Recent Russki stuff I've seen

Before Thanksgiving break I saw two works which really represent the polar opposites of "Russian art." The Mikhailovsky Ballet closed out its tour with performances of that old warhorse Don Quixote, while over at the Metropolitan the "hot" ticket was Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, a work that so offended that aesthete Josef Stalin that the work was banned for decades.

Don Quixote is a merry spin-off of one of the episodes in the Cervantes novel, but really, it's an excuse for Russian ballet companies to show off the virtues of Russian ballet companies. Their "the show must go on, otherwise I'm getting sent to a gulag" spirit is very much alive -- in the two performances of Don Quixote that I saw, every variation and character dancer seized the spotlight with an eagerness that was endearing. They made every sashay of the skirt or swing of the fan wonderfully vibrant. The way they beam at the audience after a well-danced solo turn is enough to warm the heart of the worst curmudgeon.

I saw two performances. The first performance was with the very skinny, stylish Viktor Lebedev, who was comically mismatched with his Kitri, Angelina Vorontsova. Vorontsova is one of those ballet dancers who has it all -- beautiful smile, winning personality, a solid if somewhat unrefined technique. She's also "pleasantly plump." And you realize while watching her dance that you want her to stay that way -- not everyone looks good being a beanpole, and she's just a natural cherubic charmer. Even if this meant the overhead lifts were shortened or deleted, or she didn't quite fit in her tutus. Lebedev is a spectacular dancer -- in Basilio's variation he did that infamous step sequence from Balanchine's Theme and Variations. You know, the double tour/pirouette sequence where you can really see the lactic acid bursting out of every dancer. But Lebedev trucked through that variation easy peasy lemon squeezy.

The second performance was the by now well-know Osipova/Vasiliev circus show. Vasiliev is a lot of things -- you can yell at him for having no turnout, no grace, hard landings, and a ballet vocabulary that begins and ends with barrel turns, split revolution leaps and various revolutions in the air. But he has comic flair and charm. His now-ex girlfriend Natalia Osipova is the opposite -- she tosses off triple fouettes without blinking. Her leaps are light and as I said, she hangs in the air like a little butterfly. But there's something quite hard-boiled about her dancing nowadays. She barely makes an effort to communicate with anyone onstage, and her expression at the audience ranges from a tight smile to a sullen glare. Maybe she's just sick of dancing Kitri.

Ekaterina Borchenko was a wonderful Queen of the Dryads -- stately and strong, and I like that they do the Mariinsky variation with the Italian fouettes. Veronika Ignatyeva was a cute, tiny Cupid. I also enjoyed the mime roles of Don Quixote (Marat Sheminov) and Sancho (Alexey Kuznetsov). The Mikhailovsky production really integrates them better into the ballet than most productions of Don Q.

The Mikhailovsky is a wonderfully charming company -- very diverse aesthetically and ethnically, but stylistically unison. It's one thing to watch the Mariinsky's 32 swans with most of them obviously selected heavily for a similar look -- tall, majestic, and most of all, thin, thin, thin. It's another to see a short, somewhat squat girl standing next to a tall beanpole but with their arms and hands held at an identical angle. That's the Mikhailovsky. As I said, Don Quixote isn't high art. But it's fun.

Over at the Met Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is the opposite of fun. This dark, grim tale of adultery and murder is heavy going and sold poorly at the box office. Too bad, because it's one of the best things the Met has put on this season. James Conlon was magnificent with the Met orchestra, and really breathed life into Shostakovich's score which is by turns bombastic, violent, crude, and then tender and poetic. The work is filled with dark humor -- the cheerful, amoral waltzing Russian priest is my favorite motif. Even the murder-suicide ending is weirdly funny. The "death for worthless Sergei" number jumped to 4 people.

The cast was uniformly committed, intense, and believable. No one would ever accuse Eva Marie Westbroek of having a beautiful voice. It can turn squally up top and the cut of the voice gives it a sharp tangy edge. She also looks quite blowsy and middle-aged. But this all worked to her advantage. You felt Katerina's desperation and even sympathized with her pathetic love for Sergei. Brandon Jovanovich was completely sleazy and hateful as Sergei, but had enough of that oily slickness to make his womanizing ways believable. Both of them threw themselves into Graham Vick's very graphic stage directions during Shostakovich's very graphic musical depiction of their first sexual encounter (complete with sliding trombones to depict some in-out, in-out, Clockwork-orange style). The fact that both of them were tubby and out of shape while modeling various Kama Sutra poses just added to the realism of the piece.

Supporting cast all excellent, particularly Anatoli Kotscherga as the hateful Boris, and Mikhail Koleslishvili as the delightfully amoral waltzing Priest. Dmitry Belosselskiy added to the strong impression he made in Aida with a haunting, soulful Old Convict.

You understand why Stalin banned this opera -- so many years later, it's a deeply uncomfortable work. I don't think I could see it every year, or even every five years. But it's also a masterpiece. Something like Don Quixote (the ballet) goes down easy. Too easy. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is a reminder that art is sometimes offensive, unpleasant, ugly, all the things Stalin didn't want to admit still existed in the USSR. And come to think of it, the story could just as easily apply to new-Russia, where the "unbelievably popular" Putin has put out decrees against any expressions of "degenerate" tendencies. It always is one of nature's wonders to see brutal dictators insist that their country exudes nothing but sunshine and smiles.


  1. Are you a fan of Westbroek? I think she's one of the best sopranos around. Despite some high notes that are very pretty I think her voice is very rich and voluminous. I also thought that both she and Jovanovich were sort of sexy in a slovenly sort of way. There's a dvd of this opera with Westbroek that's even better IMO

    1. I wouldn't call myself a fan of Westbroek's voice per se. I do admire the commitment she brings to every role.

    2. I just think it's a very visceral sound, very memorable. You should check out some videos of her, I don't think she's been at her best at the met. I'm not looking for to her Santuzza but I'd love to her Elisabeth in Tannhauser

    3. I'm downloading her Manon Lescaut right now :)

    4. I would do Minnie, or something in german


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