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Visiting opera companies have a way of reminding us of the things that our own, homegrown opera company has going for it—things we sometimes take for granted—as well as the things that it desperately needs. Feb. 19 to 24, the Kirov Opera, having flown in from St. Petersburg, paid a call on the Kennedy Center. So what did the Kirov have that the WashOp doesn’t? Two words: Valery Gergiev, the firebrand conductor who took the Kirov by the scruff of the neck and refashioned a company that had played perpetual Avis to the Bolshoi’s Hertz into a world-beating ensemble.

Anyone who’s followed Gergiev’s work—live or on his remarkable series of CDs—knows the sound of the new Kirov orchestra. It was recognizable in the first 30 seconds of Feb. 19’s Tchaikovsky gala: string playing phrased with lunging attacks and full-throated tone that sang across bar lines, woodwinds so earthy you could smell the peat, leonine brass that was capable of striking with the power and stealth of a knife blow. You couldn’t shake loose the sense that something untamed had been let loose in the orchestra pit.

Of course, if all Gergiev could offer were shock tactics and lots of noise, he wouldn’t be much of an artist. The truth is, he can whisper as eloquently as he can shout—his recent Kirov Orchestra program at the Concert Hall paired a Firebird that sounded as spiky and as evolutionary as The Rite of Spring with pieces by Liadov and Rachmaninoff played with a suppleness that was downright Gallic. Moreover, he doesn’t need the Kirov band to do his talking for him. His regular guest stints with the New York Phil and the Met are just as galvanic as his Kirov gigs. And anyone who attended the WashOp’s Domingo gala a couple of seasons back will remember how the Opera House Orchestra’s sleepy efficiency under Music Director Heinz Fricke was ignited into white heat whenever Gergiev took the podium. Night and day.

Lest this start sounding like a Fricke-bashing session, let me clarify. Fricke, with his broad-based repertoire and decades of experience in European opera houses, was arguably just what the WashOp needed as it climbed from the middle rank of American companies into a higher, more international echelon. As an orchestra builder, Fricke demonstrated an approach that may have been less zealous (not to mention less media-savvy) than Gergiev’s, but the results were no less dramatic: His Opera House Orchestra is a far better, more flexible ensemble than ever before. As an interpreter, Fricke has proved uninspiring in most of the Italian rep, but he’s a decent Mozartean, a lively (if not very deep) Wagnerian, and a rather fine Straussian, in addition to being game for trying just about any obscure corner of the operatic canon. For some listeners, his versatility—together with Fricke’s straightforward phrasing, his refined sense of instrumental balance, and his sure grasp of musical architecture—scores points over Gergiev’s more volatile, in-the-moment brand of inspiration.

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But when was the last time an Opera House audience heard the kind of seismic orchestral power Gergiev generated in Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina? When have wind solos sung out in that house with the full-throated eloquence of arias? When did the strings crest and roll out from the pit with such engulfing warmth? With the exception of the Gergiev-led portions of that previously mentioned Domingo gala, there’s not much in recent memory to compare to what we heard in Khovanshchina, or in Verdi’s Macbeth, or, for that matter, in the meaty, extended scenes from Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa presented at the gala.

Washington is lucky to have as astute and tasteful a musician as Fricke at the helm of our opera company, but Gergiev gives us a window into another world by heading straight for our most primal responses to music. He gives us opera as pure id.

And Khovanshchina is an idfest all by itself, a magnet for big voices and the histrionics that sometimes accompany them. Mussorgsky’s “other masterpiece” (after the magisterial Boris Godunov), Khovanshchina tells a nasty, conspiratorial story at Wagnerian length, in music that rages and glowers and sparks with a desperate passion. In the Kirov’s hands, four hours of heavy-heavier-heaviest hurtled by with breathless urgency and tabloid vividness. The outsized chorus sang its bloody head off and managed to look as if the precarious fate of Mother Russia really were in the balance. But it was those astonishing solo voices that lingered in the memory. At the Feb. 20 performance, Marianna Tarasova—a restrained actress with a voice as smooth as glass and heavy with inconsolable sorrow—made a haunting Marfa. Alexey Steblyanko’s dark, almost baritonal tenor lent stature to the two-faced Golitsyn, and he, too, acted with a refreshing directness.

But it was the three basses—and let me tell you, these guys could tour under that moniker—who truly got the goose flesh going. Stiff-backed and barrel-chested, sporting flowing manes and some serious beards, the three of them looked like Stonehenge whenever they were in close proximity, and they glared with all the overwrought menace of silent-screen actors. Mikhail Kit, as the monk Dosifei, and Sergey Murzaev, as Shaklovity (the one boyar in the piece unambiguously loyal to Peter the Great), had the kind of sepulchral bass voices that seem to flourish only in Russian soil. But even they were trumped by Vladimir Ognovenko as the dangerous Ivan Khovansky. With a pitch-black voice of startling power, he clomped around the stage like a cartoon bear, yowling and growling, pounding the prop furniture with his fists and shoving hapless serfs out of his inexorable path. His performance was shameless. It was over-the-top. It was like watching Tsar Boris on a bender. And it was compelling as hell, because there wasn’t one moment he was onstage, singing or silent, when Ognovenko wasn’t 100 percent believable. This was bigness with conviction: not some half-assed copy of a larger-than-life tradition, but the tradition itself.

