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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
The tale of the invisible city of Kitezh (1907) [187.00]
Svetlana Igantovich (soprano) - Fevronia; Maxim Aksenov (tenor) - Vsevolod; Vladimir Vaneev (bass) - Prince Yury; John Daszak (tenor) - Kuterma; Alexey Markov (baritone) - Poyarok; Mayram Sokolova (mezzo) - Page; Morschi Franz (tenor) - 1st Notable; Peter Arinik (bass) - 2nd Notable; Gennady Bezzubenkov (bass) - Ballad singer; Hubert Francis (tenor) - Bear-tamer; Iurii Samoilov (baritone) - Beggar; Ante Jerkunica (bass) - Bedyay; Vladimir Ognovenko (bass) - Burunday; Jennifer Check (soprano) - Sirin; Margarita Nekrasova (alto) - Alkonost
Netherlands Opera Chorus: Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra/Marc Albrecht
rec. Amsterdam Music Theatre, February 2012
extras: interviews with cast and crew, cast gallery [20.00]
Subtitles: English; French; German; Dutch; Japanese; Korean
Sound format: 2.0LPCM + 5.1(5.0) DTS
OPUS ARTE OABD7109D Blu-ray [207.00]

A couple of years ago I reviewed a Naxos release on CD of a performance of Kitezh from Cagliari. Generally I gave it a warm welcome as an uncut rendition of a very lengthy score while noting some deficiencies in the singing. I also lamented the lack of a text and translation, but noted that the same performance was also available on DVD where the provision of subtitles would be a welcome aid to comprehension for non-Russian-speaking viewers. I never saw the production which was the subject of the DVD release, but must now welcome this Blu-Ray release of a Netherlands Opera production which is similarly uncut. The old CD release of the Harry Kupfer production conducted by Fedoseyev was subjected to barbarous hacking. It gives us a further chance to encounter what is one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s most superlative scores.
 
Rimsky-Korsakov’s original scenario sets the action in mediaeval Russia, combining two folk tales into a highly symbolic legend. Dmitri Tcherniakov, the director of this production, contends in a documentary provided as an extra to this Blu-Ray that the result - relying as it does on a familiarity with Russian mediaeval history - is likely to be confusing for modern audiences. Well, up to a point: we understand Boris Godunov or Khovanschina well enough with a minimal background in Russian history. By updating the action to an unspecified and brutal twentieth or twenty-first century war he certainly succeeds in communicating immediately with an audience. The results - while they may not be what Rimsky originally had in mind - are both convincing and riveting in dramatic terms. In fact he does not alter the original scenario to any great extent, although the angle of approach is very different.
 
The heroine Fevronia remains a simple peasant girl with an affinity for nature, who becomes caught up in the events of an invasion. In the original she falls in love with the local Prince, but their wedding is interrupted by war and her betrothed is killed in battle. She prays for deliverance and the city of Kitezh is rendered invisible. At the end she is reunited with her betrothed in the invisible city, which appears even in the original to be a sort of after-life. In this production she dies following the invasion; the inhabitants of the city commit mass suicide. Then in a near-death experience she seems to see herself and her betrothed about to undergo their wedding ceremony. In the end we return to her body lying dead in the forest. This is not in fact a betrayal of Rimsky’s conclusion, which has surprisingly downbeat and pianissimo final bars as the joyful peals of bells fade away. Rimsky, with his sympathies for the revolutionaries of 1905, would not in any event have accepted unquestioningly the consolations of religious mysticism implied in Fevronia’s vision. It is clear here that the near-death experience is an illusion, because her vision is that of a peasant girl of limited imagination. The wedding table is not that of a prince, but of a small farmer; the birds of paradise are old women of the village; and so on. The result is touching and very effective.
 
The portrayal of war and invasion is brutal and crude in the extreme, and all the more shocking for that. The two Tartar leaders, in the original a pair of cardboard villains, are here shown as a local warlord and his bodyguard, both brutal in their own way but distinct and recognisable characters. One could perhaps have done without the ‘heavy’ forcing Fevronia to give him oral sex, but these things unfortunately do happen in modern warfare. What makes this production so effective is the emphasis throughout on realism; with the exception of the near-death experience these are very real things in a very real world. In the opening scene Fevronia is seen in her farmstead in the forest, and even the cornstalks are waving in the breeze. The blood that is scattered across the stage seems all too real, and Fevronia’s love for her ‘prince’ is palpable from the start; she has his shirt off him in minutes. All this may sound like the sort of production that sends many viewers screaming for the hills as an example of the betrayal of the composer’s intentions. God knows there are enough mindless examples of that sort about. This however is something different, something very serious, and something much better. While remaining true to the spirit and letter of Rimsky-Korsakov’s music, this is a re-imagining of the score which really works and grips the viewer throughout.
 
