Belarussian Boheme in Hastings

23 Feb

I have friends in Hastings.  They know I’m an opera nut and quite like it themselves.  Would I like to see the Grand Opera of Belarus doing La Boheme there, they asked, nervously.  I’m not squeamish when I come to opera – I tend to think that you can get something out of most performances.  While I probably wouldn’t travel to Hastings on my own to see this, it was likely to be a jolly evening out and, on 22nd February, we braved snow squalls to get there.

I think this is the company’s first UK tour.  The programme told me that they’ve been going for around 80 years, were one of the major companies in the old Soviet Union and now, presumably, are where it’s at, operatically, in Belarus. They have embarked on a 7 week tour of La Boheme and Madama Butterfly going to such operatic centres as Hastings, Rhyl, Billingham and Lowestoft in addition to slightly larger scale places like Buxton, Newcastle and Hull. For many of these, this must be the only opera they get.

They have brought 13 soloists (including a number of their leading singers, judging by the company’s website), a chorus of 17 and a decent sized orchestra.  It strikes me as a gruelling tour: they are performing six nights a week and, one week’s performances sees them going from Halifax to Swindon to Chesterield to Yeovil to Dorking to Stafford with only one day off.  They have two tenors each singing Rodolfo and Pinkerton, while four sopranos share Mimi, Musetta and Butterfly (one of them apparently able to sing all three).  I would guess that a good number of the singers, particularly the leads, will be singing four or possibly five nights per week.  One of them, Ilya Pevszner sings every night as Colline and the Commissioner (with the occasional Bonze thrown in ).  They have clearly constructed their own touring sets which need to be easy to transport and fit in to very different theatres.  Seats at Hastings cost up to £30.  The top price in Minsk appears to be the equivalent of £7.50, so you can see why there may well be advantages to them touring.

So what was it like?  Well, the sets were tawdry and badly put together.  You’d forgive them in a village church hall panto but that’s about it.  The costumes were better but had a very Russian accent (lots of furs in Act II and the peasants selling cheese looked very Russian indeed).  The staging involved little more than traffic direction and there was a range of acting styles, mostly involving heavy, exaggeratedly operatic acting.  The singers were smartly dressed and Mimi was a healthy young woman with none of the fragility you expect; there seemed to be little chemistry between them and eyes remained resolutely dry throughout.  There was no sense that anyone had seriously thought about preparing the performance to put the opera across.

Worse were the surtitles – they rolled across a dot matrix screen at the edge of stage and it was sheer luck if they coincided with what was actually going on.  Fortunately, they weren’t visible from lots of seats.  You cannot operate surtitles like that with any sort of artistic integrity and we would have been better off without them.

Musically things were better.  The orchestra was very good indeed and Victor Ploshkina, the company’s chief conductor, conducted idiomatically, letting the details come out, with sympathy for the singers and never drowning them.  It helps that the acoustic at the White Rock, at least in the circle, is very good indeed (but people whose bodies are larger then those of most supermodels and whose legs are longer than the average 12 year old’s will not be comfortable there).  This was an orchestral performance that would go down perfectly well in most places.  The chorus sang well and enthusiastically.

The singing was very decent, albeit the Italian pronunciation had a very strong Russian accent to it.  The programme didn’t tell you exactly who would be singing on which nights, so I am going by the programme photographs, always dangerous, in attributing names.  If I get them wrong, let me know.  The finest was the Mimi, Helena Bundeleva.  She has a really lovely, clear, pure voice and she sang the music with a good sense of style.  I wouldn’t mind hearing her again and would hope that a decent director might actually enable her to appear fragile and moving: she looked a bit as though she was about to go off to a smart restaurant before returning to her job as a high powered lawyer.  Inna Rusinovskaya made a very sexy, exuberant Musetta, though I found her voice rather on the acid side.

Sergei Frankovsky needs more help than he got here to look like a young and impoverished poet.  His repertory apparently includes a lot of lyric and heroic Italian roles.  I can’t imagine wanting to hear his dry, uningratiating singing in any of them.  It may be that the tour had over-tired him.  Vladimir Gromov sang well enough as Marcello without suggesting anything more than generalised heartiness.  Ilya Pevzner as Colline and Aleksandr Krasnodubsky were perfectly fine without being particularly memorable or individual.

It is an interesting question as to how you should judge a performance of this sort.  So far as I know, none of the subsidised companies gets to Hastings.  I was told that they audience (which was, I would guess, around 700 and filled about 75% of the auditorium) probably represented the bulk of the opera-going public in Hastings and was good for that theatre.  They may well feel that anything is better than nothing and the seats are probably about as expensive as they will stand.  For my friends, it was their first Boheme and for two in the party their first opera.  I don’t suppose they were alone.  They told me that they’d enjoyed the music and sort-of followed the plot and enjoyed it.  I don’t see how they can have avoided the idea that opera is something with beautiful music but with a silly story and people who can’t act.  I could not help feeling incredibly privilege to have the access, both physically and financial, not just to the ROH and Glyndebourne, but to Opera North and ETO, all of which have massively higher visual values.

It’s a shame.  All the ingredients were here for a rather good performance that could have left us moved.  What actually happened was that they were thrown onto the stage with gimcrack sets and no attempt to treat the piece as a dramatic event.  A half decent director could have done something with this.  I blame the promoters who, presumably, rather cynically thought that it was good enough for Hastings.  Well, at least visually, it wasn’t.

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3 Responses to “Belarussian Boheme in Hastings”

  1. Anastasia February 23, 2013 at 10:15 pm #

    Enjoyed reading that, thank you! Belarus Opera in Hastings – sounds like an idiosyncratic combination. Nothing seems to have changed in the old Soviet land of ridicule. And yes, we are so very privileged to have access to the wonderful examples of opera culture.

  2. Volha March 15, 2013 at 6:05 pm #

    Thanks for a smart review. As a close observer of what has been going on at the Belarus Opera for the last two decades, I can say that most of your comments are just to the point. However, according to the schedule of the Belarus Opera, it was Tatiana Tretiak, not Helena Bundeleva who sang Mimi on 22 February in Hastings.

    • operanotes March 17, 2013 at 11:47 am #

      Thank you for your comment and for the correction. My apologies to both ladies. I thought that the Mimi was a very promising soprano indeed.

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