SEROV Judith • Andrey Chistiakov, cond; Irina Udalova (Judith); Elena Zaremba (Avra); Mikhail Krutikov (Holofernes); Nikolai Vassiliev (Bagoas); Anatoly Babykin (Ozias); Vladimir Kudriashov (Achior); Stanislav Suleimanov (Read more class="ARIAL12i">Asfaneses); Pyotr Gluboky (Eliachim); Maxim Mikhailov (Charmis); Irina Zhurina (First Odalisque); Marina Shutova (Second Odalisque); Lev Kuznetsov (Hindu Singer); Bolshoi Th O; Russian Acad Ch; Male CCh • BRILLIANT 9219 (2 CDs: 156:58)
Mrs. Humphry Ward, novelist, and Alexander Serov, composer, have some things in common. First of all, hardly anyone knows who they are; secondly, they were fabulously popular in their day; thirdly, they faithfully catered to the fashionable tastes of the general public; and finally, history, the greatest of critics, condemned them to a rapid descent into obscurity shortly after their deaths. In the case of Serov, not only history but the great Tchaikovsky gave him a low mark: “He knew how to catch the crowd—and if his opera suffers from poverty of melodic inspiration, want of organic sequence, weak recitative and declamation, and from harmony and instrumentation which are crude and merely decorative in effect—yet what sensational effects he succeeds in piling up!” Of course Tchaikovsky didn’t say kind things about Brahms either, so it is very fortunate that this handsome 1991 production of Judith has become available again, so that curious listeners may judge its qualities for themselves. This curious listener finds Judith eclectic, reminiscent of Meyerbeer and early Wagner; melodramatic rather than dramatic; and overly tinseled with harps, tambourines, triangles, and slinky modal tunes played on the oboe. When the libretto demands solid writing, the score seems to grow correspondingly weak, but secondary sequences, such as Judith and Avra’s departure to the Assyrian camp, prove to be quite compelling. The best music is found in an assortment of exotic oriental songs and dances scattered throughout the work, similar in caliber and mood to those of Liadov, Balakirev, and Ippolitov-Ivanov; sisters, one might say, to the fin de siècle paintings of Moreau, Delville, and Fabry, which are similarly evocative and facile—although one doesn’t want to look at them too often, or for too long!
Some of the performances in this recording are admirable. Irina Udalova in the formidable role of Judith is quite thrilling. She is a fearless singer of great endurance, and her beautifully spun pianissimos are as captivating as her brilliant trumpet-like fortes. She is also a singer of temperament, who in this instance is at a disadvantage, with an orchestra that fails to give her the support she needs to match her dramatic intent. Conductor Andrey Chistiakov might give strong dynamic contrasts, but his rhythmic inflection is tepid, and the thrust of the tempo, so essential in underscoring Judith’s strength and resolve, tends to be rather flaccid throughout.
The dark, lustrous voice of mezzo-soprano Elena Zaremba rings superbly in her portrayal of the slave Avra. In keeping with the usual dramatic range of slaves in opera (with the notable exception of Aida), she is limited here to the dutiful and the anxious, but if one wishes to hear this artist in more challenging repertoire there is a fine operatic recital disc available on Arte Nova.
It is likely that Fyodor Chaliapin viewed the role of Holofernes, which he often sang, more as a vehicle for theatrical display than as an august musical accomplishment. Indeed, a great singing actor is required to transform Serov’s histrionic and clichéd profile into something believable, and the basso Mikhail Krutikov falls rather short, as most bassos do, of both the vocal and dramatic standards of his larger-than-life predecessor. Krutikov’s voice, husky from technical constraints, is of one opaque color throughout, giving the listener little sense of Holofernes’s arrogance and passion, while revealing just how undistinguished much of the vocal writing proves to be.
It can be said of many Russian operas that the chorus, the voice of the people, is ultimately the great hero. Here is a case in point, for when the excellent Russian Academic Choir sings, the opera Judith comes to life. This superb ensemble, trained by chorus master Ludmila Bogomolova, ignites not only the work, but the singers’ rather lackluster instrumental colleagues as well. During the choral sections, the otherwise listless players become transformed: The brass and woodwinds play with more homogeneous ensemble, entrances are more precise, the strings more vibrant, and the tone of the entire Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra rises to its traditional standard.
The sound engineering in this production is quite fine, although the microphones seem a bit closer to the singers than to the orchestra. I know the sound of the Bolshoi Theatre, and feel that the technicians have expertly captured the acoustic ambiance of this great hall, host to the works of Glinka, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff— and even Alexander Serov.