Concert, DVD, Film & Theatre Reviews 60

The Limpid Stream Turned into a City

The Nose Blows into the Windy City

Ma Plays Both Concertos in Boston

The poster for the Mikhailovsky production of The Limpid Stream

The Limpid Stream Turned into a City

Production premiere: 13 October 2023

Zina — Valeriya Zapasnikova
Pyotr — Nikita Chetverikov
Dancer (female) — Anastasiya Soboleva
Dancer (male) — Viktor Lebedev
Chairman — Ivan Zaytsev
Chairman’s Wife — Marat Shemiunov
Galya — Anastasiya Smirnova
Tractor Driver — Ernest Latypov

Original libretto by Fyodor Lopukhov and Adrian
New libretto: Alexander Omar
Choreographer: Alexander Omar
Assistant Choreographer: Roman Petukhov
Set and Costume Designer: Vyacheslav Okunev
Lighting Designer: Valentin Bakoyan
Assistant Lighting Designer: Tatyana Chumichyova
Video Content: Vadim Dulenko
Musical Director: Pavel Sorokin

Through October and November 2023, the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg revived Shostakovich’s ballet The Limpid Stream, which was banned from the same stage during the composer’s lifetime. However, Russia’s second city took too long to correct past misdemeanours and the honour of reviving the ballet (in fact, all three of Shostakovich’s ballets) in recent times belonged to Moscow. Alexei Ratmansky’s production of The Limpid Stream, created in 2003, and which would have continued to be performed at the Bolshoi Theatre had it not been for the events of February 2022, presented the vitality and danceability of this score. Even its collective farm setting and plot did not hinder the choreographer’s flights of imagination.

But finally, twenty years after re-appearing in Moscow, The Limpid Stream has been produced in St. Petersburg, staged by 36-year-old Alexander Omar, a member of the Mikhailovsky Theatre. The historical impetus seems to have been to look back at the theatre’s glorious past on the eve of the company’s 90th anniversary, and even to rehabilitate Shostakovich’s ballet in his native city (strangely enough, his ballets are still a rarity in the repertoire of Russian theatres, including in St. Petersburg). The Limpid Stream had a testing fate. Produced by MALEGOT (the name of the Mikhailovsky Theatre in the 1930s), the first choreography, by St. Petersburg’s Fyodor Lopukhov (1886–1873), was lost and the only evidence is to be found in contemporary reviews. However, this sad fact gives choreographers of Shostakovich’s third and final ballet freedom from tradition and constraints, with each choreographer following their own path. Here, Omar took a radical approach: he moved the rural plot to the city, wherever necessary removing elements of the Caucasus, where the action takes place. As a result, the “Dance of the Caucasians and Kuban Cossacks,” noted as one of the most interesting moments of the performance in Lopukhov’s time, is truncated. Vyacheslav Okunev’s designs are completely urban; from delicate station structures (at the beginning of the ballet) to monumental park sculptures in the second act; and from a shell-like stage to public seating for a holiday parade (the scale of the festivities is clearly not rural), reminding us of the realities of Stalinism. Signs of the city include the presence upstage of a screen on which Vadim Dulenko duplicates key moments of the performance in images and animations, as if in a movie. Perhaps the peasant plot is not relevant today (especially for St. Petersburg, the second capital), but the Stalin era and its symbols are more relevant than ever. In the finale, the screen addresses the audience mockingly: “Did you like it? Apparently, not everyone did” against the backdrop of a Pioneer girl along with the infamous article “Balletic Falsity.”

A scene from the Mikhailovsky production of The Limpid Stream

Also, in this altered setting, some scenes and situations have become more convoluted, leading to some confusion around moments of intrigue related to costume changes and characters’ reactions. For example, in the second part, Zina simply dances with her husband Piotr without a mask: in the original production he is infatuated with “the Ballerina” and they dance, both wearing masks. Thus, the scene loses its tension, as Piotr is meant to think he is dancing with a ballerina, not his wife. Inexplicably, according to the programme for the new libretto, the classical dancer “puts on a dress and teaches Piotr an intricate duet.”

