The name “Alexandrov Red Army Ensemble” conjures up an image of a military choir and band singing patriotic songs from a nostalgic USSR era. Nothing could have been further from what the audience experienced on Thursday night at the Royal Opera House, Muscat. The Russian Army Chorus, soloists and orchestra, together with their distinguished dance group, took to the stage for two hours in a show as rich in traditional music, romance, folk song and burlesque as it was in military splendour.
Only the opening two songs – of a performance entirely sung in Russian – suggested the power of the mighty Russian Empire. “Invincible and Legendary” provided a fanfare-introduction to “Sacred War”, performed by choir and orchestra to a projected back-drop of the entwined flags of Oman and Russia. It was a foretaste of the quality of performance to be enjoyed from this world-famous ensemble, founded in 1928 during the Soviet era in Russia under the founding director, Alexander Vasilyevich Alexandrov, principally to entertain deployed troops. Nowadays, in the hands of Artistic Director, Colonel Gennadiy Sachenyuk, their passion and creativity continues to inspire critical acclaim, and the troupe is known as ‘the best military ensemble in the world’ – which few who saw them perform this weekend could doubt.
The first soloist of the evening was lyrical tenor, Sergey Kuznetsov, complete in full army regalia, singing “In a Sunny Meadow” against an inspiring projection of a lush green landscape. His voice was well placed in an opera house and only needed amplification against the strength of his colleagues in the choir and orchestra.
The first surprise of the evening followed: “An Invitation to Dance” was a spoof, fit for the cabaret halls of 1930s Berlin. A line of girl dancers dressed as army cadets flirted, cajoled and enticed the male officer (soloist, Pavel Maximov) with unrelenting coquettishness until boom; he broke into a flashing display of Cossack athleticism which surprised everyone after the burlesque.
That was a hard act to follow, but the duet “Smuglyanka”, (The Dark Moldovan Girl) sung exquisitely by soloists Skachkov and Valutov, just went to show the impeccable precision and powerful emotional expression that this Ensemble is capable of. The choir could emerge out of silence with imperceptible subtlety and grow into a massive force of power and volume without losing an ounce of musicality. Similarly, in many chorus numbers the songs ranged from the deepest of bass registers to high tenor, verging on falsetto.
A key element in traditional Russian music is that ‘accelerando’ effect, when a refrain starts super-slow and gradually speeds up in unison – often accompanied by the audience’ attempts to keep time by clapping – which really keeps conductor, singers and instrumentalists on their toes. Here credit goes to their young Chief Conductor, Ukrainian-born Colonel G. Sachenyuk, Honoured Worker of Culture of the Russian Federation.
The next appearance of the dance troupe, founded in the 1930s and conducted by the Uzbek, Nikolay Kirillov, Honoured Artist, was the “Cossack Cavalry Dance” which surpassed even the wildest expectations for the genuine article. It was not for the light-hearted; there were gravity-defying spins, turns and leaps which bore no suggestion of tokenism. Dressed in red and black horsemen’s uniforms, the thrill left the audience gasping, and applauding each twist and jete with increasing enthusiasm.
Act 2 opened with “Festive March”, a rousing curtain-raiser to a lighter second half, performed by the dancers as an amusing parody of a military drill.
It was immediately followed by one of the most arresting soloists of the night. Bass singer, Maxim Maklakov had already been introduced in part one, dashing in his white Navy uniform in, “It’s Time to Hit the Road” and the finale, “Victory Day”. Now he was heard in a more romantic vein in “Hey Coachman, to the Yar!”, a traditional Russian love-song which he filled with all the moving pathos and warmth of his considerable vocal timbre. He was the darling of the night, and what followed was an eye-opener: The romance, “By the Long Road” (“Dorogoi dlinnogu”) is the original version of Mary Hopkins’ 1968 hit, “Those were the days, my friend”, with that iconic Russian gradually-speeding-up effect, which many in the audience instantly recognised.
The male dancers continued with their most spectacular and energetic display of military prowess in “Dance of the Sailors” in which the sword clashes were so fierce that sparks actually flew! Soloists Pavel Maximov and Alexandr Chekardin enthralled the public with their dazzling virtuosity.
The orchestra comprised Western as well as traditional Slavic instruments such as the ‘domra’, a round bodied, 4-stringed lute, ‘balalaika’ with its characteristic triangular wooden body, and ‘bayan’, a chromatic button accordion which gave a distinctly folkish flavour to the ensemble in many songs. These last two featured in the brilliant duet, “Introduction and Chardash” by soloists Constantin Ignatiev and Alexandr Bogatirev respectively.
The programme moved on with the traditional Ukrainian Gypsy Love-song, “Ochi Chyornye” or “Dark Eyes”, sung by the celebrated soloist, Valeriy Gavva, Peoples Artist of the Russian Federation. He continued with a famous Cossack song, “Guys, Unharness the Horses”, all with descriptive film projections as back-drops to give a clue to the song’s subject, but sadly no English subtitles nor description were provided.
Alexander Kruze regaled the audience with that all-time chestnut – and yes, the participatory hand-clapping – “Kalinka”, and then the dance group and orchestra performed a delightful” Russian Dance” in traditional folk costumes, for all the world like eight pretty dancing dolls and their beaux.
The whole company brought the show to a heart-stirring Finale with the 1938 song, “Katyusha”. A deeply impressed audience gave two standing ovations, and they were richly rewarded with that beloved favourite, “Moscow Nights” to carry them home.
Text by Georgina Benison
Photos by Khalid Al Busaidi