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Grandiose `Ring' fulfills ambitions

Kirov Orchestra moves fluidly between Wagner operas and symphonies by Shostakovich.

October 14, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Wednesday night at the Orange Country Performing Arts Center, a "Ring" cycle -- imported from St. Petersburg, Russia, by the Mariinsky Theatre and begun Friday -- ended in the kind of rare grandeur that Wagnerians live for and sometimes mortgage their houses to be able to witness. From the moment the guileless hero Siegfried was stabbed in the back until his flaming funeral pyre drove Brunnhilde into waves of transporting ecstasy and brought the downfall of the gods, this was also opera afire.

With the "Ring" only part of OCPAC's ambitious Mariinsky Festival, the Kirov Orchestra has also on off-nights been playing Shostakovich symphonies in OCPAC's new Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall (the operas took place across the way in the old Segerstrom Hall). Thursday night, the Shostakovich series ended with the 14th Symphony, a death-infused song cycle for soprano, bass and a chamber orchestra of strings and percussion. Shostakovich's vision of death is unsoftened by Wagnerian mystical transformation. Rather, the Russian composer staggers through a pathological netherland of seething anger, wrenching angst, cold-sweat fear and the blackest of gallows humor.

This too was utterly riveting. The soprano was the previous night's Brunnhilde, Olga Sergeyeva, a wild singer with an impressively grand demeanor. The deep, dark bass, Mikhail Petrakos, had been the evil Hagen, whose spear entered the back of her lover, Siegfried. Valery Gergiev, the artistic and general director of the Mariinsky, conducted the "Ring," five Shostakovich symphonies and one of the composer's piano concertos over seven consecutive evenings (before launching into this weekend's four performances of Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov").

In the best of circumstances, all of this would be more than a little crazy. But this first Wagner-Shostakovich week of the Mariinsky Festival wasn't the best of circumstances. It was full of muddle and confusion, only rising to sustained greatness at the end. But that achievement of greatness does say something about this compelling company and its driven, inspired leader.

Wagner and Shostakovich were, at their core, dramatists, supreme masters of the musical narrative. Attracted to grandiosity, both composed with the idea that they were encompassing all humanity in their epic symphonic or operatic canvases. But each, ultimately, had but one subject -- himself. A case could be made that these were the two largest egos in all music.

They were, however, opposites and, in a sense, enemies. Wagner, long after he was dead, was turned into the voice of Hitler, who sent his Siegfrieds to storm Shostakovich's St. Petersburg. Shostakovich, meanwhile, was forced to become the voice of Stalin. Wagner always broke new ground, consciously and effectively working to move music into the future. Shostakovich, as a composer, was a reactionary.

The problem for the listener is that to enter into Wagner's "Ring" cycle you have to get past the disagreeable man. But the control of musical structure is extraordinary, and so is Wagner's psychological insight. He really did know in a very deep way how people worked; he just felt above all that.

Shostakovich, on the other hand, wrote very little that doesn't require some sort of musical apology. He had gifts for melody, for orchestral sound and for expressing rage and despair. But he had an equal gift for bombast.

It's the man, this time, buffeted by history and Stalin's pawn, who attracts interest. Shostakovich is suddenly so attractive a hundred years after his birth because, unlike Wagner, he offered no surety.

So how did Gergiev cope with this great dichotomy? He didn't. The Mariinsky survives and thrives on the work ethic. This "Ring" made no sense in Costa Mesa, in a theater not adequate for it, and probably won't make much more sense when it travels to Lincoln Center this summer. It's 100% Russian and I'm sure must resonate very differently on its home ground.

It's a "Ring" probably not worth the bother to parse. Why was Hagen cross-dressed in a brown hoopskirt and tight, feminine top? His warriors, also skirted, pranced on stage as if they were at Rockefeller Center, banged their chests like apes, yet sang with glorious ferocity and enthusiasm.

I found it all but impossible not to fall in love with the big-throated Russian singers, terrific ones and the less terrific ones alike. In the last two operas -- "Siegfried" (on Monday) and "Twilight of the Gods" (on Wednesday) -- there were two Siegfrieds. Leonid Zakhozhaev in the first was joyous, athletic, amusing (who ever heard of a funny Siegfried?) and nearly heroic, although he tired by the end. Viktor Lutsyuk was friendly and likable (who ever heard of a likable Siegfried?), more human than heroic.

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