Many an opera indulges its female lead with a mad scene, but The Fiery Angel (mid-1920s) by Sergei Prokofiev, is a mad opera, with which the Kirov Opera, under its conductor Valery Gergiev, opened the Melbourne Festival. Two nights later, they ventured another exercise in obsession, Salome (1905), by Richard Strauss.

In the leading role in The Fiery Angel, the young soprano Malda Khudolei, as the hysteric Renata, took the risks of a Callas, with that divaís ability to render ugly sounds beautifully, and yet to retain a fragility, all with a stage presence which heightened the dangers that she faced as performer and character.

To the role of her would-be lover, the knight Ruprecht, Fedor Mozhaev brought a baritone with neither the projection nor the palette to draw notice away from acting which mistakes arm-folding for passion.

Fedor Kuznetzov looked the part of the Inquisitor but his bass, while deep and steady, lacked the bottom for the authority to rise above the tumult of nuns on heat, thereby sapping terror from the operaís ultimate frenzy.

Among the dozen other roles, the singing ranged from the barely audible to the stunning. Lyubov Sokolova as the Mother Superior displayed resources for many a male bass to envy.

As Mephistopheles, the tenor Konstantin Pluzhnikov is one of the few to survive from the companyís award-winning 1991 premiere of this production. The detailing of his performance suggests how much might have been lost from changes to cast and the resignation of the director, Australian-born David Freeman. Pluzhnikov conveyed more drama with one finger or a single bar than any of the Kirovís other males could achieve with their entire parts.

My reaction to impresario Gergiev was in inverse proportion to much of the audience who cheered his first appearance for his reputation and for the heroics of performing only hours after landing from a flight around war zones. I consider the demands that Gergiev puts onto his company as repellent as those that Stalinís planners screwed out of Soviet workers. Within a few minutes of the orchestraís playing under Gergievís fluttering baton, I was fellow travelling. I was hearing the Kirov, and it sang. The colours from its more than sixty players were the resonance and glint we associate with the Russian voice. It was difficult to believe that I was three rows from this huge ensemble as it performed often raucous noises, and was able to pick out every nuance in the score Ė from the lyrical to the pounding.

The performers in Salome had to struggle against a design and a direction which would have been an embarrassment to a suburban Kismet in the 1960s. In denial of the workís symbolism, the set pursued naturalism and found fakery. The costuming worked on the principle of first up, best dressed. Again the orchestra played magnificently but Straussís score is too Viennese to distract the eye or the ear from the stage.

In the title role of Salome, Valeria Stenkina missed the significance of her first encounter with Jokanaan by directing her seduction away from him and onto the audience. This fudging of the pivotal experience in her short life was compounded by the handling of the dance of the seven veils which saw her run around the stage seven times, shedding spangles at each lap until she drops her daks in time to be bucketed with water for no revealed purpose. It was a tribute to her talents that the monstrous finale where she makes love to Jokanaanís severed head was transfixing, though she looked and sounded more like a mature Medea than a teenage Isolde.

Nikolai Gassiev went in for Herod as fop, and not the king of Judea. His tenor delighted in the foolishness but eschewed the required majesty.

As Jokanaan, the bass baritone Evgeny Kikitin had no trouble projecting his curses from the bottom of the well, or for giving vocal conviction to his own looniness once dragged up on stage.

Both works were given with mostly different casts on the following day. The unevenness within each and the imbalance between the two productions gave Melbourne better value for money than London got from the Kirovís disastrous Verdi season in August.



See also: RICHARD STRAUSS.  Use the 'back' button on your browser to return to this page.