While some characters are altered, more surprising is the lack of classicality in Moscow’s classical dancers—the word “classical” has been removed from the programme—and the costumes resurrect images of stylish, NEP-era 1920s. At times, Omar attempts to emphasise this, as in the dance of Anastasia Soboleva and Victor Lebedev, with original stances and characteristic hand movements. Against that, the peasant girl Zina (the graceful Valeria Zapasnikova), in her modest and strict attire, performing classical steps alongside the guest, looks almost more exemplary than the prima ballerina.

A particular problem arises in the second act, which, compared to the first, seems much more choreographically dense. Here not only people dance, but also the sculptures in the park (each placed on a pedestal, their movements controlled remotely). This clever trick is impressive, but is used for almost the entire scene, and diverts attention away from the real dancers—here Ivan Zaytsev and Marat Shemiunov, as the comedic couple of the chairman and his wife, shine. The quartet (Zina and her ballerina friend, the classical dancer, and, contrary to the original plot, even the not-soyoung dacha dweller) feature here in white sylph-like tunics. The game of changing clothes drags on until the act practically becomes a “white” one, and meanwhile the choreographer is unconcerned that Shostakovich’s music has already ceased to be romantic, and the characters are trying to embody jazz rhythms in their classical costumes.

Alexander Omar has said that he tried to emphasise the ballet’s lyricism. However, this obsession took him too far. He almost removes the ironic intonation of Shostakovich’s quasi-romantic music, making the duets—Zina and the classical dancer and Galya and the tractor driver—deliberately sterile, without the subtext that should still present in those situations where the characters pretend to be someone else. Lyricism floods everything: should we be surprised that the “Romance” from The Gadfly suddenly appears, diverting attention to the development of the secondary plotline?

Indeed, there was more of the lively and authentic Shostakovich in the orchestra than on stage. Under the direction of Pavel Sorokin, the musicians were able to vividly present the score, enriching it with original jazz sounds in the wind parts.

And yet, the overall impression is that the performance did not avoid eclecticism and, at times, infantilism. How else to interpret the sudden appearance at the beginning of the second act, on the apron of the stage, of a duet dressed as if at a children’s matinee (according to the libretto, “in the field they harvest grain, turnips, potatoes”)? Or why, at the daytime parade in the finale, do the lights suddenly go out, and the following solo number is performed by the dancers in the dark, illuminated only by spotlights (are we already in the circus?) Or why does the ballet end with The Song of the Counterplan—“The morning greets us with coolness”?

At times, it’s hard to surrender to the rather uncomplicated merriment of the production. It’s likely that the unevenness of the performance is at fault, or perhaps it’s because living today has hardly become better or more cheerful.

Translated by Alan Mercer and
John Leman Riley

Elena Prytkova

The Nose Blows into the Windy City

Shostakovich’s first foray into opera, The Nose (based on the short story by Gogol) is a live-performance unicorn, especially in North America, and the Chicago Opera Theatre’s production on 8 and 10 December 2023 marked its premiere in the city. The COT is known for its staging of rarely-performed works, including Shostakovich’s operetta Moscow, Cheryomushki in 2012, and outgoing COT conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya, apparently checked off a bucket-list wish with The Nose. Acclaimed director Francesca Zambello has a strong record when it comes to Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Opera Australia, 2002) and, at the 2004 Bard Festival, both The Nose and Cheryomushki—as Cherry Tree Towers. Her production exhibited a keen cognisance of the work’s source material, historical context, place in Shostakovich’s oeuvre, and modern relevance.

The success of a production of The Nose rests primarily on three things. The first is, of course, the key figure of Kovalyov; baritone Aleksey Bogdanov had not only the strong voice, but the physicality and comic timing (particularly during his attempts to glue his nose back on) to take the character beyond mere caricature. Particularly strong in the supporting cast was tenor David Cangelosi as Kovalyov’s servant Ivan, who, although he has a relatively minor singing role, proved a wonderful comedic foil to Kovalyov, while engaged with his own schemes with a comely balalaika player, consistently outdressing his master and clearly just waiting for his chance to burst into song and steal the show.

The second factor is the ability to both embrace the chaos of the score but never let it run completely out of control, and the huge ensemble cast did so to perfection. Particularly effective from a vocal standpoint were Corinne Constelli, who took on both the soprano solo in the church scene and the role of the bubliki girl; and the ensemble of newspaper clerks led by bass Samuel Weiser. The Nose himself, played by Curtis Bannister, made the most of his relatively light singing role by stalking throughout the production, eventually joined by a troupe of six dancers as his entourage, carrying noses on long sticks. In fact, unlike in some other productions, The Nose did not disappear when the nose reappeared on Kovalyov’s face, but continued to appear right up until the final scene, suggesting that it had gained a reality of its own.

