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Thanks to the tireless efforts of Valery Gergiev – this time as fundraiser – St Petersburg has a fine new 1,100-seat concert hall. Imaginatively built from the shell of a landmark building formerly used by the theatre as a warehouse and destroyed by fire in 2003, the hall has bright, clear acoustics masterminded by Yasuhisa Toyota.

It also can be configured with an orchestra pit for presentation of staged productions. Last Friday, the hall made its debut in this capacity with Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, part of the Stars of the White Nights Festival. It was not a success. The lack of stage machinery other than lighting severely limits the scope of a production. Worse, because many seating areas, particularly higher up, are not steeply enough raked, many in the audience had an impeded view of the stage. Supertitles were projected on a screen the size of a postage stamp.

The production, by the talented young producer Vasily Barkhatov, operated inventively within these limitations, but it often seemed an ad hoc affair amounting to little more than an opera in concert. Zinovy Margolin sets Berlioz’s cleverly placed comedy about a goldsmith in a high-end boutique, with jewellery display cases bearing the names of Cellini and other characters. When he and his lover Teresa prepare to elope, she smashes the cases and throws their contents into an Adidas bag. Earlier, the Roman carnival festivities were treated as a formal reception, with security guards checking off the names of the guests. In lieu of grander spectacle, a magician performed tricks, even changing Teresa’s rival lovers, disguised as monks, into white rabbits. It was an odd venue for a later appearance by Pope Clement VII.

Sergei Semishkur, a talented young tenor with squillo in the voice, often sang arrestingly in the title role, yet needs more experience with it. Anastasia Kalagina was an uninteresting Teresa, Zlata Bulycheva an adequate Ascanio, Cellini’s apprentice. Gennady Bezzubenkov intoned the Pope’s lines resonantly, and Sergei Romanov impressed as the bandit Pompeo. The company has given a number of concert performances of Cellini over the years, yet the orchestra’s playing under Gergiev sometimes wanted sharpness of detail and texture. He has another chance with Cellini in August, when he leads a new production in Salzburg.
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