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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.

By Anne Midgette  |  March 15, 2010; 6:35 AM ET
Categories:  opera , random musings  
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Comments

I think I'm much more willing to overlook imperfect playing if the work I hear is something that isn't played often. Conversely, the more often the work is played, the more I care about the quality. For example, Verdi's Requiem is played in DC so often that it isn't worth it for me to go to a performance anymore unless I know it's really going to be a knockout. But when it came to "War and Peace" I didn't care about the quality as much, because in reality the only question was whether I was going to hear it performed at all.

Posted by: robertcostic | March 15, 2010 9:09 AM | Report abuse

For me, as in every aspect of opera, it all comes back to: "does the show work?"

Whether its a question of technical accuracy, theatrical updating or what have you, I don't mind if the show works. If the director sets Traviata in an abandoned county swimming pool I won't care if its convincing. The same applies to 'excellence': I'm not such an operasexual that a soprano not doing it the way Tebaldi did or a tenor not quite nailing the coloratura is going to ruin the show for me as long as it works and is convincing.

That may sound all very forgiving, but I'm ruthless towards an opera if it doesn't work, is badly prepared or fails to convince (that word again).

Posted by: ianw2 | March 15, 2010 10:21 AM | Report abuse

I couldn't agree more. All I can add are examples from my own experience:

(1) Dudamel's concert last season with his Venezuelan youth orchestra - a fabulously electric and energetic performance.

(2) The National Symphony Orchestra - I've gotten over years of disappointment that they aren't up to the standards of Berlin, Chicago, or whomever. Instead, I buy cheap seats to nearly every NSO program and enjoy a range of familiar and unfamiliar music played pretty well (usually), if not spectacularly well (though they are very occasionally spectacular), exposure to a wide range of soloists and conductors, and a regular diet of the unmatchable experience of the sound of a full orchestra.

(3) Local musicians - I often go to programs of the local performing arts group called the "InSeries," not expecting world-class performances but nearly always enjoying very good local talent in imaginative productions in an intimate setting - very different from the stick figures as which performers often appear from most seats in a large hall.

Of course, having said all that, I wouldn't pass up the chance to see world class performers play interesting repertoire on an evening when they and the audience are particularly galvanized.

Posted by: ChuckStark | March 15, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

Thankfully, Anna Netrebko redeemed my Mariinsky experience. Too often, the other stars could have been singing in the shower--they certainly didn't bother to project their commitment to the music, just tossing it off. It would have helped if the men had combed their hair and worn pants that fit, too. Overall, a sloppy, sloppy evening.

Posted by: eburbage33 | March 15, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

One aspect hasn't been raised - ticket prices. I think with the high price that these performances are demanding, audiences should not be subjected to tired voices, exhausted orchestra players and unfocussed conducting. I don't expect a revelatory experience everytime I go to a concert. But, I do expect to see artists that are ready to go, and physically and mentally able to play at the best level they can.

Posted by: GRILLADES | March 15, 2010 2:07 PM | Report abuse

'One felt it could have been so much better.'

-- Anne Midgette, Washington Post, speaking of the recent Mariinsky Opera visit to the Nation's Capital

Perhaps, but given the deep global U.S.- led financial crisis which has led to the failure and decline of the Washington National Opera project, and the Russian Federation's attempt quickly to converge economically with Western Europe after its deep 1930s type depression of the 1990s, I believe the Mariinsky Opera company could be partially forgiven -- especially given its mid-visit runout to Vancouver to participate in the cultural programming of that major international sporting event. Anyway, I believe that the Kennedy Center shares in the lack of success of the two evenings of extracts from the Russian national opera "golden age" of 1874 to 1907 -- that is, the KC shares in those evenings being somewhat poorly curated, advertised, produced, and attended. I also believe that a full concert of Chaikovsky's ''Iolanthe' (only ca. 90 minutes) with an emerging lead artist may have sold more tickets than the poorly curated, mixed evening featuring Anna Netrebko for ca. 15 minutes.

The Mariinsky Opera has given the Kennedy Center world-class evenings of opera over the past 10 years, and the visiting company, Michael Kaiser, his international programming staff, and the donors and ticket purchasers are to be thanked for making this past decade of one-way international operatic cultural exchange possible. I choose to look back on the decade in a positive light, as one that showed the KC bringing the finest of world-wide performing arts to the Nation's Capital -- as the KC did when it earlier brought the Bolshoi, Paris, Vienna, La Scala, and MET opera companies to our earlier provincial capital city.

Perhaps I can look at the past decade this way, because I was also able to catch the Mariinsky Opera company in more carefully performed Russian national and Soviet operas in New York City and Saint Petersburg, the Russian Federation. I also see the production of 'War and Peace' as just as important to our city's and nation's culture, as the Washington National Opera's aborted staging of Wagner's 'Ring', which is available for viewing in numerous North American cities.