Finally, there is the challenge of the score itself, filled with its copious sound effects, borrowings from other genres, fiendishly difficult vocal lines, wacky orchestration, and the experimental and exuberant modernism of NEPera Soviet culture. It is characteristic of several of Shostakovich’s works from around this time, such as his music for Meyerhold’s production of Mayakovsky’s The Bedbug. This production certainly invoked that sense of no-holds-barred satiric experimentation. The score demands what should look like effortless absurdity and the ability to flesh out the musical ideas with actual people, and Zambello’s direction was completely successful on that account, incorporating both dance and aspects of mime to move the story forward to great comedic effect and outbursts of laughter from the audience. The orchestra under Yankovskaya was tight and precise, perfectly timed with the action onstage, with the percussion a standout. Marcus Doshi’s minimalist and clever set design placed the action within the frame of a constantly-shifting Constructivist artwork, while Erik Teague’s costumes had the characters mostly fully clothed in 19th century-esque garb on top, but wearing nothing but shifts, knickers, and hoop-skirt frames below. The Nose himself wore a florid military coat, hat, and the enormous, rather phallic proboscis on his chest, sometimes using it to physically bump others out of the way.

Ultimately, this production of The Nose was an unqualified success not just because of the strength of the performances, but also because this early 20th century work based on a 19th century short story is still strikingly relevant now, in the third decade of the 21st century. Its triumph was in drawing a parallel with modern sensationalist and celebrity news coverage; were he prowling about the town today, the Nose would surely have been a TikTok influencer.

Susan Carroll-Clark

Ma Plays Both Concertos in Boston

Having not just one, but both Shostakovich cello concertos on the same programme provided a singular chance to compare not only the two works, but also the soloist’s approach to them. Yo-Yo Ma has, of course, been performing the First for many, many years (his 1982 recording with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra was the conductor’s last), whereas his performances of the Second mostly date to the past ten years or so. These concerts with Nelsons and the BSO will eventually lead to his first commercial recording of the latter work.

The Second would come first. After a sparkling Haydn Symphony no. 22, opened the concert, Ma addressed the audience before playing, giving some of the context of the creation of the work. Ma has been a United Nations Messenger of Peace since 2006, and the recent events in Israel as well as the ongoing conflict in Ukraine were likely high in mind for the audience, and Ma emphasised the importance of Shostakovich’s works in such times. Nelsons would address the audience with more specific words at the beginning of the second half of the concert, including a moment of silence for all those impacted in Israel and Gaza.

From the opening bars of the Second, a dark descending motif played in the cello’s register, through his expressions and body language, Ma set a standard of intensity and concentration that would continue through the entire work—so much so that I only noticed his score at the first page turn. Interestingly, I felt this kept him deeply focused on the work, with marvellous results. After the opening bars played alone, the orchestra slid in underneath, full of shadows and rich undertones without being murky, their intensity matching Ma’s. Tension built organically towards the entrance of the woodwinds and the cello’s pizzicato response, culminating with a short exchange between the solo cello and the horn. The second subject, accompanied by the harp and in dialogue with the horn, seemed to shimmer with melancholy. As the pace picked up, Ma’s touch lightened through the dance-like section but became increasingly passionate as the xylophones and piccolo led the swirling orchestra towards an apocalyptic climax, cut off by the harrowing thud of the bass drum, as if a cannon had suddenly gone off. Given Ma’s stage-setting invocation before the music, his ensuing dialogue with that drum evoked the response of music to the horrors of war—double-stops reeling with pain, pizzicato returning fire. As the volley died down and the bassoons made their entrance, Ma’s return to the initial theme was suffused with sadness and as the orchestra receded behind him, the return of the second theme was full of sweetness and longing while the low strings lurked menacingly in the background. The plaintive restatement by the horn gently closed the first movement.

