Opera Reviews
19 April 2019
Untitled Document

Siberia in Moscow

by Glyn Williams
Giordano: Siberia
Helikon Opera, Moscow
22 October 2010

Premiered at La Scala, Milan, on 19th December 1903, Siberia was Giordano's seventh opera. The libretto by Luigi Illica was inspired by Tolstoy's last novel Resurrection (1899) and draws on real people involved in the 1825 Decembrist Revolt, notably Sergei Grigorievich Volkonsky and his wife Maria Raevskaya.

The plot is simple. Act 1 is set in St Petersburg. Stephana (soprano), courtesan and mistress of Prince Alexis (baritone), loves the virtuous Lieutenant Vassily (tenor). At the start of the drama he thinks she is a simple seamstress, but when he calls at the bordello to visit his godmother Nikona (mezzo-soprano) he discovers the bitter truth. The villain of the piece is whoremaster Gleby (baritone), a villain who had seduced Stephana prior to selling her on to Prince Alexis. Outraged at the sight of Stephana with the prince, Vassily fights Alexis and wounds him. For this he is banished to Siberia.

Act 2 is set in a transit camp on the Russian-Siberian frontier. Stephana appears. The lovers declare their eternal devotion to each other and Stephana pledges to accompany Vassily into exile - in much the same way that Maria Raevskaya followed her husband Volkonsky to Siberia after the Decembrist Revolt. (There is another Tolstoy connection: Volkonsky, a distant cousin of the writer, is the model for Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in War and Peace)

Act 3 follows Vassily and Stephana to a gulag in the Trans-Baikal mines. By chance, Gleby is a fellow-convict. Using an Easter feast as a diversion, Gleby hatches a plot to escape with Stephana but she refuses. Offended by this, Gleby reveals publicly that Stephana was once a whore. Stephana and Vassily resolve to use Gleby's plan and flee together. Gleby betrays them, Stephana is shot while trying to escape and dies in Vassily's arms. Her dying words bless Siberia, where her sins have been expiated through suffering and where she has found true love.

Helikon Opera is celebrating its twentieth birthday this year. Its production of Siberia was performed in a small, unimposing theatre concealed in a shopping mall on Moscow's bustling Novy Arbat. The company's main house in nearby Bolshaya Nikitskaya is still undergoing renovation.

The performance was directed by Dmitry Bertman and designed by Igor Nezhny, Tatiana Tulubieva and Damir Ismagilov. The set for Act 1 features a central doorway with the sumptuous palace interior printed on long narrow white drapes hung from the top of staircases positioned at the sides. Courtesans are dressed in bright, multicoloured silk dress-coats crowned by compact matching top hats, their customers in evening dress. At the end of Act 1 the drapes are pulled unceremoniously across the stage and fixed at floor level, the exposed metal staircases painted a dull off-white. In this new position the drapes form a rough mesh through which the prisoners plod wearily and in which the principal characters occasionally become ensnared. It is an ingenious device to depict incarceration. The dress-coats and top hats persist but their colours are now transformed to grey-and-white prison stripes.

The performance was sung in Italian and conducted by Vladimir Ponkin. The company boasts six Stephanas and three each of Vassily, Gleby and Alexis. On 22nd October the role of Stephana was played with fiery passion by Karina Grigoryan, Vassily by the lyrical tenor Vadim Zaplechny, the evil Gleby by rich-voiced baritone Andrey Vylegzhanin, and Prince Alexis by Andrey Palamarchuk.

Many of the Russians present must have smiled wryly at moments in Acts 2 and 3 when the Italian Giordano weaves snatches of the Old Tsarist National Anthem and 'Song of the Volga Boatmen' into the musical texture. The orchestration, for a standard large opera orchestra, is never more colourful than in Act 3's Easter festival music featuring bells and glockenspiel. The chorus, prepared by Denis Kirpanev, sang with vigour onstage and delicacy offstage.

Text © Glyn WIlliams
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