Shostakovich – Katerina Ismailova

Théâtre du Châtelet, Saturday March 10, 2007

Conductor: Tugan Sokhiev. Boris: Alexeï Tanovitski. Zinovyi: Evgeny Akimov. Katerina: Solveig Kringelborn. Sergeï: Vladimir Grishko. Aksinia: Ludmila Dudinova. Shabby Peasant: Vasily Gorushkov. Priest/Old Convict: Ilya Bannik. Sonyetka: Anna Markarova. Police chief: Nikolai Kamensky. Orchestre National de France. Chorus of Radio France.
[Photo: Shafahi]

This excellent concert provided a perfect illustration, if one were needed, of the anyway obvious point that a singer can’t be judged on the basis of a single performance. Hauled in at the last minute to sing the Marschallin in this season’s jinxed Rosenkavalier, Solveig Kringelborn gave little sign of her acting or vocal capabilities – understandably, under the tense circumstances. She may have given more in the last act, but by then we were already far away having dinner.

In Saturday’s Katerina Ismailova she proved to be an outstanding tragic actress, even in an unstaged performance with only a strapless wine-coloured evening dress and stole for props; a remarkable triumph, given that it involved remaining on stage and in character throughout, and that, unlike her partners, she chose to sing without even a music stand and score for protection.

Her voice, too, was perfect for the part: one of those northern voices, a smoky, chesty, powerful soprano with a touch of metal at the top. I’m not sure it’s the kind of voice you’d expect to hear as the Countess in Capriccio at Garnier next season; but having seen and heard Kringelborn as Katerina, I may well decide to go back to that Carsen production (in which we had Renée Fleming last time) and see what she makes of its less obvious dramatic possibilities.

What's more, she was surrounded by about as strong a cast as one might hope to get in this work, a festival of ripe Russian timbres. Most striking of all was Alexeï Tanovitski, a dark, handsome, 30-year-old giant with a huge, healthy, bass voice and massive stage presence, already singing Wotan, so the programme notes told us.

Evgeny Akimov as Zinovyi was one of those brassy, ringing, trumpet-like tenors Russia apparently produces so easily, while Vladimir Grishko, our Sergei, was the other, baritonal kind, a rather unruly voice with occasionally dodgy tuning, but massive and broody.

Vasily Gorushkov got in a laser-like top note early in the evening but looked very put-out at missing the one at the end of his big moment, after finding the body: it was, sadly, a semitone flat, and he knew it. Ilya Bannik (Priest and Old Convict) was one of those long, skinny chaps with a quite unexpectedly cavernous bass voice, and Nikolaï Kamensky (Police Chief) was clearly an old trouper long used to the character parts Russian opera supplies in abundance (and reminded me of a silent film comedian whose name I've forgotten).

The Orchestre National was on great form once warmed up after a slightly scrappy start. Tugan Sokhiev took a relatively controlled, symphonic approach to the score, with more warmth than hysterical abandon and quite cautious tempi in the complex fugato passages (such as the wedding scene, where the chorus were no doubt grateful for the caution). But when outbursts were required, outbursts we got, with fifteen extra brass instruments on-stage to add to the general welter of sound, and of course the choir was characteristically splendid in the final act.

This magnificent performance raises the vexing question of why unstaged performances of opera are so often so much more satisfactory than staged ones. It does seem to be so…


  1. That sounds like an amazing production.

    Though things are always more fun to read when they flop.

    I always love to read any of your reviews though. Always fun as hell.

    Very foppish.

  2. Great review, thank you.


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