Osud/Trouble in Tahiti; Mariinsky Orchestra/ Gergiev – review

Grand theatre, Leeds; Cadogan Hall, London
Bernstein and Janáček rarities make a terrific Opera North double bill. Plus, a welcome visit by Valery Gergiev

Leonard Bernstein, composer and on this occasion lyricist too, knew precisely what he wanted for Trouble in Tahiti (1952). He listed his demands at the front of the score: simplicity of execution, clarity of diction, swift moving action and no pauses for scene changes. Opera North, in a stylish new production by Matthew Eberhardt, conducted by Tobias Ringborg, delivered exactly that, as part of the latest offering in the company’s Little Greats festival of short operas.

This small but almost perfectly formed musical – Bernstein returned to it late in life, merging it into the less effective A Quiet Place – steers headlong into the American dream. A married couple, Sam and Dinah, live in a little white house with a little white fence in sub-ur-bi-a. She’s a frustrated housewife, he a gym-crazy businessman, a winner with no worries about getting dinner or thinner. Love has gone. They loathe each other in a grey way. Bernstein wrote it on honeymoon, which must have gone down well.

Dutch baritone Quirijn de Lang and Canadian mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta, spirited and vocally crisp, led the five-strong cast. A swing-style vocal trio provide a Greek chorus born of the advertising age. This trio, Bernstein instructs, “must be as conventionally handsome as possible, and must never stop smiling”. Fflur Wyn, Joseph Shovelton and Nicholas Butterfield crooned beautifully. Charles Edwards’s fluid designs, switching from radio studio to a domestic paradise of yellow Formica and tubular steel, allowed the action to glide easily through its seven scenes. Ringborg kept the wind-dominated ensemble taut and infectiously jazzy. West Side Story would follow five years later. From such seeds.

The evening opened with Janáček’s 1907 rarity Osud (Destiny), a score of glorious amplitude to a libretto – again the composer’s own – of chaotic opacity. Even with all its problems, this three-act, 90-minute work, here sung in English, makes essential listening. The plot follows a long opera-within-an-opera tradition. A composer, Živný, falls for Míla, whom he meets at a spa. A child and eventually an opera are born. Míla’s increasingly mad mother drags her daughter to a window, causing both their deaths. That’s not the end. Students then debate the subject matter of the opera and guess, no shrewdness needed, that it’s about the composer himself. It ends abruptly and inconclusively.

John Graham-Hall ( Živný) and Rosalind Plowright (Míla’s Mother) in Osud.
John Graham-Hall ( Živný) and Rosalind Plowright (Míla’s Mother) in Osud. Photograph: Alastair Muir

Annabel Arden’s clear-as-possible production, handsomely designed in a 1930-40s setting by Charles Edwards, was blessed with fine principals. John Graham-Hall, a connoisseur of Janáček’s difficult, high-tenor roles, handled the challenging part of Živný elegantly, with Giselle Allen tender, obsessive and voluptuous as Míla, the muse-wife. Rosalind Plowright was luxury casting as Míla’s nightmare Mother. Christopher Nairne, a member of the chorus of Opera North, stood out in the cameo role of student Verva. Martin André, conducting, and the large ensemble cast and Opera North orchestra put the strongest case for this irresistible oddity.

A little gilt had worn off in the last stages of Valery Gergiev’s eight-year tenure as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, which he left in 2015. How exhilarating to have him back in the UK, full of that old quixotic flair, in two concerts with his Mariinsky Orchestra at Cadogan Hall. His relationship with the St Petersburg musicians goes back nearly three decades. These players, notably youthful and drawn from a larger Mariinsky collective that provides orchestras for the ballet and opera, know what Gergiev wants, and deliver.

Valery Gergiev, pictured in St Petersburg in June 2017.
Valery Gergiev, pictured in St Petersburg in June 2017. Photograph: Alexei Druzhinin/Tass

This Russian repertoire suits them. There’s a rawness and virility – whether in strings, brass or woodwind – that harnesses the listener and keeps them gripped, even in the hall’s dry and unyielding acoustic. Gergiev, conducting as usual with a tiny spillikin (far too small to call a baton) in his right hand, and with that hallmark, tremulous shuddering of his left, seemed less balletic than in the past, yet just as intense and commanding.

This year the theme was Rimsky-Korsakov and his dazzling student Stravinsky. As tends to happen, the pupil for a while played down his debt both to his Russian homeland and to his master. Yet the friendship was close. Stravinsky wrote the recently rediscovered Funeral Song after his teacher’s death in 1908. Rimsky was one of the greatest of orchestral colourists and a generous supporter of many composers, including those with greater talent than his own – not just Stravinsky but Mussorgsky too.

In the first of last week’s concerts the emphasis was on Rimsky. His four “musical pictures” from his satirical opera The Golden Cockerel (1907) inject folk styles into orchestral tradition, just as Stravinsky would with such revolutionary force, especially in his ballets. Despite the irony and the noisy, brassy outbursts here, Rimsky seems incapable of writing a nasty or negative note. His music conjures pleasure. His Scheherazade (1888), offset by Stravinsky’s astringent, neoclassical Symphony in C, was laid bare in all its exotic and erotic detail, with expert solo work form the orchestra’s leader (one of the Mariinsky’s six concertmasters), Alexei Lukirsky.

Monday’s concert reversed the balance in favour of Stravinsky. Kristóf Baráti was the steely, virtuosic soloist in the Violin Concerto, showing his considerable expressive range with encores by Ysaÿe and Bach. The 1945 suite from The Firebird offered a brilliant conclusion, bassoon tender and mawkish in the “Lullaby”, horn and harp rising out of the quietest shimmer of strings you could hope for, into the huge crescendo with which the work ends. If that’s not one of the most incredible finales in all music I’d like to know what is.

Star ratings (out of 5)
Trouble in Tahiti
Osud ★★★★
Mariinsky Orchestra/Gergiev ★★★★

Osud and Trouble in Tahiti are in rep at the Grand theatre, Leeds until 20/21 October, and will be broadcast on Radio 3 later this year

  • This article was amended on Sunday 15 October. Apologies to Canadian, not American, mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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