Umberto Giordano (1867-1948)
Siberia – drama in three Acts (1903)
Libretto by Luigi Illica
Stephana – Ambur Braid (soprano)
Vassili – Alexander Mikhailov (tenor)
La fanciulla / The old woman – Clarry Bartha (soprano)
Gleby – Scott Hendricks (baritone)
Prague Philharmonic Choir
Wiener Symphoniker/Valentin Uryupin
Stage director: Vasily Barkhatov
rec. live, 2022, Festspielhaus, Bregenz Festival
C Major Blu-ray 763004 [112]

Austria’s annual Bregenz Festival is one of the opera world’s best-known shindigs.  That’s largely because its most high-profile productions take place on the Seebühne, an outdoor stage that floats on Lake Constance and often incorporates lofty superstructures – sometimes notably surreal in design – that allow the dramatic action to take place over several levels while also facilitating visibility for the large audience.  The striking visuals provide a promotional dream for any PR professional and often generate extensive media coverage in their own right.  Indeed, many cinema-goers will, albeit unwittingly, have experienced a moment or two from a Festival production since scenes from Bregenz’s Tosca were incorporated into the James Bond film Quantum of solace

Seating an audience of 7,000, the Seebühne is understandably reserved for more obviously crowd-pleasing productions, most recently Madame Butterfly, Rigoletto, Carmen, Turandot and The magic flute.   Longstanding MusicWeb readers may recall that a performance of Giordano’s most famous opera Andrea Chenier was filmed for home audiences a decade ago and subsequently reviewed on these pages.  The same composer’s Siberia is, however, far less well known and would presumably struggle to put 7,000 bottoms on seats at each performance.  Consequently, this productionwas performed not on the Seebühne but in the festival’s indoor Festspielhaus which holds a much smaller audience of just over 1,600. 

Notwithstanding its more conventional venue, this Siberia maintains Bregenz’s track record of favouring somewhat off-the-wall, idiosyncratic productions.  The booklet that accompanies this release never adequately explains what the modifications and elaborations applied to Giordano/Illica’s original plot are supposed to signify, but the general outlines are, I think, clear enough.  In order to explain, I will, though, need to remind you of the details of Siberia’s story as it was originally conceived and has been more usually presented.

The setting is Russia in the late Tsarist era, probably c. 1900.  In the first Act, Prince Alexis arrives at the apartment where he maintains the courtesan Stephana.  She is not actually at home, for she has been secretly meeting her lover Vassili.  Nevertheless, her pimp Gleby successfully explains away her absence by convincing the prince that she is merely sleeping in her room.  Returning undetected from the assignation with her lover, Stephana flirts with the prince until Vassili himself makes a surprise entrance.  He has come to visit an old friend of his mother who coincidentally happens to be the courtesan’s companion.  Surprised to find Stephana in the apartment and completely unaware of her real way of life, Vassili embraces her and they declare their love, before being discovered by the outraged Alexis.  In an ensuing fight, Vassili kills the prince.  Act 2 sees prisoners who have been condemned to penal servitude in Siberia setting off to begin their sentence.  Among them is Vassili, who has been found guilty of Prince Alexis’s murder.  Stephana arrives and declares that she has given away all her wealth to the poor and will be joining her lover in his exile.  In the third Act, in spite of the harsh conditions in their Siberian prison camp, Stephana and Vassili are fortified by their enduring love.  Unfortunately, the pimp Gleby now arrives as a fellow prisoner.  He reveals to Stephana that there is a secret tunnel out of the camp and attempts to persuade her to escape with him so that they can resume their old way of life.  Stephana refuses and decides that she and Vassili will escape instead.  When she carries out her plan, the vengeful Gleby alerts the guards who shoot and kill her.  She dies in Vassili’s arms.

That’s all pretty straightforward, you might think, but let’s remember that this is the Bregenz Festival and so there’s probably going to be a gimmick.  On this occasion, lacking the almost unlimited creative opportunities that might have been offered by staging Siberia on the Seebühne, it’s a comparatively restrained one, however, with the usual story augmented by being placed within a contemporary context.  Thus, as the opera opens, we watch a projected black-and-white film of an old woman, generically dressed in the manner of the later 20th or early 21st century, who takes an airline flight from Rome to St Petersburg, carrying with her an urn of cremated ashes and a small wooden toy bird.  On arrival in the Russian city, she enters a doorway – whereupon the film ends abruptly and we see her emerging, supposedly through the same door, onto the Festspielhaus stage.  There Siberia’s characters perform Act 1 pretty much conventionally in a late 19th century setting, even as our mysterious time-travelling old woman wanders around the stage – and occasionally interacts physically with the singers in spite of the fact that they appear not to be able to see her as she does so.  Our as yet unexplained interloper appears to know her way around, however, for she eventually peels off a section of the apartment’s wallpaper to find a concealed document which will, it seems, lead her on to another location in Act 2. 

