Siberia… with Stalin… and COVID

I’m really not sure what to make of the recent recording of Giodarno’s Siberia made at the Maggi Musicale Fiorentino in 2021.  It’s certainly a rather weird experience. It’s partly that it’s a bit of an oddball of an opera, partly Roberto Andò’s production and partly that it was recorded under COVID conditions with the chorus masked and blocking that seems, if rather inconsistently, to be designed for social distancing.

1.film

So first the basics of the opera.  Stephana is a high class courtesan in St. Petersburg currently being kept by Prince Alexis.  Gléby is her “business manager”.  She has fallen in love with a young, but poor, officer Vassili who thinks that she is a poor but honest seamstress.  Vassili is off to the front so goes to say goodbye to his godmother who just happens to be Stephana’s maid.  He recognises Stephana, and is suitably taken aback, and then Alexis arrives. The two men fight and Vassili kills Alexis for which he is sent to Siberia.  Stephana sells all her stuff and sets off after him, joining him at a way station on the convict route.  Fast forward to Easter in the prison camp.  For some reason Stephana is now a convict too.  Gléby arrives (he’s been done for fraud or something) and asks Stephana to escape with him.  She refuses but by now he has told her the escape route.  She tries to escape with Vassili but Gléby shops them.  Stephana is shot and dies.  Along the way there is a lot of angsting about Stephana’s disreputable past and how she’s been redeemed by her love for Vassili..

2.stephanavassili

Musically, it’s typical of the verismo genre.  Big lush cinematic orchestral passages, quite skilfully done, are interspersed with a handful of rather good arias and plenty of “ethnic colour”.  The Song of the Volga boatmen is a recurrent theme and Gléby gets a number where he’s accompanied by the orchestra in full balalaika mode.  It isn’t Puccini but it might easily be.

3.arrest

Layered onto this is Andò’s production.  There are two issues.  One is that we are asked to believe that all the action is just a film being made.  There’s a sort of early film industry cameraman and sound recordist plus some kind of production lackey wandering all over the set.  I have no idea why or what this is supposed to add.  The second issue is that the time period setting is all over the place.  Act 1 has princes and fancy uniforms and courtesans so I guess it’s supposed to be pre-revolution.  In Act 2 the prisoners are being marched to Siberia but Stephana shows up in a chauffeur driven limo.  What happened to the Trans-Siberian Railway one asks?  In Act 3 it’s clearly supposed to be Soviet era because in a final touch of weirdness, as the prison governor intones “Christo è risorto” an enormous picture of Stalin is projected at the back of the screen.  Are we supposed to conclude that it’s Russia and always been like that?  If so, I’m mildly surprised that Vlad P doesn’t make an appearance.  There’s also lots of use of video; both colour and black and white, projected onto the back of the stage and onto two screens either side.  From what one can see on the disk it’s quite well done but it does seem to be becoming a bit of a cliché.

4.reststop

The recording though does have one redeeming feature; Sonya Yoncheva as Stephana.  Her singing is beautiful with power, expression and beauty of tone in abundance.  She’s also about as convincing as a “whore with a heart of gold” character can be.  Her act 3 aria “Un giorno ebbe l’amor pieta di me” is genuinely affecting.  She also blends well with her Vassilli, Giorgi Sturua.  He’s a very decent Italianate tenor even if he doesn’t quite reach the level of distinction of Yoncheva.  George Petean makes a characterful job of the unlikeable Gléby.  There’s a host of minor characters played perfectly competently for the most part it seems by journey-persons of the Italian regional houses.  The chorus and orchestra are fine and Gianandrea Noseada is about as at home in this genre as anyone could be.  So musically it’s good to excellent.

5.prison

Tiziano Mancini directed for video.  These productions with video all over the place are really hard to film but I think he does a decent job here, though if the projected video provides more clues to what Andò is driving at then there are some big omissions.  There are no extras on the disk but the booklet has a track listing, a synopsis and a not terribly useful essay.  Video and sound (DTS_HD and stereo) on Blu-ray are excellent.

6.death

In the last analysis I’m not sure who would want this disk apart from die hard Giordano or Yoncheva fans.  There are better introductions to Giodarno’s music (such as this Andrea Chenier) and better showcases for Yoncheva (such as this Norma) available on good recent recordings.

Catalogue number: Dynamic Blu-ray DYN-57928

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