Thursday, March 11, 2010

Reflections on the Mariinsky

The Mariinsky Opera of St. Petersburg (sometimes referred to by its Soviet-era name, the Kirov Opera) recently completely its nearly annual residency at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The featured presentation was the company's joint production with the Metropolitan Opera of Sergei Prokofiev's War and Peace, inspired by Tolstoy's novel of the same title.

Like the novel, the opera is a vast, sprawling work. Unlike the novel, however, the opera was composed during World War II when the Soviet Union was fighting for its life. Consequently, during Act II of the two-act opera there is explicit invocation of Great Russian nationalism and a more veiled reference to the inspired leadership of Comrade Stalin. As artists working in the oppressive atmosphere of Stalinism learned at the risk of their lives, politics was never far removed from art.

Although the production and performances both in Washington and earlier in New York were rightly praised generally by the critics, more than one critic made reference to "provincialism" in connection with the Mariinsky's performance. The conducting of the Mariinsky's general director, Valery Gergiev, is acclaimed worldwide (he is also associate music director of the Metropolitan Opera), and the Mariinsky has nurtured a number of artists who have gone on to international careers (Anna Netrebko and Dmitri Hvorostovsky come immediately to mind), but the label still rankles. The same claim of "provincialism" was leveled at Sviatoslav Richter, one of the 20th Century's greatest pianists, when he made his first appearances in the West in the early 1960s.

Certainly during the Soviet period and even more recently, Russian artists tended to receive their training exclusively or at least primarily in Russia. Political considerations made it difficult for Soviet artists to tour in the West, so they tended to evolve performance practices and techniques not commonly heard outside Russia. Artists such as Richter, Gilels, Vishnevskaya, Reizen, and Oistrakh had a uniquely "Russian" sound, especially in the music of Russian composers. The Mariinsky Opera Orchestra, while one of the world's finest, still has a craggy, even rough-hewn quality that contrasts with the smooth sophistication of such orchestras as the Met's, the Berlin Philharmonic, or the London Symphony Orchestra (where Gergiev frequently conducts).

One of the down sides of today's international travel and universal availability of recordings is that many performers exhibit a bland perfection that leaches out individuality from their performances. It is this colorless internationalism that the critics contrast with the "provincialism" of some non-Western performers, such as Richter or the Mariinsky under Gergiev.

Performing artists today, especially of the younger generation, are exceptionally well-trained and often blessed with flawless technique. Yet in the process of attaining that technical prowess we have lost the individuality, be it provincial or otherwise, that still informs the recorded performances of great artists like Oistrakh, Gilels, or Rostropovich. Perhaps that is one reason some listeners are attracted to the astringent, disembodied, often lifeless performances on "original instruments." I say, "Bring back the provincials."

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