Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh
Svetlana Ignatovich (Fevroniya), Maxim Aksenov (Prince Vsevolod Yuryevich), John Daszak (Grishka Kuterma), Vladimir Vaneev (Prince Yuri Vsevolodovich), Ante Jerkunica (Bedyay), Vladimir Ognovenko (Burunday), Alexy Markov (Fyodor Poyarok), Jennifer Check (Sirin), Margarita Nekrasova (Alkonost), Mayram Sokolova (Page), Morschi Franz and Peter Arink (Two Noblemen), Gennady Bezzubenkov (Gusli Player), Hubert Francis (Bear Handler), Iurii Samoilov (Singing Beggar), Cato Fordham (Tenor solo), Ceroen van Glabbeek (Bass solo), Netherlands Concert Choir, Moudewijn Jansen (Chorus Master), Netherlands Opera Chorus, Martin Wright (Chorus Master), Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, Marc Albrecht (Conductor), Dmitri Tcherniakov (Set Designer and Director), Dmitri Tcherniakov, Elena Zaytseva (Costume Designer), Gleb Filshtinsky (Lighting Designer)
Recording: De Nederlandse Opera (February 8, 2012) – 207’ (including bonus material)
2 DVDs Opus Arte OA 1089 D (or Blu-ray OABD 7109 D) – Booklet in English, French and German – Subtitles in English, French, German, Dutch, Japanese and Korean (Distributed by Naxos of America)
Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev may have been the single most significant factor in influencing the musical genesis of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The mesmerizing Balakirev, alongside critic Vladimir Stasov, assembled a handful of Russian composers in the 1850s and 1860s known as “The Five.” This assemblage, including Cui, Borodin, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, propelled the notion of musical nationalism, broadening itself by incorporating traditional folk music and assimilating adventuresome classical techniques already initiated by Mikhail Glinka. Broad symphonic coloring and rich orchestration is evident in Rimsky-Korsakov’s works, even though the composer carved out his own niche in style and technique.
Rimsky-Korsakov produced a plenteous collection of operas with underpinning of Russian substance and insertions of the mystical and fantastic, and even religion despite himself being an atheist. Of all operas, Kitezh (for the sake of brevity), was Korsakov’s most challenging since Christian non-subtleties lay imbedded in pantheistic values, making it an extremely difficult work to interpret due to the juxtaposition between real and magical.
Controversial Dmitri Tcherniakov (who just last month made his Met debut in Borodin’s Prince Igor) adds confusion with murky delineations that are encapsulated with vulgarity in Acts II and III (and into Act IV, Scene I.) Teamed with Elena Zaytseva in costuming, the pleasant, pastoral setting of Act I helps magnify the broad lines and wonderful essence of Rimsky-Korsakov’s music. Dress is relatively up-to-date (Fevroniya and Vsevolod) yet the grandparents and young child (who are they?) look like they came from the mid-1800s. Perhaps it’s Tcherniakov’s vision to personify nature/Christianity in the most primordial way.
In stark contrast we find Lesser Kitezh townspeople (Act II) dressed in a mish-mash of outfits that turn back time to the 1950s (beehive hairdos), the 1970s, and a Gusli Player (Gennady Bezzubenkov) who looks like a pathetic Elton John donning a floppy fishing hat and tacky t-shirt. Drunkard, Grishka Kuterma, played by Ukrainian John Daszak (looking like “Mr. Clean”), does an excellent job in acting and bringing out the ‘Judas betrayal’ behind his character, but he blasphemes by flailing a cross, making profanely lewd suggestions. It hurts; it’s disgraceful. Yet Tcherniakov takes quite the pointed route. The invasion of the Tartars burst through floor-to-ceiling windows carrying machine guns, some wearing gas masks found from World War I. The bludgeoning of the clueless folk is sordid and unnerving. Two ring leaders of the Tartars are like polar opposites in cloth: Burunday (Vladimir Ognovenko) wears a tuxedo while the hairy, pot-bellied Bedyay (Ante Jerkunica) saunters about wearing (unbecomingly) a tank top with jeans.
Rimsky-Korsakov wrote melodic, liturgical notes during the opening of Act III. We are relieved with delightful continuity with women of Greater Kitezh bathed in Easter Blue dresses. What looks like a Chechnya fallout shelter, this female contingent slowly recedes to the back of the room and sits down in movie theater seats while their men leave to fight the Tartars. This is to be the ‘supposed’ invisible city (one needs a lot of imagination.) The Tartars once again invade the stage and act insanely. Tcherniakov goes to such indignations by having Fevroniya forced to perform sexual activities on Bedyay (Fevroniya is also repeatedly kicked in the stomach and groin in Act IV and severely slapped in the face by Burunday as he drinks Jack Daniels); there’s a naked man standing completely immobilized surrounded by the pillage and ransacking, a man wearing a hockey mask, another draped in a Houston Oiler t-shirt...ah, yes...Regietheater at its best.
Once Grishka runs away in the woods early in Act IV, the remainder of the opera gives the viewer a chance to breathe and regress. Jennifer Cheek, as the bird Sirin, has the most powerful, pointed voice. This gives the ensemble positive strength and lays great foundation for the other singers. Fellow bird-mate, Alkonost, sung by Margarita Nekrasova, supplements nicely with Cheek. Mayram Sokolova delves into her character wholeheartedly with a smooth and polished tone while her acting is quite effectual.
So what is great about this Kitezh? Most likely it is the voice of Svetlana Ignatovich: she has a lustrous sheen as a soprano; she expresses her Fevroniya with understated nuances; she is delicate and demure. One can’t help but have the utmost admiration and pathos for her character but also for her career as a singer. Ignatovich is what holds us together through the tumultuous channels of Kitezh.
Aside from being aligned with Wagner and termed as “The Russian Parsifal”, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kitezh has flavorings of Boris Godunov (i.e. the tolling bells) along with use of the organ that bring with it whiffs of Saint-Saëns’ Symphony N° 3 in C minor “Organ”. Heavily guided by librettist Belsky, Kitezh has longueurs, passages of dramatic tension and angst along with character dialogues retaining arioso lines rather than a more delineated recitative construct.
In the bonus supplement, the interviewer posed the question, “Is it love or war...?” when it comes to collaborative efforts of conductor, director and chorus master. A Russian-born director with a predominant cast of the same country, combined with chorus members who hail from The Netherlands and a German conductor, is bound to create tensions. This Rimsky-Korsakov opera must not have been an easy task to execute.