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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fiery Opening for White Nights

ST. PETERSBURG -- Calling all opera lovers, and even those still waiting to be converted: Sergei Prokofiev's "Semyon Kotko," shown on the opening day of the Stars of the White Nights Festival, is the best production the Mariinsky Theater has come up with in a long time.

Yes, "Semyon Kotko" is a Soviet opera, written in 1939 following the success of Prokofiev's score to Sergei Eisenstein's film"Alexander Nevsky" - at a time when the composer was desperately trying to work out what kind of music the authorities wanted from him. Yes, one might well look askance at the subject matter - atrocities committed by the German army in 1918 Ukraine. Yes, it is five acts long requiring two intervals. And yes, the opening bars, with their uninspired romanticism vaguely reminiscent of "Romeo and Juliet," do not inspire much confidence that there will be great music to follow.

But once you are past the synopsis and the first five minutes, the next four hours are magnificent - raw, thrilling and utterly engrossing, with strong performances from the entire cast and an imaginative set to match. Smoke drifts constantly through the eerie half light, as hordes of Communists dressed in red Ku Klux Klan outfits mingle with Germans in spiked helmets, ghostly Whites goose-stepping in slow motion and Cossacksbrandishing red whips. Torn-up train tracks stick out into the air, a small loco motive lies forlornly on its back end, and a large hole center-stage serves as a hideout, a lake and an abyss. While this is the only set we get, it plays host to weddings, bombings, trysts, massacres and hangings, and - most importantly - is the scene for some truly excellent singing.

Viktor Lutsyuk, who sings the role of demobilized soldier Semyon Kotko, has everything required for the part - the right voice, plenty of panache and lots of presence. In no way, however, does he upstage the likes of Sofia, Kotko's beloved (Tatyana Pavlovskaya), Tkachenko, Sofia's evil father (Gennady Bezzubnikov), Remenyuk, leader of the village Soviet and of a partisan detachment (Yevgeny Nikitin), or the plethora of smaller roles, which are nevertheless fairly substantial.

The difference between the tentative performances that have characterized much of the Mariinsky's Giuseppe Verdi season, and the vibrant assurance of this new "Kotko," is nowhere more pronounced than in the pit. "Kotko" is neither well known nor easy to pull off, but conductor Valery Gergiyev is in command of orchestra and cast from the word go. A quibbler might point to one or two moments where the instruments and singers are slightly out when following the same melodic line; but such small problems are completely outweighed by such blistering moments as the scene of carnage just before the second interval, with a powerful rendition of its grotesque, pounding music.

So one can only doff one's cap to director Yury Alexandrov, who has come out of the 1998/99 season with a clutch of new performances and a Golden Mask for his work with the St. Petersburg Opera. Alexandrov is a director who blows hot and cold, but his productions - sometimes dull, sometimes lively - rarely leave the audience indifferent. On this occasion, teamed with scenographer Semyon Pastukh, Alexandrov has hit the mark dead center. The Mariinsky should take this on tour all over the world.