March 17, 2015
As an orchestral suite it would have been a wonderful evening. Valery Gergiev led his Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra through one of the most exciting performances I have encountered: eager, clear, and perfectly self-controlled. I say “self-controlled” deliberately, because not once, during the entire evening, did I see any of the players even glance at their chef d’orchestre. In fact, it was an example of something I have often wondered: if enough instruction and practice have taken place, isn’t the conductor simply ornamental on the nights of the actual performances? In this case it is almost beyond doubt that the answer is “Yes”. Not that this detracts from Gergiev’s achievement, because the orchestra could only reach such coordination and spirit as a result of his prior guidance. But the independence was certainly not subtle.
I have generally loved concert performances at the Liceu for their excellent singing and, frequently, very good orchestral backing, and for the subtle acting on the part of the singers which brings the story to life. But this time was not in the same league.
As much as Gergiev was responsible for the excellence of the orchestra, he was also involved in the selection of singers. The choice of Robert Gambill as Tristan and Larisa Gogolevskaya as Isolde boggles the mind. A more mismatched pairing is hard to imagine. Gambill, certainly did not sound remotely Wagnerian. Indeed, especially in the final act, there were significant stretches during which he was inaudible. (As a performer he was brave, however, because he endured 45 minutes virtually solo in Act 3, having been as resoundingly booed at the end of Act 2 as I have ever heard at the Liceu. I salute him for that.) Ms. Gogolevskaya was at the opposite end of the spectrum: a truly Wagnerian voice, strong to the point of bellowing and frequently harsh. If she had a cold, I sympathise, but I suspect that the voice is damaged by longterm use.
The outstanding singer of the evening was Yulia Matochkina as Brangäne. Evgeny Nikitin was a solid Kurwenal and Mikhail Petrenko was fine in the small, unexciting role of King Marke. Brangäne was pure delight; exactly the right level of sound, a rich, warm voice: I hope I hear her often. But the whole evening was, alas, pulled down by the two lead singers.
My neighbour commented that the positioning of the orchestra on stage was a bad move because it drowned out the singers. But that is where it has been in the past, for instance both for “Il Pirata” and for “Iolanta” (also with Gergiev), and it worked fine then. So I don’t think that was an explanation of the problem with audibility this time. It was just an unfortunate combination and very regrettable, because the concert performances, with no visual distraction (nothing for me to carp about when there is no staging), are often high spots of the Liceu season.