Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rising Russian Singers Shine In Modern American Opera

Monday nights at the Conservatory Great Hall are often occasions to sample promising singers from the Conservatory's Opera Studio. Usually the young artists try out their voices in a classic from the repertory, either Russian or otherwise. But this week the opera was "Mysteries of Eleusis" by the contemporary American composer Joel Feigin, and the result was a fine achievement in Russian-American musical partnership.

Feigin sets his performers no easy task. "Mysteries of Eleusis," which has a libretto by Feigin and Jaime Manrique, is severe in its post-expressionistic idiom, with jagged vocal lines, searing orchestral textures and imaginative percussion effects.

But the music fits the psychological depth of the subject, a treatment of the Greek myth of Demeter, goddess of agriculture and fertility, and her eventual acceptance of the abduction of her daughter, Persephone, by Hades.

Like Idomeneus in Mozart's opera, Demeter's personal trauma has repercussions for a whole people, since in her grief she has denied the earth her favors.

The result is a famine that has already claimed the life of Iambe, a beloved member of the royal family in Eleusis.

Demeter's grief is gradually tempered by guilt, as she comes to realize, in part through visions of the dead Iambe and of her own mother, Rhea, the devastation she has caused. She is finally allowed to meet Persephone in Hell, only to be informed that her daughter returns Hades' love. In a compromise, Hades agrees to release Persephone, provided that she returns to spend six months of each year with him.

Feigin, a New York-born composer who studied at the Juilliard School with Roger Sessions and now teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has been in Moscow on a Fulbright grant to participate in the rehearsals.

The one-act opera was given an excellent treatment. Above all, the performance demonstrated the talent and versatility of young singers in Russia today. With the one proviso that their English diction could stand improvement, they met the demands of the music head on.

Yelena Vasilenko conveyed all of Demeter's grief but also brought excitement and accuracy to the fearsome challenges of her vocal line. And - like mother, like daughter - Olga Chernysheva revealed similarly arresting vocal skills as Persephone.

Kang Hi Young was gripping as the visions of Iambe and Demeter's mother Rhea, while Sergei Gaidei, as the prince of Eleusis, displayed a vibrant, ringing tenor voice, and Anastasia Bakastova sang authoritatively as his mother, Metainera.

The Great Hall is meant for concerts, not opera, but within its limitations (no lighting effects, for instance), Vladimir Zhdanov created a simple but effective staging, which benefited from colorful, Greek-style costumes with billowing veils for the women. Actors on stage, arranged as a kind of Greek chorus while the singing chorus was grouped with the orchestra, offered modest choreographic effects.

Not all of Feigin's score for the strings was lustrously executed, but Alexander Petukhov's secure, well-coordinated performance allowed most of the score's details to be realized with precision and clarity.

"Mysteries of Eleusis" plays March 20 at 7 p.m. at the Conservatory Rakhmaninov Hall, 11 Bolshaya Nikitskaya. Tel. 229-0294/7795/8183. Nearest metro: Pushkinskaya.