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Troupe thrives on adversity

Kirov Opera gracefully clears hurdles in L.A. for triumphant 'Lady Macbeth.'

October 31, 2002|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Last Friday at noon, several winning young Russian singers from the Kirov Opera gathered on a small makeshift stage on the Santa Monica pier to offer a concert for all who happened by. It was unusual, but not unpleasant, to hear opera at the beach. The weather, threatening rain, was also unusual but far more comfortable and suitable to intense Russian emotion than bright sunshine would have been.

After the company's exciting first performance of Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion last week, a dark cloud over the Kirov's L.A. tour had finally lifted. Now the cloud was back but held at bay. Not long after the concert on the pier, it began to rain.

Call it luck, if you like. But better to call it conviction. Keep at it, and things will sooner or later average out. And no company in the world keeps at it like the Kirov.

Originally the Los Angeles Opera had planned on the Kirov bringing the Prokofiev epic, "War and Peace," for the full company's first Los Angeles visit, but budget overruns and uncertain sponsorship forced a substitution for the $1 million-cheaper Shostakovich opera. "War and Peace" was scheduled for seven performances in seven days, but most of the large cast have small roles that can be sung day after day without rest. "Lady Macbeth" has several killer roles, and at least four which required triple casting, although the ever plucky Kirov found multiple casts for nine.

Then there was the Los Angeles dock lockout, which prevented the sets from being unloaded before the freighter headed to Tokyo, leaving a frantic 10 days during which to build new ones from Russian-language blueprints. On top of all that, the company's indefatigable leader, the conductor, Valery Gergiev, was pushing it, even for him. Flying in Tuesday afternoon from Austria, where he had conducted the Vienna Philharmonic the night before, Gergiev allowed himself a window of only a couple of hours before a single dress rehearsal Tuesday for all the casts. The free hour between arriving at the Los Angeles house in which he was a guest and heading for the Music Center, he agreed to spend with this writer.

Looking exhausted -- although insisting that music never makes him tired, only stupid people do -- he mustered his remaining energy to promote all the goings-on at the Mariinsky Theatre back home in St. Petersburg. It is a cultural glory of the new Russia. President Vladimir V. Putin, a native of St. Petersburg, is a fan of the company and regularly attends with visiting dignitaries, including President George W. Bush, whether they are opera lovers or not.

And what this company does, as it demonstrated at its Los Angeles appearances, is put on opera with every bit of energy it can muster. Obstacles are to be overcome -- "I solve crises all the time, what's the big deal?" Gergiev says, flicking his hand as if to ward off a meaningless insect. It is a company that never stops. In Tokyo next month, the company is scheduled to perform the five-hour "War and Peace" twice in a single day.

There were no stars on this tour. And in a perfect operatic world, the young and seductive Katerina, the Russian Lady Macbeth, would not be middle-aged and stocky as she sometimes was here. But there wasn't a single singer in the three casts I heard that wasn't alive to the score and stage.

I was particularly struck by Larissa Gogolevskaya, the Katerina I heard on Tuesday. She doesn't look the part but she proved an ardent actress and a thrilling vocal laser beam. Likewise the dashing, young Oleg Balashov, a Sergei I heard at the second performance, was a perfect example of the young performers whom Gergiev tirelessly discovers, develops at warp-speed and immediately launches -- none of this waiting for years in the wings as at other opera houses.

Gergiev, who never stays still for long, was already on the road again Monday, and Maxim Shostakovich conducted the last two performances. By Tuesday night he had the orchestra playing with breathtaking brilliance. The composer's son may not convey the dramatic intensity or deep soul of Gergiev, but he brought a stunning clarity to the musical design. Brisk and loud, he pushed the singers to shout occasionally, but again the effect was only one of added enthusiasm.

Tuesday night the company also pulled a trick on the audience. Instead of one police sergeant there were two slyly sharing the role (the night before, there were two shabby peasants instead of one). Such is the phenomenal combination of eagerness, professionalism and mischief that makes this unstoppable company utterly irresistible. Triumph over adversity in Los Angeles is all in a long day's work.

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