You will no doubt recall that Giordano had envisaged that second Act as depicting the condemned prisoners being marshalled and dispatched to Siberian exile.  To that scenario he added various dramatic interjections from an assembled crowd of onlookers, a young girl searching the convict gangs for a family member and our heroine Stephana herself.  In this production, however, the old woman now takes her place at the forefront of the story.  Part of the stage is unexpectedly closed off to depict a modern room full of old files and other paper records and it soon becomes apparent that she has come to search the archives of what I take to be the Okhrana, the Tsarist secret police.  As she does so, she herself sings some of the vocal lines that Giordano/Illica had originally allocated to other characters at that point in the story and, if you don’t worry too much about that sort of jiggery-pokery, the serendipitous ambiguity of the words actually makes some sort of sense within this revised version of the plot.  Ultimately, the old woman discovers the material she has been looking for in the files, which will lead her on to the next stage of her journey.

Act 3 generally follows the expected love-in-the-prison-camp story for most of its course, though there are a couple of modifications.  The most significant change is that Stephana – who had been depicted as quite obviously pregnant in Act 2 – now has a couple of children, a boy of about 8 or so and an infant.  Spoiler alert: in one particular shot (blink, and you really will miss it) we see their father Vassili giving a small wooden toy bird to the younger child.  At the opera’s tragic climax, the old woman is again seen on film, this time travelling by car to Siberia itself.  On reaching her destination, she locates the long-abandoned site of the prison camp – and, along with a convenient bystander, gets to sing a few of the lines that are usually allocated at that point to Stephana and Vassili.  She then scatters the ashes from the funeral urn, flourishes the wooden bird (just in case any remarkably dim audience members haven’t yet got the point) and, transitioning once again from film into a real presence on the Festspielhaus stage, embraces Vassili and the dying Stephana.  She even gets to sing Stephana’s final line “With you, here for eternity!”, thereby giving the words a completely different significance.

What, then, have we been watching on stage?  Thanks, if nothing else, to that wooden toy bird, the rough outline is, I think, fairly clear, though the absence of much in the way of chronological specificity leaves several issues unresolved.  It seems reasonable to presume that Giordano was setting the events in the Siberia prison camp in his own time (i.e. c. 1900), but, even so, the interpolated character of the old woman raises some perplexing issues.  Our first difficulty arises from the question of just how old is “old”?  This production leaves the woman’s age pretty indeterminate.  She might be a 50-year-old who’s had a hard life or she might be remarkably well preserved at 80.  More difficulty is caused by the fact that the year in which she takes her trip to Siberia is left rather unclear.  It might be as early as the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s – which would have facilitated free travel and the exploration of the Okhrana archives – or as recently as just a few years ago (the costumes are notably vague on any fashion details that might have offered clues).  The uncertainty over both the woman’s age and the date of her Siberia trip means that we cannot be certain of her familial relationship to the other characters.  I suspect that she is probably supposed to be Stephana’s aforementioned second child, who must therefore have been a daughter, a theory somewhat bolstered at one point by her throwaway reference, in a line originally given to another character, to having a brother.  On the other hand, the chronological uncertainty means that she might even be the doomed couple’s granddaughter.  Consequently, it remains unclear as to whose ashes she ends up scattering.  They might be Vassili’s (i.e. those of her father or, possibly, grandfather) or of Stephana’s son (who might be her brother, father or uncle) or even, I suppose, the remains of someone else entirely.  In the absence of any enlightenment in the booklet, that’s the best I can do, I’m afraid, though no doubt any Bregenz audience members who forked out their euros for a programme at the time may be able to enlighten us with the definitive interpretation.

Such an extra layer of plot mystification might usually be regarded as a bit of a nuisance.  However, it may well, in practice, serve a useful purpose by piquing our interest, for the unfortunate fact is that, when presented in a more straightforward fashion, Siberia has usually proved to be something of a hard sell.  It is clearly not insignificant that, as already noted, a production of Andrea Chenier can repeatedly fill up to 7,000seats whereas canny opera companies hesitate to mount Siberia at all and, if they ultimately do so, limit their commercial exposure to smaller venues.  Even though Giordano himself considered it his masterpiece – confirming, in so doing, that artists can be among the worst judges of their own work – the bottom line is that on this occasion his melodic inspiration seems to have deserted him.  Put simply, Siberia lacks even one of those Big Tunes that, in practical terms, are major factors in establishing an opera permanently in the public consciousness. 

