The excellence of bad opera
I made pretty clear in my glut of Mariinsky reviews that the troupe’s Kennedy Center residency left me disappointed. One felt it could have been so much better.
People I talked to and heard from about the Mariinsky in the past couple of weeks, both in the music business and outside it, both in Washington and New York (where Gergiev led a slightly flabby "The Nose" at the Met and then brought the Mariinsky to Carnegie Hall for a two-night concert performance of “Les Troyens”) were sharply divided. Some were thrilled to have the opportunity to hear Gergiev, and the Mariinsky, and responded to the wild almost savage elements of excitement in Gergiev’s conducting. Others were underwhelmed because of the unevenness of conducting, playing, and singing. I can see both sides; disappointed though I was, I wasn’t unhappy to hear the Mariinsky (and I was struck by how much better I liked “War and Peace” the second time round, having heard it at the Met a few years ago).
The whole thing also left me thinking about standards of excellence. There’s a residual idea in classical music -- actually, in many artistic fields -- that we’re supposed to seek perfection: do something as well as it possibly can be done. That’s certainly not how Gergiev goes about it. Gergiev is driven to do so much on such a big scale that there’s no way he can consistently offer his best. He seems to have made a choice: quantity over quality. I don’t think he’s eschewed the idea of quality, but it’s the volume of what he does that brings in money for his theater, gets his ideas out there, seems to feed what he needs.
(read more after the jump)
There’s even something refreshing about his approach. Classical music, in general, suffers from a certain ossification. Opera, in particular, has an exalted sense of its own importance: an idea that nearly every work is a masterpiece deserving of our full attention. The truth is, a lot of the operas now in the repertory were written to please the public and not to be taken too seriously, and they’re not served particularly well by being turned into high art and placed on a pedestal in such a way that the public shrieks when the pedestal is removed. In a way, Gergiev turns opera back into a workmanlike part of daily life. I think that if asked, he’d give lip service to the idea of greatness, but his actions seem to signal that music is a daily need, and that making music and having it around and getting it out to people is more important than making it perfectly.
I don't think relaxing standards is a good idea: that way lies the provincialism of which much of the Mariinsky’s work smacked. But I do think it’s true that some works are served by a less-than-stellar production, and that sometimes the rough-hewn has more to offer than the polished. There’s the student effort that has lots of flaws but also whole-hearted effort and excitement. There’s the rehearsal that allows you to watch the actual process of music-making, before it’s turned into a hard, fixed surface to be presented to the public. There’s the night when a tenor who sings bit parts around the world comes to a small-town company to try out the romantic lead for just a few nights. Then there are the works that may actually flower with a bit more provincialism to bring them to life. (August Everding, the German director, used to say, rather condescendingly, that it was everybody's right to fall in love with bad opera, or bad theater.)
This becomes more problematic when you’re presenting the rough-hewn at the Kennedy Center or Carnegie Hall and calling it one of the major companies in the world. Context matters. Ultimately, I do think Gergiev could raise the level of what he’s offering. But he also represents a realistic approach to a job that for many people besides him is in practice less about aiming for the stars than trying to master an insurmountable amount of work, as best one can, night after night.
What were your thoughts on the Mariinsky and Gergiev? And what do you think about rough performances as opposed to polished ones? I bet I'm not the only one who would sometimes rather attend a rehearsal than a performance.
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