A chance to hear Bryn Terfel sing Wotan should never be missed, and the presence of the Welsh superstar under the baton of the formidable Valery Gergiev was undoubtedly the main selling point for this Mariinsky opera gala at the Wales Millennium Centre, which comprised of operatic arias and duets by Russian soloists in the first half, followed by a performance of Act III of Die Walküre in the much-anticipated second half.
As part of the special 5th birthday celebrations for the Wales Millennium Centre, this highly enjoyable opera gala was the perfect way to begin the Mariinsky’s three-day residency in Cardiff, which also included a concert performance of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Iolanta on 10th October and the Verdi Requiem (also starring Terfel) on 11th October.
Gergiev and the Mariinsky have developed very close musical ties with Cardiff over the past few years, bringing their controversial new Ring cycle to the Wales Millennium Centre for its UK premiere in 2006 – three years before audiences had the chance to see it in London. This “unique alliance” between the Mariinsky and the Wales Millennium Centre was made official by the signing of a special partnership in St Petersburg in 2008, which will guarantee Cardiff audiences many more exciting visits from their Russian friends in years to come.
The first half of the programme gave us an interesting and varied mix of arias, duets and orchestral pieces from the Russian and European operatic repertoire. Starting the concert nearly fifteen minutes late, Maestro Gergiev swept onto the stage and launched into a wonderfully spirited rendition of the overture from Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila. The world-famous Mariinsky Orchestra were on superlative form and produced some of the most meticulously precise playing I have ever experienced, particularly from the string section who really did sound as one. It’s clear that Gergiev rules his orchestra with a rod of iron and his attention to detail brought out a remarkable variety of musical colours and some highly expressive playing. The Hungarian march from Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust was also executed with flawless precision and stylish flair and the third orchestral piece – Verdi’s overture from La forza del destino - was superbly agitated and suitably full of drama.
Among the Mariinsky soloists it was the young Russian baritone Alexei Markov who undoubtedly made the biggest impression with his warm, velvet-like timbre and beautifully rich legato phrasing. Close your eyes and you could almost be listening to a young Dmitri Hvorostovsky. He started the programme with a gloriously sung rendition of Gryaznoi’s aria from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride and also closed the first half with the final scene from Eugene Onegin; a moving and intelligently sung portrayal - the perfect combination of passion and remorse.
Joining Markov as his Tatyana was the soprano Victoria Yastrebova, who was wonderfully expressive and executed a stunning diminuendo on the high A flat as she finally admitted her love for Onegin “Akh, ya vas lyublyoo!” Her soprano has a somewhat cloudy timbre in the middle register but opens up at the top to produce some radiant high notes. Less impressive, however, was her somewhat bland rendition of Micaela’s aria “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” from Carmen, which she had sung (in somewhat suspect French) earlier in the evening.
I really enjoyed bass Sergei Alexashkin’s version of The Old Gypsy’s Tale from Rachmaninov’s opera Aleko, followed by tenor Sergei Skorokhodov singing The Young Gypsy’s Romance from the same opera. Skorokhodov’s graceful tenor with its delightfully elegant high notes makes for very pleasant listening indeed. He later returned to the stage as Edgardo in the duet “Sulla tomba che rinserra” from Lucia di Lammermoor, partnered by the very promising young soprano Zhanna Dombrovskaya, who possesses an attractive, crystal-clear tone which cut through the orchestra with ease. However, their duet lacked a proper Italianate feel and just didn’t seem to gel very well, despite the efforts of both singers to introduce some basic elements of acting into the proceedings.
But it was the second half of the concert that everyone was waiting for, and there was a noticeable buzz of excitement and anticipation as Gergiev returned to the podium for the final act of Die Walküre.
Gergiev conducted the Mariinsky Orchestra with his usual flair, but the almost clinical precision of the orchestral playing didn’t suit the Wagner as well as the pieces in the first half of the concert and actually proved to be a disadvantage, keeping the orchestra so rigorously controlled that the passion felt somewhat stifled under his strict and unyielding tempi.
The Ride of the Valkyries was sung with a great deal of energy, if not a lot of subtlety by a very strong ensemble. Among the Valkyries, soprano Zhanna Dombravskaya (who had sung Lucia in the first half) displayed some thrilling, piercing high notes as Gerhilde, while Tatiana Kravtsova was an impressively powerful Helmwige.
The role of the tragic Sieglinde was taken by Moscow-born soprano Mlada Khudolei, who had also sung this part in the recent Mariinsky Ring cycle at Covent Garden this summer. Khudolei’s dark-timbred soprano has a full- bodied richness, together with some beautifully burnished colouring in the lower register. Her ecstatic outburst “O hehrstes Wunder!” was truly radiant and I sincerely wished that she had been singing Brünnhilde instead of Larisa Gogolevskaya.
To be brutally honest, I found Ms Gogolevskaya quite painful to listen to. Hers is a big, unwieldy voice that attacked Wagner’s score like a sledgehammer and almost bordered on screaming by the end. Conforming to the very worst stereotype of a Wagnerian soprano, both in appearance and vocal mannerisms, her Brünnhilde was more reminiscent of a wildly out of control Elektra – a role for which Ms Gogolevskaya has apparently won prizes in Russia. London audiences heard her recently as Brünnhilde in the Mariinsky Götterdämmerung, where her performance was described by Tim Ashley of The Guardian as “vulgar and wilting”.
To make matters worse, her German pronunciation was often mangled beyond recognition and at times she seemed to be making up imaginary German words as she went along. How the great Maestro Gergiev could pay such meticulous attention to musical detail but permit this shocking assault on Wagner’s sacred text is a mystery.
Thank God, then, for Bryn Terfel. Storming on through the middle of the stalls, his angry
demand “Wo ist Brünnhild?” caused an extraordinary frisson around the auditorium. From the moment he stepped onto
the stage he commanded it entirely - here was a god who needed no spear to exert his authority. Vocally he was
magnificent and sang with a gloriously rich timbre, getting every word of the text across in flawless German. His
vocal interpretation has developed and taken on a more lyrical edge since I last heard him sing this role in 2005,
and his thrillingly powerful F’s above the stave should certainly help convince those who worry that the Welshman’s
voice is not heavy enough for Wotan.
Terfel’s sensitive artistry really shone through in a performance of extraordinary musicality and raw emotion. After Wotan’s initial rage had subsided, he began “Nicht send’ ich dich mehr aus Walhall” with the most exquisitely majestic legato phrasing, casting out his disobedient daughter from the ranks of the gods. “Leb’ wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!” was utterly sublime, as Terfel found the perfect balance of elegance, passion and sheer vocal beauty. It was well worth making the trip from London to Cardiff for Wotan’s Farewell alone.
The chairman of the Wales Millennium Centre, Lord Rowe- Beddoe, writes in the programme notes about the Centre’s ambition of “bringing the best of the world to Wales and showcasing the best of Wales to the world” and this ambition was certainly achieved in many respects tonight.