The singers in this production do, nevertheless, their considerable best for the piece.  Both Ambur Braid and Alexander Mikhailov have the big voices necessary to that convey their characters’ emotional dilemmas and romantic passion convincingly.  Moreover, both are effective actors.  Mikhailov, a rising star of the Mariinsky Theatre’s opera troupe, is a commanding physical presence whenever he’s on stage and delivers what is arguably the evening’s most impressive performance.  Scott Hendricks, singing the role of the pimp Gleby, is something of a Bregenz favourite, having previously taken roles in Il trovatore (2006), Tosca (2008), King Roger (2009), Andrea Chenier (2011 and 2012), Carmen (2017) and Rigoletto (2019 and 2021) – all of them crowd-pleasing Seebühne productions except for Szymanowski’s King Roger that was, cautiously and probably wisely, mounted in the Festspielhaus.  Positing the loathsome Gleby as the third element of a conventional operatic love triangle is, I fear, something of a dramatic stretch, but Mr Hendricks delivers his character’s cynical malevolence with both conviction and style.  As the enigmatic old woman, Clarry Bartha sings little more than a few lines that Giordano had originally allocated to other characters but her strong stage presence contributes significantly to the production’s overall impact as she mooches about ominously in the background.  There are no weak links among the other featured cast members and if, to be honest, they do not have a great deal to do, they all fulfil their responsibilities well.

Anyone who’s read Daniel Beer’s painstaking study The house of the dead: Siberian exile under the tsars (London, 2016) will be well aware of the horrifically brutal conditions of life that prevailed in the tsarist penal colonies.  A fair degree of dramatic licence has been applied at Bregenz, however, for the depicted prison inmates appear on stage as well fed and clothed and apparently not too discontented with their lot.  The singers of the Prague Philharmonic Choir give a creditable account of themselves in those roles, even though, in truth, their most memorable contribution is creating, as and when required, an appropriately doleful atmosphere as they intone the Song of the Volga boatmen.   Meanwhile, conductor Valentin Uryupin and the Wiener Symphoniker deliver a sound account of the score, though I would have welcomed the occasional injection of a little more passion when justified by the context.

This Siberia production’s sets are, if not especially striking, uncluttered, perfectly serviceable and well lit.  The audience thereby gets a good, clear view of the action.  The filming has been well achieved too and the performance comes over very well indeed on a domestic screen, though a single poorly chosen camera angle almost misses that important moment when Vassili hands the toy bird to his younger child.  The filmed inserts of the old woman’s journeys by plane to St Petersburg and then by car on to Siberia are particularly atmospheric.  The Blu-ray’s picture and sound quality are first class, with no hint whatsoever of the dreaded judder than can, on occasion, affect that format. 

On the debit side, a little more care in the post-production process might have ensured the avoidance of a few annoying typos in the English subtitles.  The accompanying booklet is also something of a missed opportunity.  Contractual obligations presumably explain why a whole page is given over to a list of Bregenz Festival staff – but I cannot envisage a Blu-ray buyer who feels the need to see the names of such worthies as the “Head of Extras” or the “Director of Artistic Administration”, estimable and hard-working functionaries though they no doubt are, memorialised in print.  Another regrettable decision is the allocation of no less than three of the booklet’s 18 pages to listing the Blu-ray’s tracks.  Had just a single page in smaller type had been used, the freed-up space could have been given over to material of greater practical use for the consumer – an expanded synopsis clarifying the issues arising from this production’s interpolated “modern” sequences, perhaps, or else some background information about the artists.  

Overall, however, this remains an enjoyable and distinctive new release in its own right, as well as a valuable supplement to the performance from the Teatro del Maggio Musicale, Fiorentino that was released last year on Blu-ray, DVD and CD (review, review and review).   I have not had an opportunity to watch that Blu-ray disc, but Mike Parr’s review pointed out a couple of features that also feature in the Bregenz production.  Both performances see the usual cast augmented with some contemporary characters (at Florence they are “three extras in modern dress… filming some sort of television drama”) and both make use of interpolated video projections.  Perhaps, as I suggested earlier, Siberia needs such injected gimmicks in order to excite an audience’s interest.  Nevertheless, I, for one, would relish the chance of one day seeing a performance of this enjoyable if flawed work as its composer originally intended and, with apologies for wrenching the term from its usual context, in a more appropriately verismo fashion.

Rob Maynard

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Other cast & production staff
Nikona – Fredrika Brillembourg (mezzo-soprano)
Prince Alexis – Omer Kobiljak (tenor)
Ivan / The Cossack – Manuel Günther (tenor)
Miskinsky / The disabled – Michael Mrosek (baritone)
Walinoff / The governor – Unnsteinn Árnason (bass)
The captain / The guard – Stanislav Vorobyov (bass)
The sergeant – Rudolf Medňanský (tenor)
Voice of the mugiki – Bronislav Palowski (tenor)
Stage designer: Christian Schmidt
Costume designer: Nicole von Graevenitz
Lighting designer: Alexander Sivaev
Chorus master: Lukáš Vasilek
Video director: Tiziano Mancini

Video details
Picture format: 1080i/16:9
Sound format: PCM Stereo/DTS-HD MA 5.1
Region code: A / B / C
Sung in Italian; Subtitles: English, German, Korean, Japanese