And then, after a long morendo by soloist, and orchestra, the second movement opened tentatively, as if Ma was looking up to see if were safe, before launching into the bubliki theme. This can be played as a bit of silliness, but Ma did not do so. His touch was light in the glissandos—light enough that the harmonics came through, the high registers of the cello adding a feeling of strain and glassiness rather than jollity, with the bassoons in the low registers adding a sinister chuckle below. When the higher strings and xylophone entered, the ensuing frenzy evolved into a battle between the soloist’s quick, virtuoso passages and the orchestra’s responses, with the orchestra finally appearing to emerge victorious moving into the snare roll and the horn fanfare that begin the third movement. Here, as elsewhere, the horns were spectacular, and Ma’s response, the closest thing to a cadenza in this concerto and played over the top of the shaking tambourine, restated the fanfare theme, descending in wonderfully-rendered octaves into the sweet, gentle, trilled motif that would return repeatedly in this final movement, evolving through passages with the melody intertwining with various other instruments, and into the catchy “boom-chick” dialogue with the percussion and low strings. This movement afforded Ma room to allow his lyricism and intensity to emerge together, through slower, sweet passages and moments of reactive virtuosity. Tension built as themes from earlier in the work were reintroduced, and another dialogue with the percussion, led by the snare, leading back into the horn fanfare and the bubliki theme, this time played by the entire orchestra, accompanied by the crack of the whip. Nelsons is never better than when he leads the BSO through a devastating Shostakovich orchestral climax, and so it was here, with Ma’s double-stopped octave response putting a stop to the runaway train back down into exhausted lyricism, the percussion still eager to continue. One last kick at the “boomchick” theme, and they died out, leaving Ma’s cello to sing out in the highest registers, before returning to the shadowy world of the opening of the first movement with the orchestra softening into apparent closure—but no, Ma’s pizzicato glissandos added an almost jazz-like funkiness to the last dancelike bars before the clicking percussion completed the movement over his long held final note, that last quizzical crescendo ending the work as it began, with the soloist alone. Ma and Nelsons let the final note hang in the air for over thirty seconds of complete silence before releasing the audience into rapturous applause.

After Nelsons’ address and a topical new work by Iranian-Canadian composer Iman Habibi (much better suited to the overall tenor of the concert than the Haydn), came the First Concerto. Ma’s playing in this work had the feel of a romp through the park with a dear, beloved friend. Playing this time from memory, Ma took the opening movement faster than many interpreters, as he did in his youthful recording, underscoring its nervous energy. In some ways Ma’s playing was overshadowed by the orchestra’s wonderful work in the first movement (again, paying homage to the single horn player, whose solo passages restating the main theme were as close to perfect as one might desire.) But soon enough came the second movement with its darker sonorities and more spectacular horn playing. Ma’s opening dialogue with the viola section was gorgeous and rich, as he glanced back several times at them. This was Ma at his passionate best, with the orchestra alternatingly rich and dark, tumultuous and stormy, and shimmering and transparent, allowing his playing to shine through. Nowhere was this more striking than in in the final bars, where the cello harmonics and celesta dialogue over ethereal violins. Ma’s wispy-thin, ghostly harmonics seemed to blend almost seamlessly into the celesta line, blurring the line between the two instruments to otherworldly effect, setting up the entrance to the third movement.

Ma is known for his unaccompanied playing, and with the cadenza he expressively followed its narrative arc, never sacrificing musicality to virtuosity through strummed and gentle lefthand pizzicato—never overwhelming the simultaneous arco—and beautiful phrasing through the double stops, building emotional momentum and volume into the striking scalar runs leading to the finale. Here he maintained a much better balance with the orchestra than in the first movement on the breathtaking ride to the conclusion. Entertaining for the viewer was the sequence of string chords towards the end starting with the basses, then rising through cellos, violas, and second violins, accompanied by some wonderful facial expressions and body language by the first desk players. The return of the opening theme led to a raucous conclusion, with Ma nearly flying from his seat in his enthusiasm.

There was one final surprise in store. Rather than a traditional encore, Ma joined the cello section at the back for Gautier Capuçon’s arrangement of the “Prelude” from Shostakovich’s Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano. This simple, lyrical piece led to not a few in the house wondering why it suddenly seemed dusty (as well as much questioning as to what the work was.)

I await with much enthusiasm the forthcoming recording, especially Ma’s interpretation of the Second Concerto.

Susan Carroll-Clark