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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Semyon Kotko
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
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 mins]

I first came across Semyon Kotko during the 2008 Edinburgh Festival when the Mariinsky did Act 3 alone in a concert performance. It was totally new to me and I remember finding it hair-raising. The opera is still a rarity, and this staging was mounted especially for the Prokofiev anniversary in 2014. We should be glad, because it’s in many ways an exceptional piece, and it’s definitely worth exploring.

The opera is so unusual on account of two things. The first is its story, which is grounded in the grimy politics of post-revolutionary Russia. It’s set in the early part of 1918, after the Bolshevik seizure of power but before the German defeat in the First World War. As part of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of March 1918, Russia temporarily ceded a huge chunk of land to Germany, and that included Ukraine, where the opera is set.

Semyon Kotko is a Ukrainian soldier who has come home from the First World War, but he finds himself a victim of the political situation. That allows Prokofiev to use the 1918 situation to dramatise elements of living in Russia under Stalin. (It was premiered in June 1940, before Russia entered the Second World War.) At times, to be sure, the work is blatant Communist propaganda. Tkachenko, the nasty father of Kotko’s beloved, is a kulak, one of the wealthy peasants who had been so persecuted under Stalin’s Terror. Klembovsky is an old aristocrat who takes revenge when the Communists confiscate his land, and there is even armed intervention from White (anti-Communist) forces who are defeated at the end. Patriotic choruses raise the roof pledging loyalty to the Motherland, something which at times is difficult to stomach for a sceptical modern audience.

The second unusual thing is linked to that: the story is all-important, so Prokofiev’s music is fast-moving and almost entirely eschews set-pieces. However, he also writes in his most accessible for-the-people style, so the opera is easy to follow and appealing to the ear. In fact, I found it gripping to watch. The electrifying climax is definitely the moment at the end of Act 3 when partisans set fire to Kotko’s village, but there is much more on offer and the combination of music and drama works very well.

You’re unlikely to see a performance of it any time soon and, so far as I can tell, this Mariinsky film is the only one available as a video. That makes it self-recommending, for all the fact that it has problems. Chief among these is the filming, which is very fussy. You never see the audience or orchestra, and we get the opening titles over the Act 1 prelude, as though to create the illusion that this is a specially created film (it isn’t). That’s worsened by the multiple bizarre close-ups that seem to come from nowhere, and I’m certain there is some CGI fire, added for the DVD only, during the Act 3 climax.

However, these are small things, and the overall impression is very good indeed. Viktor Lutsuk is an appealing, light-voiced Semyon, and Evgeny Nikitin sounds exciting as Remeniuk, leader of the local Soviet. Gennady Bezzubenkov is deliciously malevolent as the kulak, Tkachenko, and Tatiana Pavlovskaya is sweet-voiced and heroic as his daughter. Vavara Solovyova is sympathetic as Semyon’s sister, and Olga Sergeeva steals the show as she keens for he hanged lover at the end of Act 3.

There is surely no one alive who has played the score as much as the Mariinsky or conducted it as much as Gergiev. He knows what he’s doing, and you’re in the hands of the master. In fact, it’s Gergiev and the Mariinsky who provide the only serious competition for the work, but that’s on CD without the visual element. This DVD remains self-recommending, then; a must-have for someone interested in Soviet music, or keen to explore the lesser known corners of Prokofiev’s repertoire.

Incidentally, the package contains both a DVD and a BD of the performance, which is a nice bonus; though that’s offset by the booklet, which contains only a minimalist synopsis and cast biographies.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Richard Kraus


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