Uniting Living Myths and Legends: Caracalla’s Tribute to Russia

ItalyItaly Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev:   Marianna Tarasova (mezzo-soprano), Chorus of Rome Opera, Roberto Gabbiani (chorus master), Orchestras of Rome Opera and St Petersburg Philharmonic, Juri Temirkanov (conductor),Video installations, film, lighting and direction:Pier’ Alli, Terme di Caracalla, Rome, 7.7.2012 (JB)

Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Festival Overture and The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh Suite
Prokofiev: Aleksander Nevski, op. 78, a scenic cantata

Probably more than any other peoples, the ethnic groups which make up Greater Russia (almost self-consciously) relive their myths and legends as they go about their daily business. This often takes on the aura of a religion a–not-exactly-understood purposefulness of living. Turmoil is never far from the surface of these stories and thus never far from the lives of the people.

Russia has also done excellent trade in the exporting of this tradition. One of the undisputed landmark exports was Eisenstein’s 1938 movie, Aleksander Nevski, with the young Sergej Prokofiev providing music which has never been equalled in cinematic history. The rest of the world suddenly understood how the Russian people were living.

Prokofiev then made a Suite in seven movements to be performed independently of the movie, though with a huge orchestra, chorus and mezzo-soprano soloist. He called it a scenic cantata, thereby indicating that it will do you no harm should you know the film or send you rushing to see it if you don’t.

Today’s Romans indulge in a fair bit of myth and legend living too, though to nothing like the degree of the Russians. The Vatican, with its world dominions is a fair stand-in for the Roman Empire though hardly any Roman believes in the Vatican. But there again, the latest evidence indicates that few Romans believed in the Roman Empire. Recently, Mario Monti told the Empress of Europe what to do. Amazingly, she did it. The sly, self-deprecating humour is still at work in every Rome marketplace.

The Baths of Caracalla, constructed between 211 and 217CE, were not exactly a marketplace, though they included shops, sports centres, swimming pools and thermal springs: a meeting place on a grandiose scale. And an entertainment spot. Even in today’s Rome, the best entertainment you will find is in the market place or open-air bars of the piazzas. The entertainment value doubles if you are inclined toward audience participation.

Soon after the War, the Rome Opera began an open-air season at Caracalla. Scenically they used the ruins themselves with papier-mâché additions to the stones. I well recall in the sixties during that pianissimo prelude of Aida, how the cooling breezes of the Pontino (the Westerly wind which ventilates the city) would be switched on as though by magic and relax the audience into the unreal-realism of the opera. Idyllic. Even the odd aeroplane drowning out the music didn’t entirely destroy the effect.

Recently Teatro dell’Opera has spent a fortune in a masterpiece of carpentry which seats on widely spaced steps, an audience of sports stadium proportions. The head of state, President Giorgio Napolitano was present in a private capacity last night, enough to justify the red carpet rolled out for him. Well, the senators as well as the populace used the original baths even though the Romans didn’t quite match the all-in-this-together-boys of the Greeks.

Pier’Alli is the ideal Director to bring together these Russian and Roman traditions. His real talent comes from his training as an architect and a breathtaking ability to create space which challenges belief. He has been at some pains to abandon the narrative of Einstein’s movie while at the same time exploring as profoundly as he can its mythology. A giant screen behind and above the orchestra is divided into a triptych and so evocative of our experiences of Medieval altar-pieces. We smell the incense! Such ecclesiastical images as appear are Orthodox and Alli is respectfully rhythmical (to Prokofiev’s music) in what is essentially an installation. There is only the merest hint of Eisenstein’s film in these images, though Alli, like everyone else, acknowledges being influenced by the Russian master. Alli also shows a reverence approaching idolatry toward Prokofiev in every frame.

Sadly, it has to be said that the auditory experience at Caracalla is not up to the impressive visual effect. The concert was aplified and amplified well, without distortions or time-lags. All the same, the effect was that of listening to a recording, albeit a carefully made one. The chorus sounded less amplified. The overhead planes still appear but the amplification is such that they are only incongulously visible and no longer audible. A woman’s voice selling or promoting something through a loud-hailer outside the precincts of the Baths was swiftly silenced, but a shocking distraction during the quiet opening of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture.

The InvisibleCity of Kitezh (1905) is Rimsky-Korsakov’s penultimate opera and by his own estimate, his greatest accomplishment. It remains in repertory in Russia but has never found a place outside. Rimsky was completing his manual on orchestration at the time of the composition and the genial and original touches of the five movements which make up the Suite for large orchestra are indeed a revelation –Matrimonial procession, The Tartar Invasion, The Battle of Kerjenetz, Prelude and Hymn to Nature. Impressionism is well to the fore in both harmony and instrumentation. And Alli brought some suggestive, restrained images onto the triptych. Temirkanov crossed all the t’s and dotted all the i’s.

You cannot have a finer conductor for this music than Juri Temrirkanov and the joint orchestras of the St Petersburg Philarmonic and the Rome Opera played attentively to his baton. Good too to see the fine young flautist of the Rome Opera, Matteo Evangelisti, taking special applause for his moving contribution to the Rimsky overture. Roberto Gabbiani did sterling work with the Rome Opera Chorus. The rich, dark colours of Marianna Tarasova’s voice were the perfect vehicle for the penultimate movement, In the Fields of the Fallen. Hauntingly veiled throughout this troubled passage.

Russian living mythology lay as a seductive partner to its Roman counterpart –much more than one could have imagined. And it is predominantly Pier’ Alli and Juri Temirkanov that we have to thank for the Union.

Jack Buckley