Mariinsky Opera and Chorus: Prokofiev's 'Betrothal in a Monastery': Rachmaninov's 'Vespers'

Mariinsky Opera and Chorus: Prokofiev’s ‘Betrothal in a Monastery’: Rachmaninov’s ‘Vespers’

Betrothal in a Monastery
Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, November 2 2014
Music: Sergey Prokofiev
Libretto: by the composer and Mira Mendelson after Sheridan’s The Duenna.

Mariinsky Opera: a concert performance
Conductor: Valery Gergiev
Principal Chorus Master: Andrey Petrenko

Cast includes: Evgeny Akimov / Sergey Aleksashkin / Roman Burdenko / Dmitry Voropaev / Anastasia Kalagina / Larisa Diadkova / Yulia Matochkina


Vespers (All-Night Vigil)
Sergey Rachmaninov
Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff, November 6 2014

Mariinsky Opera Chorus
Director: Andrey Petrenko

Soloists: Maria Shuklina / Alexey Velikanov

The Wales Millennium Centre directors must have breathed a collective sigh of relief that there was no repetition in Cardiff of the protests that have attended some recent appearances in London and New York of conductor Valery Gergiev.* In the event, joint celebrations for the venue’s 10th anniversary and UK-Russia Year of Culture 2014 got off to an uninterrupted flying start with a superb concert performance by Gergiev and the Mariinsky Opera of Sergey Prokofiev’s Betrothal in a Monastery. And that was followed – even capped – by a stunning rendition of Rachmaninov’s Vespers at Llandaff Cathedral by the Mariinsky Chorus under director Andrey Petrenko a few days later.

Interestingly, apropos music and politics, both pieces bear indirect witness to their oft-fraught but unavoidable commingling – and Russia in the first half of the 20th century was notably precarious for composers, as for so many others. In 1940-41, Prokofiev found himself in dicey situations on twin fronts, trying to negotiate the minefields of Soviet public, and his own self-sabotaged domestic, life. Betrothal in a Monastery – a romantic satire on Sheridan’s The Duenna, stuffed with neo-classical wit and ironic restraint – was written whilst Prokofiev was in the process of abandoning his wife Lina for the opera’s far younger co-librettist, Mira Mendelson. Moreover, it stands in many ways as an example of the composer’s famously artful political dodging; surely an irony that would not be lost on sceptical Gergiev observers today. One would never guess from the opera that a war had been on (Germany was shortly to break the Nazi-Soviet Pact and commence bombing Russian cities) – never mind the terror lurking behind the recent disappearance of Prokofiev’s friend, the director Vsevolod Meyerhold (whom he later learned had been shot) and the lukewarm official reception of the opera they happened to have been working on at the time, Semyon Kotko.

Nonetheless, Prokofiev had only to wait until 1946 for a successful première of Betrothal in Russia. And it proved a hit here in Cardiff, with Gergiev fielding a crack team of soloists, chorus and orchestra in passionate advocacy of the work. In setting the Sheridan, Prokofiev once wrote, ‘I had first to decide which element to stress in the music: the comic or the romantic. I chose the second.’ Well, maybe – and there is some delightfully lyrical, even touching, writing in the portrayal of the various ardent lovers. But it was the comedy which most impressed in this performance, with striking vocal and gestural characterisation, together with an imaginative use of the available space, and a perfectly judged faux-serious interaction between the cast and stage-mounted orchestral players: all delivered with conspiratorial glee and exceptional singing and musicianship.

Prokofiev’s quicksilver score was performed with light-hearted colour and zest. Helped, it must be said, by the surtitles, the cast conveyed to a tee the plot’s myriad, fast-moving machinations, confusions of identity and romantic tangles à la Mozart’s, and especially Rossini’s, opere buffe. Convincing character pairings are crucial to this opera’s success, whether staged or no, and they were largely superb here. There was some stiffness between Louisa and Antonio (Anastasia Kalagina and Dmitry Voropaev), which should have been the romantic pinnacle of the piece, such as it is. Ultimately, it’s all silly nonsense of course, but in any case, the romance was outshone; initially by the ignominious comic duo of father, Don Jerome, and fish merchant, Mendoza (respectively, the brilliant Evgeny Akimov and Sergey Aleksashkin), both hoping to gain from the latter’s marriage to daughter Louisa. But it was Mendoza in tandem with the Duenna herself, Larisa Diadkova, who stole the show; the mezzo with her rich, deep voice and splendidly comic, seductive wiles proving triumphant over all.