Again, Anne Midgette does not, in my book, have the cultural authority to call the Mariinsky Opera company a provincial opera company, especially given that the Washington National Opera company has descended to provincial opera company status under her term -- bizarrely -- as chief music critic of the once leading Washington Post newspaper.

Posted by: snaketime1 | March 15, 2010 9:12 PM | Report abuse

It's true that Gergiev can be erratic at times, and his performances can be far from perfect,
but when he's at his best,his performances are simply unforgettable.
These are take no prisoners,on the edge of your seat, chills down your spine performances; the kind people will tell their grandchildren about in the future.

Posted by: Thehorn2 | March 16, 2010 10:02 AM | Report abuse

I prefer "dare-devilish", rough performance that go against academicism. If there is 1000 recordings of a work, why not to try something a bit different? Composers usually leave a lot of room for creativity and players should know better how to expose their own and ever evolving musical personalities (next year someone else will win the same competition...). Perfect, "safe", polished performances that come out of 12 hours/day of practicing the same 10 works, desire to sound just like your "master teacher" (otherwise you will not get a good reference) and performances sprinkled with beta-blockerish calmness are stale. Not every experiment I do works, so why should I want every performance to be perfect?

Posted by: SaraT1 | March 16, 2010 6:01 PM | Report abuse

Passion is what opera is about, and passion is not always pretty.

I've always worked for excellence, rather than perfection. Excellence transcends the perfect - a perfect singer will make every staccato short, but the excellent one will show us why it needs to be that way!

Posted by: plauriat | March 16, 2010 10:24 PM | Report abuse

Asking whether an opera works or is convincing doesn't go far enough. Opera has the power to move an audience like no other art. The right question is: Does it move you? Does it delight you? Do you get the quintessential tingle, or tear down your cheek? We can talk about the production, the sets, the credibility of the acting, the technical proficiency of the singers and orchestra, and that's all important. But the power to move is how we should judge Gergiev, and everyone else in opera. That's how audiences are built - by concentrating on what comes after the equal sign, not obsessing on all the elements that come before it.

Posted by: OperaRat | March 17, 2010 8:11 AM | Report abuse

I did post some of my impressions about the Mariinsky troupe when discussing War and Peace but these comments somehow never appeared (they were long.) Briefly, I was even more disappointed than Ms. Midgette about both the company and Prokofiev's monstruosity. I contasted this with Shostakovich 'The Nose' which I saw at the Met the night before; how much better the Met orchestra sounded under the direction of the same conductor. I also praised a Carnegie Hall performance of Sibelius' Kullervo by the Minnesota Orchestra under Osmo Vanska.

I also said that what bothered me is not that the Mariinsky company is provincial, but that is marketed as world-class, which clearly is not. I had more disappointments than not during its Kennedy Center residency. Kuddos to Ms. Midgette for being the only major critic who actually said that; contrast this with yes-man Anthony Tommasini in New York Times.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | March 18, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

the "company is provincial, but ... is marketed as world-class"

...

Sounds to me like the new and reduced Washington National Opera, no??

Based upon my ten years experience of viewing it in about a dozen operas (including Verdi, but excluding, however, the full Wagner "Ring" cycle which I recall Anthony Tommasini giving the thumbs down to when it toured to the MET house, recently), I stand by my belief that the Mariinsky Opera continues to be a world-class opera company.

(Whether it will still be by the time of the London Olympics in 2012, or the Sochi Olympics in 2014 is another question.)

RE-NATIONALIZE THE WASHINGTON NATIONAL OPERA!

Posted by: snaketime1 | March 18, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

I will say a few words about rough performances as opposed to polished ones. I will start again with Mariinsky and Gergiev. I already said that my biggest problem is the way they are marketed, and that I have often been disappointed by their opera performances.

In concert however my experience was, generally speaking, better. Gergiev may not be able to sustain the long lines of Wagner's Parsifal, but his energetic approach to works like Tchaikovsky's 5th symphony resulted in one of my unforgettable nights of music. Yes, the orchestra was still on the rough side, and they perhaps played the work tens if not hundred of times, yet somehow everything sounded fresh. It was so good that at one point I began not to even care about the technical aspects.

Moreover, I remember that a few years ago Gergiev performed the same Tchaikovsky 5th symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. The VPO is of course, a more polished group than the Mariinsky orchestra, yet the concert did not stick in my memory the same way as the Mariinsky performance did.

Then, there is of course the issue of the great performances form the past. It is common knowledge that today's orchestras are so much more polished than those of even 30 years ago. Yet I would much rather listen to the badly played but electrifying recordings of, say Hermann Scherchen than to the more polished but bland performances that one often encounters today.

This doesn't mean that every recording of yesterday is better than the musicmaking of today. I would rather listen to Ivan Fischer than, say to Rudolf Moralt. If a performance is not polished, well, it better offer something in compensation.

As for "I bet I'm not the only one who would sometimes rather attend a rehearsal than a performance": wasn't Sergiu Celibidache the one who said that the rehearsal is more important than the actual concert?

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | March 18, 2010 5:47 PM | Report abuse

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