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In Russia's Urals, Chasing a 'Perfect Mozart'

  • Charles Maynes

FILE - Conductor Teodor Currentzis, right, accompanies U.S. opera singer Mardi Byers during premiere of Alban Berg opera "Wozzek," Bolshoi theater, Moscow.

FILE - Conductor Teodor Currentzis, right, accompanies U.S. opera singer Mardi Byers during premiere of Alban Berg opera "Wozzek," Bolshoi theater, Moscow.

Teodor Currentzis doesn't follow the standard career path of the contemporary classical music scene.

The 42-year-old Greek-born conductor left Western Europe for Russia in the mid-90s.

Preferring jeans and combat boots to stuffy suits, he dislikes — nay, he absolutely loathes — the polite applause of classical music audiences.

So maybe it's no surprise that Currentzis left the famed opera houses of Moscow and St. Petersburg for Perm, a once-closed industrial city on the edge of the Ural Mountains known more for Soviet prison camps and cruel winters than soaring oratorios.

But sometimes it takes getting away to get things done.

"It's like a monastery," says Currentzis. "Perm for me is the place where I can isolate myself from the unimportant part of the career and create the most important thing I can create as an artist."

His signature project is a cycle of recordings of Mozart's "Da Ponte Operas" for the Sony Classical label.

Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) came out in 2014 to rave reviews. This year just saw the release of Cosi Fan Tutti. The third and final recording, Don Giovanni, will be issued next fall.

Currentzis, however, will tell you this isn’t simply more Mozart.

His recordings rescue the works from flawed interpretations that rob the iconic Austrian’s sound of its subtlety, passion, and power — all part of a slow drift of performance recordings that have turned one of the world’s great composers into a slick and safe choice for a shopping mall near you.

"What is our mission? To make music for a restaurant or a bathtub? Or to serve the composer?" he says. Achieving Mozart's true musical vision, he says, requires an intense effort and struggle — something he sees little of among peers.

"In regular recordings they compromise and make productions that can be good in the sense of mood, but [after] one of the first three takes they say, 'Oh, that's fine. We're finished.'"

It's this open disdain for what he calls "the modern factory approach" to classical music that makes Currentzis a polarizing figure to many. He once famously promised to "save classical music" and, certainly, not everyone is convinced Currentzis is as good as he clearly believes he is.

Few, however, question his dedication to the recording process — something that was on display when an international cast descended on Perm Opera House to record Don Giovanni last fall.

Sessions stretched for 10, 12 or 14 hours, with Currentzis demanding take after take after take.

While Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin said her voice could handle the workload, her feet were "killing her." And Currentzis’ fondness for late night sessions wrought havoc on her sleep schedule.

“We start in the afternoon, but I've been sleeping until something like 11 a.m., which is something I never do at home," she said. "It's a... a nocturnal process here in Perm."

German opera star Simone Kermes said she couldn’t imagine how many singers could manage the Currentzis style of recording, which she described as “not normal.”

Kermes has had lead performances in all three of the Perm Mozart recordings, but even she seemed dazed after more than 50 takes of a short passage from her role as Donna Anna.

"Of course Mozart is difficult to record, and what Teodor wants it's like over what a human can do — if you're not a computer," she says.

"He has no respect of the singer. Sometimes I hate him... I hate him," she said, her voice going quiet as the orchestra members reached for their instruments and begin another take.

"I hate him," she said again, almost as an afterthought.

Indeed, driving Currentzis' musical vision — and legend — is his handpicked Russian orchestra "MusicAeterna." This being Currentzis, MusicAeterna is as a much a commune as classical music collective.

Known for all night sessions where they listen to heavy metal, punk rock, read poetry and drink wine in an effort to break down new barriers in music, it's their dedication to music that the group's Russian first violinist Afanasy Chupin says borders on the extreme.

"For me it's very simple," he said. "I wake up every morning, I come to the theater and I spend all my life here."

Four years since moving to Perm, Chupin says he still can't find his way around.

And with that he wanders back to the recording, wearing slippers and what look suspiciously like pajamas.

Now, if that sounds relaxed for an opera hall, don't be surprised. When Currentzis arrived in Perm in 2010, he made a deal with the region’s liberal governor. He received financial support, artistic freedom and complete run of the opera house in exchange for a promise to help transform Perm into the "Salzburg of the Urals."

Today, this vision for Perm looks increasingly out of step with the conservative politics of the day. The liberal governor has since been dismissed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and local bureaucrats are threatening theater cutbacks and a say in what Currentzis stages.

Even the Ministry of Culture has been injecting politics into the arts. Last year, it issued a formal policy paper, saying, "Russia is not Europe" — a position Currentzis, who took Russian citizenship last year, rejects outright.

"East and West is body and soul of Russia," he says. "I don't think there is a country that can exist without the East and influence of the West. It's one world with one electricity."

And with an acclaimed international cast pursuing perfection in one of the most unlikely places, that may just be a dream worth chasing.

No matter how many takes Currentzis' musicians require.

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