The plot hinges on the pompous patriarchy and deluded vanity of Don Jerome and Mendoza. Both men are greedy and stupid, and get their comeuppance only to find that things have turned out alright after all, as each lover finds their rightful partner. So indeed there is politics here in terms of gender, class and age – plus hints of anti-Semitism to modern eyes in the mocking of the Jewish Mendoza, which Prokofiev toned down from the original play. But at least the women and servants appear to give as good as they get, in an opera that’s otherwise steeped in droll cleverness and musical jokes. At the time, the exotic Seville setting and sozzled monks (here wonderfully sung by soloists and chorus alike) must have felt like welcome distractions to Prokofiev, who succeeded in navigating his way through a dangerous period – though at who knows what cost to himself and others.

Back in the 1910s, at the birth of Soviet Russia, and at the height of an earlier conflagration in World War I, Rachmaninov too had found himself in a political minefield. In his case, however, the only course of action was to leave the country – and fast. His sacred choral masterpiece, the Vespers (Op. 37) – more properly entitled All-Night Vigil – had been premièred to great acclaim in 1915 and widely performed thereafter, only to be banned after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Religious music was outlawed but, more urgently, Rachmaninov was a bourgeois. And so he and his wife Natalia fled the country later that year, eventually arriving in the USA, where he would later die in 1943 after a life of exile there and in Europe.

Curiously, the first ever recording of the Vespers was made in the Soviet Union, in 1965 by the State Academic Choir of the USSR. But this was strictly for export and private study only. There is further irony in that, in the West, Rachmaninov was often – and still occasionally remains – dismissed by his critics as a composer of post-Romantic, sentimental schmaltz. Perhaps a superficial stylistic reading of his more popular works for piano and orchestra might lead to such a conclusion, but surely a single hearing of the magnificent Vespers blows it out of the water. The piece is a marvel of Russian Orthodox liturgical devotion, and the Mariinsky Opera Chorus performed it with breathtaking grandeur and eloquence in the brimful hush of Cardiff’s Llandaff Cathedral.

Rachmaninov had actually stopped attending church services by the time he wrote the piece, which nonetheless communicates an awed contemplation of the divine, as well as the composer’s deep saturation in Russian Orthodox plainchant filtered through his love of Tchaikovsky. The composer John Tavener once spoke about wanting to create an ‘icon in sound’. It seems to me that this is precisely – and authentically – what Rachmaninov achieves here, in his necessarily a cappella setting of fifteen canticles (instruments are traditionally forbidden in the Russian Orthodox Church, as today’s courageous political protesters, Pussy Riot, would bear witness).

The work comprises texts familiar to Westerners, such as the Nunc dimittis and Magnificat (Nos. 5 and 11), with further ancient Russian prayers and chants bringing together the services of Vespers – the evening service – Matins – the nocturnal first service of the day – and the First Hour: these three elements, when celebrated monastically in full, comprise the All-Night Vigil. From the pianissimo subterranean rumbles of the low-Bb basso-profundi to the more outwardly ecstatic ‘allelujias’, Rachmaninov weaves a compelling tapestry of sound; not contrapuntally – which would be deemed too personal for traditional liturgy – but revolving harmonically around the melodic line or single notes. The voices divide into as many as eleven parts at times, but here the Chorus never once lost their sense of pitch, nor direction under Petrenko’s firm but understated guidance.

Mezzo Maria Shuklina and tenor Alexey Velikanov were both exquisite soloists, their voices emerging in turn from the texture as if in haunting plea before subsiding once more into the whole. But for me, the sheer sound of the Russian voices en masse proved the most profound experience, in their distinctly non-Western, collectively thrilling resonance and deep timbral sweep; not ‘perfect’ (not all entry consonances were uttered entirely in tandem, for instance), but raw and yet fluid and controlled. The tempi and dynamic phrasing were faultlessly judged, allowing seemingly effortless, tender, floating and impassioned appeals to surge one into another within each canticle; right from Blagoslovi, dushe moya, gospoda (No. 2) to the final prayer, Vzbrannoy voyevode (No. 15).

It seemed appropriate that the ringing sonority of this final piece should have died away to the peal of the cathedral bells far above our heads marking the half hour. For Rachmaninov had loved the sound of Russian church bells from childhood; so much so, that he named his greatest secular choral work The Bells (Op. 35), just two years before he composed this sacred piece. In later years, he would cite both works as those he was most proud to have written, and he requested that his favourite canticle from the Vespers (the Nunc dimittis) be sung at his funeral. Perhaps it is high time that his ‘schmaltzy’ image became history.

* The issues were, and remain (aside from resurgent Russian imperialism – of which the UK is hardly innocent in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in recent years), the increasing persecution of LGBT people and repression of their rights in Russia: the extent to which President Putin’s internationally renowned close personal supporters – like Gergiev – bear a responsibility to speak out against such ugly illiberalism. For what it’s worth, I believe they do.