Opera Dancing

“Journey to Reims” and “Falstaff”
Kirov Opera and Orchestra of the Maryinsky Theater
Opera House
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC, USA
January 27 and 31, 2007

by George Jackson
copyright 2007,George Jackson

“Music that laughs” is what critic David Johnson, my seat neighbor for the two Kirov Opera performances, said about Gioacchino Rossini’s score for “Il viaggio a Reims”. What he meant was that humor resides not just in Luigi Balochi’s libretto or Alain Maratrat’s direction of the action but also in the very juxtaposition of notes, the sly orchestrations and the dynamics of this music.

Rossini included dance passages in “Journey”, some of which Maratrat and musical director Valery Gergiev dispensed with for this 2005 co-production by the Maryinsky and Paris’ Theatre du Chatelet. Those that the directorial team retained are danced, but by singers, musicians and acting stagehands and not by members of the Maryinsky’s Kirov Ballet. The dancing is amateur. Yet it suits this farcical production in which the orchestra members are costumed and on stage, whereas the singers are often in the audience. Would professional dancers have given the burlesque proceedings relief through subtlety?

As it stands, moves and jiggles, however, this “Journey” is fun! Good and some very good singing studded the proceedings. The musicianship of the orchestra and conductor Gergiev was elegant throughout. My favorite performer was the solo flutist. She, in Mozartian male attire, not only produced sweet sounds but, interacting with the Englishman among the would-be voyagers, proved to be a true mime with meticulous timing. 

If you aren’t familiar with this opera, you may want to know that it was a piece d’occasion Rossini composed for the coronation of France’s Charles X in 1825. There are   unusually many star singing roles: 15. The intentionally negligible plot involves a journey that’s not taken. Although the initial run at Paris’s Theatre Italien was a hit, no one bothered to preserve the entire book and text. For many years, “Journey” was considered lost except for portions Rossini re-used in other works. In 1984, it proved possible to piece the opera together again and it has pleased audiences and performers since.

Giuseppe Verdi’s “Falstaff” is late Verdi and almost sacrosanct, yet it isn’t everyone’s favorite opera about Shakespeare’s lout. Even some critics prefer Otto Nicolai’s “Merry Wives of Windsor” and admire Antonio Salieri’s “Falstaff”.  I find Verdi’s late style too efficient and compact for comedy. In fact, is this comedy? Kiril Serebrennikov’s stage direction tries to turn the Kirov production into grotesquerie, something akin to the canvases of Breughel and Bosch.

The stage is full of lewd detail, including the dancers’ get-ups and movements. Opening nights’ Falstaff, baritone Edem Umerov, didn’t have the pot belly called for in Arrigo Boito’s version of Shakespeare’s texts. This lack was more than made up for by three ballet boys with overstuffed shirts. They play imps who shadow Falstaff wherever he stumbles, and their enormous pots sagged pitifully. Male ballet dancers also were cast as a trio of mincing hair dressers who attend Mistresses Ford and Page and Dame Quickly. Other bits of business for the Kirov’s professional dancers included an ensemble of Wilis done in travesty and a chorus line for the boys as boys in leather panties. Unlike the oddities of the master painters, this production’s peculiarities did not add up. They remained diffuse and became as distracting as a scene with midgets from an old MGM horror movie (“Freaks”) that was projected onto the backdrop near the start of Act 3.

No, the use of trained dancers didn’t help. Credited for the “Falstaff” choreography was Alla Sigalova, who appears to have acquiesced to Serebrennikov’s failed concept. As for musicianship, Gergiev’s conducting seemed rushed at times as if haste would get him through this staging.  

The arbitrary ways in which opera ballet is being dealt with even in Russia, where respect for ballet remains high, is a further sign that we are not in a time of great dance. Will a new era burst onto the world stage in 2009, as did Diaghilev’s a century earlier?

Volume 5, No. 6
January 29, 2007

copyright ©2007 George Jackson

©2003-2007 DanceView