Then, there’s the music. The Cagliari production suffered considerably from a well-prepared but smallish orchestra, and the Mariinsky live performance on a Philips CD set sounds very boxy with lots of intrusive stage noise especially in Act Two. Here we have some stage noise, but we can see what is causing it; and the orchestral playing simply leaves its rivals lying in the dust. Passages which are muffled or indistinct in the other two recordings come across superbly here. The strings, full and romantic in tone, play the glorious melodies with ecstasy; and Marc Albrecht paces the score with understanding and passion, making one realise how advanced the supposedly ‘conservative’ Rimsky-Korsakov - at the end of his career - could be when he had something to get his teeth into. Sections of Fevronia’s final vision even pre-echo the final scenes of Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. In short, this is quite simply the best recording of the music of this opera to be had in any medium.
 
The singing doesn’t let the side down, either. In the Cagliari recording Tatiana Monogarova was a superb Fevronia, but Svetlana Ignatovich is pretty well her equal, and she is a marvellous actress to boot. Galina Gorchakova on the Mariinsky set has simply too heavyweight a voice to be convincing as a young virginal maiden. The Cagliari set was badly compromised by an inadequate Prince Vsevolod, but here Maxim Aksenov is far superior. He may not have the largest of voices - one could imagine a bit more sheer volume in places - but he looks convincing as an anorak-clad student type, and is one of the few opera singers whom one could imagine stripped to the waist without a qualm; just as well, since he spends a good part of his opening scene in that state. John Daszak (of Ukrainian parentage) has a larger voice and his Grishka Kuterma is a frightening study in psychological disintegration. He goes from drunken bully to traitor terrified of pain, and finally into total madness when he tries to strangle Fevronia and leave her alone in the woods. Subtitles also make the viewer fully aware of the modern tone of the dialogue here, as Kuterma explains to Fevronia how he has lost his faith and her innocent incomprehension of this.
 
Vladimir Vaneev is a world-weary Prince Yuri, and oddly in a Russian bass his low notes are not his strongest feature; but he conveys a sympathetic and slightly bumbling character. Alexey Markov as Fyodor has a nicely resonant baritone - far superior to his Cagliari counterpart - and his make-up after the invaders have gouged out his eyes is horrifyingly realistic. Gennady Bezzubenkov is however past his best as the ballad-singing gusli player, here sporting a guitar which he conspicuously fails to play at moments when the instrument is heard in the orchestra. Vladimir Ognovenko, another veteran, makes a lecherous warlord, and still has plenty of voice to spare; as his brutal ‘minder’ Ante Jerkunica looks thoroughly unpleasant in his T-shirt with bulging muscles, and he sings well too. Jennifer Check and Margarita Nekrasova sing beautifully as the two birds. The chorus are superb throughout, with volume and tone to spare, lots of subtlety, and their acting displays the results of meticulous rehearsal, as witnessed in the extra documentary.
 
The production is credited in the booklet as a co-production with La Scala and the Liceu, so is presumably to be seen there as well. Lucky Milan and Barcelona. The extra documentary features interviews with many of the participants, and shows how seriously all concerned took the undertaking. This is just as well, since the booklet contains nothing about the production itself, just an essay on the genesis of the work by Marina Frolova-Walker and a synopsis by the director Dmitri Tcherniakov which doesn’t in fact reflect what he has created onstage. The director was also responsible for the set and costume designs, and achieves a sense of unity of purpose which helps the sense of engagement.
 
On musical grounds alone this new DVD and Blu-Ray must supersede the worthy but ultimately inferior Cagliari production on Naxos. Since there are disgracefully no other alternatives in the video medium, this will be the choice of all those who rightly want to experience the work in dramatic form and with the benefit of subtitles. Even were there a plethora of other productions around, this would still merit a place at the top of any list. The work should also be on any list; it is simply one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s greatest scores, and its neglect remains scandalous. I can’t find, for example, evidence that the work has ever been performed onstage in the UK. 
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey
 


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