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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bolshoi Double Bill Misses the Mark

The Bolshoi Theater has unveiled its second and presumably final operatic premiere of the current season, Sergei Rachmaninoff's hour-long, one-act "Francesca da Rimini."

Though originally planning to partner it in a double bill with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's opera "Mozart and Salieri," the Bolshoi has now curiously chosen to fill out the evening with ballet -- a revival of the late Leonid Lavrovsky's "Paganini," also to the music of Rachmaninoff, for the first few performances, and "Chopiniana" later on. Opening night last Friday was stretched out even further by nearly an hour's intermission between opera and ballet.

The third and last of Rachmaninoff's works for the operatic stage, "Francesca da Rimini" is taken from an episode in Dante's "Divine Comedy," with a libretto written by Modest Tchaikovsky, whose famous composer brother had earlier used the same tale as inspiration for a powerful orchestral piece. The story, very simply told on stage, involves the love affair between Francesca and her husband's brother, Paolo, their eventual murder by the jealous husband, Lanciotto, and their damnation to Hell, where, at the end, the lovers' ghosts are heard singing the words "There is no greater grief than to recall times of happiness in misfortune."

"Francesca da Rimini" proved a moderate success at its initial premiere at the Bolshoi in January 1906, where it was accompanied by Rachmaninoff's slightly earlier opera "The Miserly Knight" and conducted by the composer himself. It has twice since been revived at the theater, first in 1956 and then in 1973 to honor the 100th anniversary of Rachmaninoff's birth. Both revivals were staged by Boris Pokrovsky, the man also responsible for directing the current production.

The opera's score dates from the same period as the composer's popular Second and Third piano concertos and Second Symphony and shares with them the same sort of long, sinuous melodic line. Its orchestral writing might well stand by itself to form an enchanting tone poem. Vocally, however, except for its brief choruses and some of the music given to Francesca, the score seems rather nondescript.

Sergei Barkhin's bold, fortress-like set serves both as Lanciotto's palace for the opera's central scenes and as a framework for the depiction of Hell in its prologue and epilogue. Pokrovsky imaginatively stages the latter with lots of fire, smoke and writhing bodies, while telling the story between in familiarly conventional Bolshoi style.

On the vocal front, Friday's premiere proved largely a disappointment. Not much was to be expected from the hard-edged tenor of Valery Tarashchenko, and not much was forthcoming. As the opera progressed, he simply took to screaming his notes. Baritone Sergei Murzayev began firmly enough, in Lanciotto's long monologue, but soon showed unmistakable signs of fatigue.

Most disappointing of all was the Francesca of soprano Marina Meshcheryakova, recently returned from a highly successful debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York as Elizabeth de Valois in Verdi's "Don Carlos." Up high, her notes were clear and radiant, but the middle and lower sections of her voice brought out a strong and, at times, ugly vibrato. Let us hope this is only a temporary phenomenon, as Meshcheryakova has in recent seasons proved one of the few really bright lights among Bolshoi sopranos. Perhaps she should forget the strenuous Verdi roles, such as the one she sang in New York, and return to the lyric repertoire for which her voice seems really suited.

None of Friday's cast displayed much in the way of acting skill or stage presence. Tarashchenko's performance was hardly enhanced by the bizarre silent-movie-style make-up which the Bolshoi seems habitually to give to aging tenors cast as young lovers.

Conductor Andrei Chistyakov delivered a competent reading of the score, with reasonably well-behaved playing from the Bolshoi's orchestra and the usual superb singing from its chorus.

The real high point Friday evening came in its second half, with the electrifying leaps and fine characterization of Nikolai Tsiskaridze, the Bolshoi's "new Nureyev," in the title role of "Paganini." Otherwise, the stage seemed awash with indifferent dancing, while the playing in the pit for Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" was little short of disgraceful for a house of opera and ballet with the prestige and traditions of the Bolshoi.

Apart from Tsiskaridze's dancing, Friday evening's mixed bill at the Bolshoi seemed a rather sad affair, and sadder still when one recalls that the last production there of "Francesca da Rimini" boasted such remarkable singers as Galina Vishnevskaya and Yevgeny Nesterenko.

"Francesca da Rimini" will be repeated Mar. 11 and 13 with "Paganini," and Mar. 15 and 22 (at 12 noon) with "Chopiniana." Tickets may still be available at the theater's box office on Teatralnaya Ploshchad, Tel. 292-0050, or through EPS-Moscow, located in the Hotel Metropol, Tel. 927-6982 or 927-6983. Nearest metro: Teatralnaya, Okhotny Ryad.