Village life: The Fair at Sorochyntsi at the Komische Oper, Berlin

Mussorgsky – The Fair at Sorochyntsi (Сорочинская ярмарка)

Cherevik – Jens Larsen
Khivrya – Agnes Zwierko
Parasya – Mirka Wagner
Kum – Tom Erik Lie
Gritsko – Alexander Lewis
Afanasiy Ivanovich – Ivan Tur
The gypsy – Hans Gr
Chornobog – Tom Erik Lie


Chorsolisten der Komischen Oper Berlin, Vocalconsort Berlin, Orchester der Komischen Oper Berlin / Henrik Nánási.
Stage director – Barrie Kosky

Komische Oper, Berlin, Germany.  Saturday, May 13th, 2017.

Under the direction of Barrie Kosky, the Komische Oper Berlin has established itself as one of the most innovative theatres around.  There’s a genuine company ethos here that is irresistible, audiences are mixed and the seat-back titles in German, English, French and Turkish show an openness to the reality of the multicultural Berlin of the twenty-first century – the city rapidly overtaking London’s role as Europe’s global city.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Opportunities to see the The Fair at Sorochyntsi are few and far between.  Left incomplete at Mussorgsky’s death, there have been a number of attempted completions over the years.  For this production, the company used Shebolin’s 1931 version.  Yet, in common with the recent Hamburg Lulu, rather than leave the work as it stands, here the production team added some additional music – several movements from the Songs and Dances of Death, arranged for chorus by the house chorus master David Cavelius, as well as Rimsky-Korsakov’s opus 7 Hebrew Song between acts, while the stage crew conducted set changes during this intermission-free evening.  I regret to say that I found that approach problematic.  It certainly highlighted the melancholy of the Slavic soul and also pointed to the centrality of Jewish tradition to that experience.  Inevitably, as someone of Jewish heritage, any exploration of Jewishness in this city does have great emotional impact.  Yet what this, and the addition of the songs, led to was a feeling that a relatively slight work was overshadowed between acts.  The work itself contains melancholic laments and rousing choruses but many musical ideas are, inevitably perhaps, underdeveloped.  Consequently, I felt that Kosky and his team never quite gave us as full an opportunity to evaluate the work as one might have liked.  This effect was compounded by Henrik Nánási’s soft-grained conducting.  It felt that the work needed a stronger steer with rhythms not quite springy enough and pacing felt saggy.  Nánási did however get some excellent playing from the house band and stage-pit coordination was tight.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Despite that, there was much to admire in the staging.  Kosky moved the large chorus around with great assurance and created living, breathing characters that were most believable.  As Gritsko’s dream interlude played (the music more familiar from The Night on a Bald Mountain), the forces of hell were revealed to be a corps of individuals with heads of swine – a most convincing interpretation of what hell could be.  Kosky also played the slapstick of the kitchen-located second act extremely well.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Kosky was also lucky to have some excellent singing-actors with whom to work.  Agnes Zwierko camped it up magnificently as Khivrya.  I can’t say that when I woke up this morning that I was expecting to see this Polish mezzo demonstrate so convincingly how stuffing a turkey could be so erotic.  The role sits awkwardly in the passaggio but she negotiated it with aplomb.  She most definitely lit up the stage whenever she appeared.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Mirka Wagner was a lovely Parasya.  The voice has a beguiling fast vibrato on top combined with an easy line.  Her Act 3 lament really was beautifully sung.  Alexander Lewis also gave us some beautiful singing as Gritsko and was very warmly received by the audience.  His use of some very effective voix mixte in his Act 1 number was ravishing.  Occasionally support went out of focus but his bright, ardent tenor gave much pleasure.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Jens Larsen was a cavernous Cherevik, the voice massive with good resonance although there were some hints of registers parting company.  He also played the alcoholic husband most convincingly.  Tom Erik Lie brought his healthy baritone to his roles but Hans Gröning sounded somewhat worn as the Gypsy though he had stage presence to spare.  Ivan Turšić gave us a tenor full of character with great comic timing as Afanasiy Ivanovich, his character making some quite creative use of a turkey.  The house chorus, augmented tonight by the Vocalconsort Berlin, had been superbly prepared by Cavelius.  The depth of tone was staggering – resonant low basses and fabulously brassy mezzos stood out as did the fearless tenors.  The sopranos occasionally disagreed amongst themselves on pitching.  They were joined by a very well prepared children’s chorus by Dagmar Fiebach.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Ultimately, tonight was a problematic performance of a problematic work.  The quality of the performances of the individual principals was not in doubt and the choral work was splendid.  Yet I felt the evening as a whole didn’t quite succeed, due to the additional of other music combined with conducting that felt flaccid.  The result was that the cumulative effect of the work was overshadowed.  I’m certainly glad I got to see it – the singing was very good and production values were high.  Regrettably however, it felt to me as somewhat of a missed opportunity to raise the profile of the work.

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