MUSIC REVIEW : Soviet Opera Stars Serenade an Empty Ebell

Times Music Critic

What if some major Soviet opera stars gave a concert, and nobody came?

It happened Sunday night at the Wilshire Ebell, and it was sad. It also was embarrassing.

Irina Arkhipova, one of the finest artists to emerge from the Bolshoi since the war, was making her long-awaited post- glasnost return to the States. Even at 63, her vocal prowess seems virtually undiminished. She remains a mezzo-soprano of formidable power, extraordinary authority and comforting finesse.


Under the distressingly amateurish auspices of an organization called Russart, Arkhipova brought along five other singers. The big name--everything is relative--belonged to her husband, Vladislav Piavko. As we know from Bolshoi tours and recordings, he resembles a tenor caricature addicted to the constant emission of huge, edgy roars.

Aficionados could find ample compensation, however, in the acquaintance of some really dazzling young talent. Limiting her contribution to one aria and two duets, Arkhipova said she wanted to keep the spotlight on her protegees. She is remarkably modest and maternal, also understandably proud.

For some reason, alas, the aficionados turned out in tiny numbers. One would be surprised if more than 200 of the 1,270 seats in the still comfortable though patently unglamorous old hall were filled. Our distinguished guests travelled a long way--from Moscow and Lvov and Krasnoyarsk--to serenade a sea of empty chairs.

The skimpy printed program offered massive confusion, misinformation and misspelling. The management didn’t even identify the hard-working, somewhat unidiomatic pianist, Natalia Bogelava. Under the circumstances, it seemed best to sit back, relax and enjoy the oddly exotic, somewhat bumpy ride.

Arkhipova sounded poignant and urgent in two scenes from Mussorgsky’s “Khovanshchina.” She sounded amazingly fresh and alluring in the Marina-Dmitri duet from “Boris Godunov.”

Piavko--who posses a healthy, wide-ranging, potentially thunderous instrument--bleated noisily, even painfully, in the latter plus excerpts from “Pikovaya Dama” (The Queen of Spades), “Otello” and “Pagliacci.” For the not-so-grand finale, he ventured some wild prancing and yelping-- heeyyyyy! --in what we think was “I Will Harness the Troika,” a Russian folk song.

The greatest revelation of the evening involved Dmitri Khvorostovsky, a 26-year-old baritone from Siberia. If he always sings as he did on this occasion, he could have the world at his feet.

In Yevgeny Onegin’s first aria, he offered a wealth of big, burnished, even tone inflected with poise and sensitivity. In “O Carlo, ascolta” from “Don Carlo,” he revealed a solid grasp of the Verdi style and a reasonable grasp of the Italian language.

He also demonstrated breath control and legato skills that marked him as a bel-canto paragon. Later he confirmed that impression in the sensuality of Bellini’s “Finesta che Lucive” and a brooding unaccompanied folk song identified as “The Night.”

In Gleb Nikolsky (his name also may be Nikovsky --the program spelled it both ways), we encountered another in the long line of imposing Russian basses. Tall and instantly commanding, he brought warm, deep, rolling tones to Basilio’s “La Calunnia,” the song of the Viking guest from “Sadko,” Dosifei’s utterances in the “Khovanshchina” duet and a gutsy, stentorian “Mother Volga.”

Natalia Datso, a soloist of the Lvov Opera in the Ukraine, showed instant promise in excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s “Iolanta” and his song “The Meadow,” not to mention “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” from Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut.” Her dark and rich spinto soprano may not yet be under perfect control, but its luster is irresistible.

Oleg Kulko, the junior tenor in the group, did a lot of raspy forcing in music ranging from “Boheme” and “Tosca” to “Onegin” and Rachmaninoff’s “Aleko.” The resources seemed solid, the technique shaky. Perhaps he had a cold.

At the end of the concert, there were smiles, bravos, floral tributes and unheeded suggestions for encores. Someone in the audience wanted Arkhipova to sing Carmen. She responded with a gracious and candid little speech.

She was pleased, she announced, that the house was so enthusiastic. She was sorry that the house was only half full.

The last part suggested either bad counting or wishful thinking.