I both saw this production at the Edinburgh Festival, and reviewed this disc professionally for the BBC. Both times I thought it the best I'd seen. Jonathan Kent's production is clear and imaginative, treating the story as one of human relationships. ambitions and dreams, rather than a murky allegory. I'm no friend of distorted modern production styles, but shifting the human characters from vaguely oriental peasants into modern poverty-row characters brings them and their emotional problems far more alive, especially the Dyer's Wife, normally played as a Germanic harridan but here a believable discontented young wife hungering for a better life. The world of the immortals is very atmospherically handled, and imagery such as the falcon poetically handled.
The entirely Russian cast, contrary to other opinions here, does very well indeed. If they're not quite the equal of the great stars of previous generations, they're still very good, and in many cases younger and fresher, even singing German. They're certainly better than the recent cast at Covent Garden. Olga Savova's superbly sung and acted Nurse would grace any cast, Evgeny Ulanov's sonorous Spirit Messenger is magnificent -- better even than Bryn Terfel on Solti's DVD version -- and Avgust Amonov, though a rather sedate stage figure, sings the Emperor far better than German heroic bellowers. Mlada Khudoley's Empress and Olga Sergeeva's Dyer's Wife strain their youthful voices at times, but live their roles passionately, and Eden Umerov's moments of gruff tone are balanced by some genuinely heart-wrenching singing and credible characterization. The supporting cast is excellent, and the sense of ensemble evident. Gergiev conducts with sweeping emotional force, and the Mariinsky orchestra sounds superb. The recording does it all justice, on BluRay especially. There are some of the usual stage cuts, but they're no great disadvantage.
Solti's Salzburg set, my previous favourite, is undoubtedly very good, even better conducted and with some fine casting, but the somewhat clinical production isn't nearly as involving and there isn't the intensity of acting and ensemble. The most recent competitor, Christof Loy's recording-studio staging, is wholly empty, a clumsy get-out of a difficult piece, and no more than adequate musically. This is the version which comes nearest to making this heavyweight fable a living human opera.
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