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Kirov Opera - Valery Gergiev - Khovanshchina - Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky - Mazeppa - Tchaikovsky - Royal Opera House - Covent Garden

I have been spending my time with the Kirov Opera, singers of the Russian classics. At this time of my life I have a chance to discover the very outstanding Kirov Company. I did not know anything of the Russian Opera as I have only seen some Bolshoi Ballet and Eisenstein's film.

I saw the masterly conductor Valery Gergiev, Artistic Director of the Mariinski Theatre, St Petersburg (home of the Kirov Opera) in June, when he was the star of the White Nights Festival in St Petersburg. He is also Principal Conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, Principal Guest Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, New York - all this was a great discovery for me. He is a very great star in Russia today, as well as in the entire classical musical world.

I saw "Khovanshchina" by the composer Modest Musorgsky, edited by Rimsky Korsakov, re-orchestrated by Shostakovich in 1960, with some cuts restored . (Mussorgsky is famous for his opera masterpiece "Boris Gudunov" (after Pushkin) and his piano suite "Pictures at an Exhibition" orchestrated by Ravel). The sets are grand and the huge chorus magnificent. The story is about 17th Century Moscow, which was in chaos, and set during the time order was restored by Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia, 1696. It is a very Orthodox opera, with icons, and much praying to God to save

Russia, as the Patriarch had introduced reforms, and,of course, the "Old Believers" didn't like this. It was also the beginning of modern Russia opening to the West. At times there were more than 200 singers on stage as well as the sexy Persian dancing girls. After half-an-hour there were no more surtitles (there was a breakdown) so I enjoyed the sublime music and the action on stage. My neighbours were complaining but I said opera is always about love, power, religion. Some people asked for their money back, some were screaming and heckling (to my surprise it was the first time I saw the English complaining en masse, in public!!!) The ROH administration didn't know what to do, so during the interval they printed sheets of the synopsis and handed them to the audience. However, in spite of it all, there was a standing ovation at the end. During the interval I went down into the stalls and saw the book that Gergiev had been reading while conducting. It was bible-sized I got the impression, from the way he turned the pages, that it was very precious. I also looked into the orchestra pit at the wonderful "Stradivarius's!!??" Valery gave his best performance for moments of terror, fire, fatalism and passion. The intensity of the music caused his head to shake violently and he moved his hair back with his hands. Although I was high up in a box I could see him in front of me with all the intensity of his conducting, also the orchestra were in front of me, also the public. I spotted Babe, an acquaintance of my mother, in her 80s but still with a new boyfriend!!!! Four hours of incredibly-beautiful music.

The next day I met my Russian computer friend Alex from Moscow. I said to him "I have been thinking of you with this experience I have had of the Kirov, your culture." He is a beautiful young man in his twenties. Then his mobile rang, I was surprised that a young man's mobile would produce such a music, intead of the usual raucous choice of the young, he asked me if I knew what the music was? I couldn't guess so he said it was Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker". I was fascinated, my mouth fell open, it must be in the Russian's blood to have such a feeling for music.

The next opera which I saw at ROH was "Mazeppa", as part of the Kirov season. This is a story of Cossacks in the Ukraine that focuses on an powerful old man who decided to marry his god-daughter of his best friend's family. The parents were against the union but the girl goes off with Mazeppa. He also wants Ukrainian independence so that he might become the Tsar of Ukraine. The girl's father denounces him to the Tsar, so Mazeppa kills the girl's parents. The girl (Maria) loses her reason and state of mind. Mazeppa escapes from the Tsar's troops who are pursuing him. Mazeppa was born in 1632 in the Ukraine (the opera is supposedly based on a true story). My American friend Ken Rogoff originates from there; he always jokes about his Cossack origin, a strong Ukrainian man he would have loved this opera. The music is by Tchaikovsky, conducted again magnificently by Valery Gergiev - one of Tchaikovsky's most exciting scores, based on the Pushkin epic poem "Poltava" (Tchaikovsky also wrote the music for Pushkin's opera-poem "Eugene Onegin"). The premiere of Mazeppa was in 1885, an historical work, the seventh of Tchaikovsky's ten complete operas.It was a very exciting night for me which finished with a very long ovation. I spotted my neighbours, the English-Brazilian Mr and Mrs Joaozinho, but he insists on saying "call me John, please." Because I joked about his name he did not give me a lift!!!

The season also included Prokofiev's "Semyon Kotko", I didn't see it but it was a great success. It received its British premiere, 60 years after its creation. It was well-received by the critics.

Now we come to my first ROYAL Experience - I was at the same performance as Charles, Camilla and their entourage. It was a performance of Prokofiev's "War and Peace" sponsored by Mr Alberto Vilar, who also supported the White Nights Festival in St Petersburg, and the Mariinksy Theatre. It is based on Leo Tolstoy's classic literary masterpiece which I read for my classical studies in Brazil. The staging was in concave style with slopes and curves. The stage is raked and revolves to show the turmoil of war. The singers ascended and descended during the battles scenes. For the siege of Moscow Napoleon and his army surround the prisoners - wearing very authentic-looking costumes - i.e. dirty, torn rags of the prisoners-very lifelike. Gergiev deleted some of the Russian propaganda in order to make it "politically-correct", giving a loss of 45 minutes. But I could still grasp the propaganda of the people of Russia against the disgusting Napoleon ( when Beethoven first wrote his Emperor piano concerto he dedicated it to Napoleon but on deciding he didn't like Napoleon's policy, he struck out the dedication and put "to the memory of a great man") and the French invasion of Russia: a national event portrayed in an operatic epic. Prokofiev sadly did not live to see his opera performed but he wrote music for films ( for example, the well-know Troika, often heard at Christmas, was originally written for the 1933 Russian film "Lieutenant K") in collaboration with Eisenstein. His interpretation is very much cinematic epic opera. The premiere was held in March 2000 in St Petersburg in the presence of Tony Blair and his wife during their last visit to Russia.

I again spotted the ageing Babe this time with another boyfriend, much younger than her, in the same row as Prince Charles and Camilla and the Royal entourage. In the interval I decided to have a gossip and asked the lady in front of me if she was English and who was with Prince Charles as you could not see very well. She said it was Camilla with a new hairstyle. I said "really!!!" as I didn't recognise her. The lady said Camilla has always been going to the ROH with Charles but it was a secret. "Really!" I said."Oh yes, even during his marriage", she said, bt we didn't know who it was until the story broke. This was my first ROYAL PREMIERE, my first time in the same company of Charles and Camilla - incredible!!!

The Kirov Opera is now at the Salzburg Festival but Gergiev returned to London to conduct the Kirov Ballet for the Queen Mother's 100 birthday celebrations in the presence of her two daughters. Later the Kirov will open La Scala-Milano with Verdi's "The Force of Destiny" in the autumn. In the spring they are going to be at the Met in New York: the Kirov is the greatest in the world!!!

Gergiev is now in Finland - taking what is called a "busman's holiday" - as director and founder of the Mikkeli Festival, his gift to the city, where he will take master classes, recording sessions, taking part in a football match (Mariinsky Theatre v Press), usual sauna etc etc - a sort of holiday in comparison to his normal rigorous conducting sessions. his days finishes with the sauna about 4am!!! but for him the time in Finland is a "relaxation"!!!

I was intrigued by the repeated press coverage about Count Nikolai a great nephew of Leo Tolstoy, famous for the libel case which Lord Aldington brought against him. In the end he never paid anything, he has many benefactors who seem to pay all his bills for his children's education etc. His mother was married for the second time to the author Patrick O'Brien, who has left Nikolai and his sister Natasha £1.5m, what a luck man!!!


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