Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Semyon Kotko [148:00]
Semyon Kotko – Viktor Lutsuk
Semyon’s mother- Lyubov Sokolova
Fosya – Vavara Solovyova
Remeniuk – Evgeny Nikitin
Tkachenko – Gennady Bezzubenkov
Khivrya - Nadezhda Vassilieva
Sofya – Tatiana Pavlovskaya
Tsaryov – Roman Burdenko
Lyubka – Olga Sergeeva
Mikola – Stanislav Leontyev
Klembovsky – Andrei Popov
Von Wierhof – Yuri Laptev
German sergeant – Vitaly Yankovsky
German interpreter – Vladimir Zhivopistev
Bandura player – Mikhail Kitt
1st old man – Vladimir Miller
2nd old man – Vyacheslav Lukhanin
1st old woman – Lyudmila Kasyanenko
2nd old woman – Svetlana Volkova
3rd old woman – Marina Mareskina
1st Haydamak – Timur Abdikeyev
2nd Haydamak – Viktor Vikhrov
1st anti-Bolshevik Ukranian Cossack - Andrei Karabanov
2nd anti-Bolshevik Ukranian Cossack – Mikhail Latyshev
Young man – Anton Perminov
Mariinsky Chorus and Orchestra, Valery Gergiev
rec. 13-14 May 2014, the Mariinsky-II St. Petersburg, Russia
1 x Blu-ray and 1 x DVD: Video 16:9 on both, Audio: DVD Stereo PCM 24/48, DD 5.1 surround. Blu-ray Stereo PCM 24/48, DTS-HD Surround
Region 0
Sung in Russian
Subtitles English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Japanese.
MARIINSKY Blu-ray/DVD MAR0592 [148:00]

It is difficult to discuss Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko without reference to politics, but for those who find public affairs an intrusion upon aesthetics, let me begin with Prokofiev’s music.

The opera is set in the Ukraine in 1918. Soldier Semyon Kotko returns from the now quiet front to his village, where he resumes his pursuit of Sofya. Her father, Tkachenko, disapproves of the match, hoping that Sofya can marry up when the local landlords return to power. A second pair of young lovers includes Kotko’s sister and a young peasant who was a child when Kotko went off to war. Romance is cut short when Germans and their Cossack allies arrive, executing Communists before they burn the village. Kotko joins the partisans, who recapture the village with the timely arrival of the Red Army. Prokofiev based his work on a popular novella, whose author, Valentin Kataev, shared work on the libretto with the composer.

Prokofiev spins this story of love, revenge, and patriotism over five acts in about two and one half hours. The opera contains no set pieces, but the continuous music is full of impassioned arioso, conflict-filled duets, dramatic choruses, and frequent use of the chugging ostinato figures that he employs in such works as the Second Piano Concerto. This is mature Prokofiev, and holds the listener’s interest well.

For Prokofiev, Semyon Kotko was a departure from his preceding three operas (The Gambler, Love for Three Oranges, and The Fiery Angel). It was his first opera following his 1936 return to Russia, and points to his two greatest operas which were to follow. The vast ensemble of singers and wartime setting prefigure War and Peace. And especially the first two acts set the stage for Prokofiev’s wonderful opera buffa, Betrothal in a Monastery. Semyon Kotko is not as good as either of these works, but is quite engaging, nonetheless.

Valery Gergiev leads the Mariinsky forces in a taut and energetic performance. The singers are radiant at best, and none is unsatisfactory. Musical highlights include Kotko’s return to the village, and the ostinato-driven chorus that ends Act III, in which a lover grieves the hanging of her mate as the Germans set fire to the village. Viktor Lutsyuk’s Kotko is eager, impetuous and ardent. The Sofya of Tatiana Pavlovskaya is fresh-voiced. Her father, the rich peasant Tkachenko, is sung with bluster ands wile by Gennady Bezzubenkov. Evgeny Nitikin is a village leader and guerrilla commander whose steady base anchors many moments in the production. The compression of action sometimes results in two different conversations on stage simultaneously, which requires meticulous timing by the singers. They achieve a remarkable level of ensemble.

