Friday, January 30, 2009

Elena Zhidkova as Judit, Bride of Dracula

Some last-minute (sort of, anyway) substitutions at the Barbican last night resulted in one of the most hair-raising and astounding concerts I've been to in years.

First substitution was that Gergiev/LSO dropped the Love of Three Oranges suite and The Miraculous Mandarin and threw The Rite of Spring into the first half, presumably because they can all play it in their sleep (rehearsal time may have been an issue, given Gergiev's punishing schedule of gargantuan Russian operas with the Mariinsky tonight & the next few days, hem hem...). I thought I could do without the Rite right now, especially in the Barbican's enhanced acoustic - it is b****y loud - but this was riveting: fast and savage with bells-up horns, slow and sensual with dug-in strings, Gergiev using the minimum of gesture except for those long and amaazing sculptor-hands twiddling and twirling. And remember - from the stalls, you can't see his eyes.

Rite as curtain-raiser rather than climax? Oh yes. Switch on the heat and bring on the Bartok. And bring on the Russian mezzo. Katarina Dalayman was absent and in her place there materialised a size-zero supermodel with a fountain of golden hair to beyond her waist, a glittering pink dress and a great big, gorgeous and dramatic voice that had the audience at her feet in nanoseconds. Elena Zhidkova has sung a range of top mezzo roles - Carmen, Dorabella, Orlofsky and Oktavian, and even some Wagneries - but she seems born to be Bartok's Judit, and with Willard White as her Bluebeard, there was no need for scenery, special effects or even the surtitles. Her acting is so vibrant - as she stands transfixed on that top note as the fifth door opens, batters physically with her fists at the seventh door or pleads finally for mercy from goodness knows what as Bluebeard names her the Bride of Night - that one could follow the story without the words (I take my hat off to any non-native who can sing in Hungarian in the first place).

I could only find one photo of her on the internet (above left) and the only biography, except for the quickly-printed extra page in the programme, was in German. But there is going to be some serious hat-eating in Sheen if this phenomenal girl is not up there with the Kozenas and Bartolis in two or three years' time. As for the rest: Gergiev, orchestra and Sir WW produced shivers and shakes and visions of horror and glory that told us - and we do need reminding sometimes - everything that music can do to the human body and soul, at the deepest, darkest level.

On a more mundane note, Bartok's black magic out of Transylvania set me pondering whether it bears any relation to a novel by one Bram Stoker, published in 1897. (Download the e-book free at Project Gutenberg here.) Do the legends share an origin? And why? As a Romanian soprano pointed out to me a week ago, Dracula, or its author, is neither Hungarian nor Romanian but English (and since some call her La Draculette, she should know...more about her soon...).

But vampiric legends go back further in that part of the world...Walter Starkey's lurid memoir Raggle-Taggle, which I devoured in a fascination of dubious delight during background reading for Hungarian Dances, is full of them. Why did Stoker pick Transylvania? What were his sources? And Maeterlinck's play Ariane et Barbe-Bleu was published in 1899, two years after Dracula, and was adopted by Dukas for his opera; linking Perrault's legend to Greek mythology...What happened? Why these tales, at that time?

I have lots of questions, but no answers. Anyone like to discuss?

UPDATE, 12.25: This was the second of two performances of the programme, and Hilary Finch reviews the first here - all just too much, apparently, but I think she could safely have added the extra star she hints at for this second show.