That big, belting tradition did Verdi’s Macbeth no favors, however. Fortunately, the damage was limited to one (albeit key) role: Lady Macbeth. Verdi wrote this first of his Shakespeare-based operas with an economy and a melodic invention that are still astonishing. It’s a lot like a 19th-century version of those recent Shakespeare flicks that balance gorgeousness and grit, retain about a tenth of the text, and move like a mofo. Only a handful of jaunty Gilbert & Sullivan-worthy choruses for the witches, murderers, and rattled banquet guests show the composer under the lingering thumb of bel canto convention.

But somewhere along the way, Verdi made the mistake of saying that he wanted his Lady M to sing with “the voice of a she-devil.” Ever since then, that phrase has given carte blanche to every over-the-hill soprano who wants to throw a lot of big, ugly voice around and mug unconscionably. Irina Gordei, who sang the role on Feb. 22, was hardly the worst perpetrator of vocal crimes in this role, and, truth to tell, her sleepwalking scene was quite successful. But too much of the rest of her part was sung at a fearsome volume, and her voice is none the prettier the louder and higher it goes. Gordei’s matronly appearance and bug-eyed grimacing didn’t help her portrayal any either.

Mercifully, the rest of the singers proved a gifted, good-looking cast of idiomatic Verdians. Sergei Murzaev made a terrific Macbeth—a tad low-key in the acting department, though the restraint was welcome—with a handsome, wine-dark baritone that expanded to fill the big moments and conveyed emotion with great immediacy. Yevgeny Nikitin’s elegantly turned bass was a big plus for his Banquo role, and Macduff’s final-act aria got the full Italian-tenor treatment from Yury Alexeyev, right down to the virile, ringing high notes and the little sob in the voice. Gergiev’s work was supple, full of light and shade, and he pulled performances from soloists, choristers, and instrumental forces alike that made their effect with quiet intensity and careful, dynamic shading.

Gergiev’s gutsy conducting also animated Balanchine’s Serenade during the gala, setting the corps de ballet’s chill perfection in bold relief. The ballerinas’ reserve brought out, in turn, the wit and subtle mischief in the choreography. This must be what Giselle’s Wilis look like when they’re hanging out on a Saturday afternoon. The shabby visual presentation gave considerably less pleasure, however. Granted, the sets had to be minimal to accommodate the Whitman’s sampler of opera and ballet scenes on offer. But did the furniture have to look so cheesy, so hastily pulled from stock? Did the projected scenery have to look like a slide show of under-exposed snapshots? Did the lighting have to be so featureless and bright? The evening, with singers stealing frantic looks at the conductor, seemed hastily assembled and looked like the kind of bus-and-truck tour a lesser Russian company might take to VFW halls around the Midwest to make a quick buck. As star-struck as D.C. audiences might have been having the Kirov in town, the gala should have made them appreciate our home team all the more. The WashOp has mounted far classier shindigs than this.

The Khovanshchina production would have been instantly recognizable to anyone who had seen the Kirov’s work on video. And the opera probably looked pretty much identical to this when it was first mounted, in 1886, from the storybook-illustration drops to the quaint blowing-fabric fire effects. Again, this was more tradition than traditional, but even the most reactionary opera lover in attendance would have had to admit that Western companies (ours very much included) do better on the production end of things.

But it was fascinating to watch the Kirov move away from its accustomed painted scenery with a vengeance in Macbeth. The British creative team of stage director David McVicar, set and costume designer Tanya McCallin, and lighting designer David Cunningham stripped the stage down to its cement walls and banks of lighting instruments and introduced only a huge, rusting guillotine blade and a clump of hanging corpses as set pieces. The costumes reimagined Elizabethan dress in black leather. It was all, admittedly, a little Eurotrashy (and the banquet table descending creakily from the flies before Banquo was even dead was laughably unfortunate), but the starkness worked for the piece. The lack of stage clutter also gave McVicar the opportunity to keep action sweeping excitingly from scene to scene without break. The dumb shows McVicar inserted involving the bodies of Macduff’s wife and children and a stillborn child of the Macbeths’ were telling, Shakespeare-savvy ideas, and he raised the Kirov acting bar dramatically.

These productions proved that the Kirov can have its cake and eat it too; it can embrace its 19th-century theatrical tradition while simultaneously opening the door to a kind of staging more common in the West. McVicar’s production of Macbeth would be an asset to the WashOp’s repertory, and it certainly brought the best out of this fine Russian company. Those who missed it should drop whatever they’re doing and get themselves to the Met to catch the company’s imaginative staging of Prokofiev’s War and Peace before it closes in mid-March. Gergiev’s conducting veers from swooningly romantic to full-scale Armageddon, and his cast mixes Met stalwarts such as Samuel Ramey with Kirov alums such as superstar baritone Dimitri Hvorostovsky and ravishing soprano Anna Netrebko, who sang a mere 10 minutes at the KenCen gala but could have kept the audience spellbound for the better part of the evening. War and Peace in New York should be just the bottle of Stoli to wash down a week’s worth of Kirov feasting in Washington. CP