There is a 1999 Philips audio recording of this same production, which includes several of the same cast members, who sound at least as good now as they did nearly two decades ago. Sometimes, for a familiar opera, an audio version is preferable because it allows the listener to stage her own production in her mind’s eye. For Semyon Kotko, it is very helpful to watch the video, both to sort out the singers and because it is a visually striking production.

Now for some politics, for those who wish to read further.

For a start, there are not many operas by famous composers which celebrate land reform and revolution. Prokofiev’s music is radical, but only in ways that he had already established while he pursued his career in the West. The real radicalism of the opera is putting peasants on stage at the center of an opera, which is often regarded as an art for the aristos.

Prokofiev was looking for a subject which would help re-establish his credentials in Soviet Russia. He was certainly aware of Shostakovich’s operatic troubles with Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, and imagined that this action-filled paean to the revolution might be a safer subject.

He was mistaken. He wrote in the midst of Stalin’s purges. Prokofiev’s stage director, Vsevolod Meyerhold, vanished before the production was mounted, executed on a trumped-up charge of espionage. His disappearance understandably put everyone on edge as an unwanted reminder of the precariousness of the Soviet cultural elite. Prokofiev quarreled with his new director, and the first performance had to be delayed for political reasons. The German-Russian non-aggression pact resulted in pressure on the composer to tone down the anti-German content, much like his music for Alexander Nevsky was no longer seen as a useful item of culture. Prokofiev, a one-time Christian Scientist, managed to get the revolutionary politics right on stage, but back stage was continually frustrated. The opera was not successful, and indeed was not staged again in Russia until 1970.

A second set of political issues stems from how to stage this work in Russia in the era of Vladimir Putin. The opera is a bouquet to the Communist Party, an awkwardness which its excellent music cannot overcome. Gergiev and stage director Yuri Alexandrov handle this problem by distancing the music from the text, in order to cut through the conundrum of gorgeous voices singing the praises of a no longer extant revolution.

If you only listen to the audio recording, you might well imagine that the opera opens with Kotko returning to a bucolic rural haven, albeit one toughened by war. The post-Soviet stage production offers a visual image of incredible devastation. The village is underground, and its the surface consists of broken rail tracks around a giant pit. Another mode of distancing is the treatment of the Germans, who are either buffoons or look like giant beetles. Their Cossack allies are primitive, snarling creatures. But the positive figures (or ones Prokofiev intended to be positive) are also lampooned, the villagers appearing in grotesque red costumes, looking like religious penitents, or Ku Klux Klan members. In Prokofiev’s libretto Kotko throws a grenade into a church full of Germans and their allies, but this is muted in the stage action by the simple expedient of barely suggesting a church, so that Kotko’s target is far less clear.

Prokofiev’s happy ending is turned on its head. The ensemble sings of their bright future, but they have all turned into what seem to be Chinese workers or perhaps red guards, brandishing their red books high, as a gigantic gold bust of the (unrecognizable) leader rises from the village pit. They sound happy, but their dance is absurd, telling us that their illusion will not last.

There is one last political point to mention. The cover of the disc claims that the performance is to mark the 125th anniversary of Prokofiev’s birth, which may be the case. But viewers cannot also notice that the opera is set in the Ukraine, and is full of singing about “our Ukraine” as Western forces are repelled. One wonders if Russian cultural authorities have repurposed Prokofiev’s music for a different political goal than the composer intended. Prokofiev was of course born in the Ukraine, and had nostalgic feelings about it later in life. But the Sergei Prokofiev Airport in Donetsk has been reduced to rubble in the recent conflict, not a conventional way of commemorating a birthday.

Perhaps in a hundred years, people will be able to listen to Semyon Kotko for its music, which will no longer need to be salvaged for post-Communist Russia or redeployed to demonstrate Russian claims in the conflict with the Ukraine. In the meantime, if you can put aside the political complications, this spirited and musical production can be enjoyed by anyone with an enthusiasm for Prokofiev.

Richard Kraus

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