Giordano’s Siberia in Bonn

Under Bernhard Helmich’s leadership, the Bonn opera company has in recent years done a splendid job in unearthing forgotten works, on this occasion sharing the production with the Bregenz Festival. The chosen piece, Giordano’s Siberia, may not be a masterpiece, but it is highly effective in terms of both emotional melodrama and tunefulness. First given in 1903 at La Scala, replacing the planned première of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, it resembles the latter in some respects. Puccini allowed japonaiserie to infiltrate the verismo Italianate idiom and Giordano did something similar for Russian folk and church music.

The storyline could not be simpler. Stephana, a courtesan, abandons her luxurious lifestyle to join her lover Vassili in his wretched journey to, and exile in, Siberia, the punishment for wounding her aristocratic patron. Her one-time pimp Gleby, condemned to the same fate for other transgressions, thwarts their attempted escape, and they are killed by pursuing guards. Apparent similarities to Tolstoy’s Resurrection and Janacek’s From the House of the Dead should be ignored; Giordano and his librettist Illica created something less profound, but more romantic and sensually appealing.

Stage director Vasily Barkhatov modified the original in one important respect. An old woman, the daughter of the tragic couple, is interpolated into the production, returning to Siberia to find the location of their deaths. The scenes of her travel are shown in a video but, having been given the lines of some other characters, she contributes also to the action on stage. This could be regarded as intrusive, or at least gratuitous, but as played by Clarry Bartha, a veteran member of the Bonn ensemble, it adds poignancy to the action and was most successful. In other respects, Barkhatov was faithful to the original. Indeed, by adopting an entirely naturalistic theatrical approach, he could not have shown it greater respect. Here was a rare case in modern opera production (especially in Germany!) of a literal adherence to what was conceived by its authors and it triumphed as such.

It would not have been so successful without the contribution of the soloists and, in this respect, Bonn was also able to offer satisfaction. Yannick-Muriel Noah (as well as winning the hearts of her audience) sang her own heart out as Stephana, scaling the heights with forceful outbursts but also generating pathos with some touching pianissimi.  Her Vassili, George Oniani, might not engage in much nuance in his acting, but his gleaming tenor is irresistible. As Gleby, Giorgos Kanaris did not fall into cliché by overdoing his evil nature; and the smaller parts were well taken. Daniel Johannes Mayr led the orchestra in an authentically romantic rendering of the score without engaging in too much Schmalz. A highly enjoyable evening of traditional operatic fare.