new production of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's ``Sadko,'' the cornerstone of a festival to celebrate the 150th anniversary of that composer's birth (March 6, 1844). The festival is slated to run here Jan. 28 to Feb. 7.

Allegory of capitalism

``Sadko'' is a delicate, ironic, and subtle interweaving of the folklore, magic, and legend that explores issues central to the Russian character - ambivalence about Eastern roots and Western leanings, and a deep-rooted suspicion of change. If one leaves aside its numerous digressions, the plot boils down to an allegory of capitalism and its obstacles in Russian society.

The title character of ``Sadko'' is an adventurous and prescient minstrel-entrepreneur who challenges the hidebound merchants of Novgorod to support his attempts to trade with far-off countries. They mock his daring plans, but Sadko's enterprise is finally realized when he nets golden fish from the sea.

Yet Sadko runs into a further obstacle when he fails to pay taxes to the Sea King. This lands him, literally, at the bottom of the ocean. Several plot twists later, Sadko is once again on dry land, the power of the Sea King is dissipated, and he rejoins his wife as a successful merchant and scion of Novgorod.

Bureaucratic nightmares and cultural sluggishness are, of course, familiar themes to Russian business people and Western investors. And, at the time of this production's unveiling, the systematic failure of Russian businesses to pay taxes was being hailed as one of the crises confronting the Russian government. When this production was reviewed, in mid-May last year, a new law requiring cash registers and better accounting - to facilitate taxing the myriad new businesses - was being implemented.

Whether or not the current experiment with a market economy will end as optimistically as ``Sadko remains to be seen. The ability of the Kirov to mount this production is, however, a small but compelling sign of hope.

Under Gergiev's leadership, the Kirov mirrors some of the themes of the opera. His charismatic and aggressive tenure proves that it is not only possible to navigate the tricky shoals of the Russian musical establishment, but that a Russian company can transcend often anarchic conditions and compete with Western standards. And like the hero of ``Sadko,'' the Kirov is looking beyond Russian borders for new financial opportunities. These include several successful Western tours, a substantial audio and video recording contract with Philips, and the establishment of a new summer festival in Mikkeli, Finland.

One can only hope that ``Sadko will be part of the Kirov's future efforts to reach out to and participate in the Western musical world. Its production is a colorful and folksy confection, and an excellent primer in Rimsky-Korsakov's curious dramatic instincts. In general, Rimsky-Korsakov is known to Western audiences for his orchestral potboilers ``Sheherazade'' and ``Spanish Capriccio,'' and to a lesser degree for his opera ``The Golden Cockerel.'' In the former Soviet Union, however, he is known primarily as an opera composer whose works have remained central to the cannon despite cataclysmic shifts in Soviet society.

Rimsky-Korsakov's works can be tough going for Western listeners unaccustomed to his peculiar aesthetic.

When the Bolshoi Opera brought a production of Rimsky-Korsakov's fantastical opera ``Mlada'' to New York in 1991, the reaction of audiences and critics alike was quizzical curiosity mixed with an honest lack of comprehension. A few listeners had the benefit of an English libretto, but most were forced to sit through the long, complex work, based on Russian folklore, with only a vague understanding of the plot.

Part of the problem was staging. While the Bolshoi's ``Mlada'' seemed neither a realistic drama nor a symbolic fairy tale, the Kirov's new ``Sadko'' is a bold and confident mix of realistic narrative, pagan mythology, humor, and epic drama. Although culturally it is far removed from Magical Realism, this term might well apply to Sadko's often surreal aesthetic.

Impressive cast

``Sadko'' is both more cohesive and more accessible musically. Unlike some of Rimsky-Korsakov's operas, ``Sadko'' is conceived first as vocal work, and secondarily as an orchestral score. The result is a particularly melodious, dramatic, and propulsive piece, certain to appeal to ears accustomed to Verdi and Wagner alike.

The Kirov's ``Sadko'' also has the benefit of a strong cast. The title role, for a high tenor, is brutally taxing. Yuri Marusin, clearly a house favorite, sang the part with stamina and a distinctive, bright, and particularly Russian-sounding voice.

As Volkhova, the daughter of the Sea King, soprano Valentina Tsdipova sang with seductive power. The Sea King was performed by Gennadi Bezzubenkov, a strong and commanding bass. Gergiev conducted with unflagging energy and great attention to orchestral detail. The orchestra and chorus were capable of astounding masses of sound.

Stronger relevance today

So far the Kirov's production has been seen outside of Russia only once, in Palmero, Italy.

Although ``Sadko'' has been staged in the United States, in a 1930 production at New York's Metropolitan Opera, it survived only three seasons, and one suspects that it will take a production such as the Kirov's to give it lasting place in the Western repertoire.

It certainly seems that, in the intervening 60 years since that first American production, the opera has actually grown in symbolic importance and historical relevance.

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