Hurry, hurry, hurry! There are only five performances of this magnificent production, a cooperative venture of the Liceu, the Nederlandse Opera and the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, and bravo to all of them. Luckily the dates are spread over a period of two weeks, with the opening this past Sunday, 13, and repeats on the 16, 22, 26 and 30 April. Whether the small number of performances reflects nervousness on the part of the Liceu, or unavailability of performers, I don’t know, but it certainly deserves as much attention as “Tosca” which ran for 15 performances, all excellent, but less venturesome.
The Liceu is normally much braver, but the current financial crisis obviously scares us all. Nonetheless, in 1926, when this work, Rimski-Korsakov’s “The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh” made its debut at the Liceu, it was such a roaring success that, until the Civil War, it was included time and again in subsequent seasons. So maybe the Liceu should have trusted to the cultural memory of its audience, whose grandparents and great-grandparents were bowled over by this work, and given it a longer run.
Meanwhile, if you are reading this, stop, and run out to get a ticket. Last night’s audience was pretty full, but there were some seats available, and are likely to be more further on in the run.
It is indicative of the complexity of Russian self-perception, that in the prime years of Soviet communism, a deeply religious work such as this, which paints the Christians as saintly and the Tartars (read non-believers, revolutionaries) as barbarians, should have been considered such an important national identifier, proudly exported as representative of Russian culture. Unlike the Nazis, they did not burn their literary heritage, even though they made it difficult for dissident voices to publish modern works and, depending on the mood of the Great Leader, punished modern composers who strayed from the prescribed formulae.
“The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia” is based on Russian folklore but is also a statement by the composer regarding his concerns about the brewing revolutionary movement in his country. Like Wagner’s “Parsifal,” to which it has frequently been compared, it is long and full of religious fervor, although Rimski-Korsakov is not as one-sided as Wagner. A committed nationalist in his youth, he opened his mind to Western influences after he became a university professor, and he found himself torn when it came to the status quo and student rebellion (as a result of which he lost his teaching position).
The complexity of his own thoughts and ideals makes the opera much livelier than “Parsifal” and the personalities are more approachable. The sweetness of Fevronia, living in her simple forest cabin, communing with the animals (who were delightfully acted), warms the story and draws the audience in. The role was sung exquisitely by Svetlana Ignatovich, charming in the role of a simple girl desperately trying to maintain her humanity throughout the ordeals she faces. In classic fairy-story style, she meets her prince, who stumbles into her garden, wounded in a hunting accident, and they fall head over heels in love. That is the happy point of the story, at least until the fantasy ending. Then come the invading Tartars, merciless in their brutality, who butcher the inhabitants of Kitezh, but fail to conquer the town, which is, by magic, rendered invisible.
There is a sort-of happy ending, when the lovers, by now both dead, are reunited in eternal life, get married and are obviously going to be very happy forever after. Yeah, well………
One of the great achievements of Russian operatic training seems to be that it produces singers with the ability to create seamless ensembles. This was very evident in Kitezh, where all of the lead singers were excellent, but none overpowered the other. This was, it must be admitted, true for the non-Russians, as well. It was a delight to hear Eric Halfvarson in the role of the young prince’s father. His sonorous voice was as spellbinding as ever (and it was rather a treat to hear it in something other than Don Carlos’ Grand Inquisitor). The audience applause when bows were taken, was extended and well-deserved.
Another exceptionally attractive singer was Maria Gortsevskaya, oddly described in the program as an adolescent page, but who seemed all woman, with a small son. Quibbles aside, however, she was lovely to listen to.
But in truth, all of the lead singers were excellent. Dmitry Golovnin as the pathetically evil Grishka, both sang and acted superbly, and the smaller roles, the young prince, sung by Maxim Aksenov, the patriot Fiodor Poydrok, sung by Dimitris Tiliakos and the Tartar leaders, sung by Alexander Tsymbalyuk and Vladimir Ognovenko, were of an equally high standard.
The Liceu orchestra, conducted by Josep Pons, more than rose to the occasion. They provided a brilliant accompaniment to an exceptional evening.
The work was very long, and I found myself thinking that, like writers, even the best composers could do with editors. But then again, the music was so lovely and seemed so necessary, that I wonder where an editor could have started. Certainly the final act runs longer than it should, but all of it was so beautiful that I wouldn’t know where to begin cutting.
The stage direction, one could almost call it choreography, was as close to perfect as I have seen. A massive chorus was carved into a composite of distinct individuals, and each move could be justified. Bravo. I feel less sure about the scenery. The beginning and the end, in the simple forest scenes, were precisely what they should be. But the middle, the odd interpretation of the urban scenes, strained the imagination. The setting in the town square was unattractive and unconvincing: a banal space enclosed by the sort of characterless 1960’s architecture that has damaged so many cities, with the population singing its heart out at aluminum café tables. The Tartars swarmed in like a bunch of hoodlums, in the most bizarre outfits, ranging from bow-tie to Santa Claus, bashing the coffee drinkers on the head in this version of battle and massacre. It did not work for me. I continue, apparently in vain, to plead for less ego in stage design and more attention to the needs of the story. We don’t need to be impressed with ingenuity simply for the sake of it.
That said, it was a magnificent evening and I would happily sit through the whole thing again.
Up next, starting on May 19, is “Walkyre.” I can’t wait.