TCHAIKOVSKY The Enchantress • Gennady Provatorov, cond.; Rimma Glushkova (Kuma); Liudmila Simonova (Princess Evpraksia Romanovna); Lev Kuznetsov (Prince Yury Nikitich); Oleg Klenov (Prince Nikita Danilich Kurliatev); Evgeny Vladimirov (Mamyrov); All-Union RTV Academic Ch and SO Read more • MELODIYA 101811 (3 CDs: 181:09)
TCHAIKOVSKY The Enchantress • Pavel Reznikov, cond.; Larissa Zyrianova (Kuma); Liudmila Korzhakova (Princess Evpraksia Romanovna); Vadim Valiuta (Prince Yury Nikitich); Vladimir Stepanov (Prince Nikita Danilich Kurliatev); Aleksandr Pravilov (Mamyrov); Nizhny Novgorod St Academic Th of Opera and Ballet • VAI 4528 (DVD: 157:00) Live: Moscow 1984
Although a mature work, immediately preceding The Queen of Spades in the composer’s operatic output, The Enchantress remains one of Tchaikovsky’s least-known operas. To my knowledge there has been only one recording prior to the two listed above, a 1950s Melodiya effort under the leadership of Samuil Samosud (reissued on CD by Preiser and later by Naxos). The opera was unsuccessful at its 1887 premiere, and an 1890 revival was no more auspicious. Since then revivals in Russia have been rare, although St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre did perform the work in 2003. Conrad L. Osborne, a critic not easy to please, had favorable things to say about The Enchantress in his survey of Russian opera for High Fidelity magazine in the 1970s, but most other commentators have been dismissive, acknowledging some high points but not agreeing where in the score these high points occur. Many have faulted the libretto, drawn by Ippolit Shpazhinsky from his own stage drama, but the composer professed himself “delighted” with it. In the Soviet era the libretto was revised by Sergei Gorodetsky (the same one who bowdlerized Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar, eliminating all references to the Tsar). Richard Taruskin has written that the existing recordings (by which I presume he means that of Samosud and the one listed above led by Gennady Provatorov) “conflate” the versions of Shpazhinsky and Gorodetsky, but since none of the recordings provide a printed text, it is difficult to determine whose words are being performed.
The Russian title Charodeika is sometimes rendered in English as The Sorceress, but Enchantress is more accurate, since the title character is not a purveyor of magic spells but rather a woman of such extraordinary beauty and charm that she enraptures almost all males who come in contact with her. In a letter, Tchaikovsky revealed that he was drawn to this theme by a desire to “illustrate in music” the famous concluding lines of Goethe’s Faust: “the Eternal Feminine draws us onward.” This might seem an odd preoccupation for the composer, given his well-known sexual proclivities, but sympathetic portrayals of women abound in his other operas as well. The Enchantress is set in the late 15th century in and around Nizhny Novgorod, a city about 250 miles east of Moscow at the confluence of the Oka and Volga rivers. The young widow Nastasia, known in the opera by the nickname Kuma (literally “Godmother,” but sometimes used as a term of endearment), operates an inn that is a popular gathering place for drinking, dancing, and other revelry. The merrymaking there is interrupted by the arrival of Prince Nikita, the regional viceroy, along with his court official Mamyrov (incorrectly identified as a “deacon” in both recordings under review), to investigate reports of immoral and subversive behavior. The Prince is so charmed by the beautiful Kuma that he abandons his intention to shut down the inn and turns aside the implacable Mamyrov’s urgings to do so. Taking revenge on Mamyrov, Kuma persuades the Prince to order him to join in the dancing, over his bitter protests. This confrontation reflects an ongoing cultural conflict in medieval Russia, where the church and secular authorities sought to suppress various forms of popular entertainment, viewing them as pagan survivals.
Mamyrov retaliates by informing Princess Evpraksia, the Prince’s wife, of his infatuation with Kuma. In a monologue, the Prince reveals his inner conflicts: He recognizes the harm he is doing to his wife and family, but “the image of that beauty is always before me.” When the Princess confronts him over his infidelity, he is unyielding and threatens to exile her to a convent. Distraught, she persuades their son Yury to kill Kuma and thereby avenge the family honor. While the father is hated by the populace for his brutal and extortionate rule, Yury is regarded as a benevolent figure, and Kuma has been secretly in love with him. When Prince Nikita visits Kuma and attempts to force himself on her, she draws a knife and threatens to stab herself rather than submit, and he leaves in a rage. Soon Yury arrives, but he too succumbs to her charms, abandons his homicidal intentions, and after she declares her love for him makes plans to elope with her. As they are about to escape on a riverboat, the Princess approaches Kuma in disguise and induces her to drink poison. After she dies in her lover’s arms, Prince Nikita arrives with a hunting party, and in a violent argument over Kuma’s death stabs his son fatally. In horror at his deed, he loses his mind and rages insanely as the opera ends, accompanied by some of the most frenzied and violent music Tchaikovsky ever wrote.
My view is that this opera, although admittedly not one of the composer’s best, has a lot more merit than its detractors have allowed. I am immediately won over by the haunting prelude, in which the gentle, plaintive melody of Kuma’s first-act aria frames more agitated and ominous music reminiscent of several better-known Tchaikovsky works. I find the score melodious, vivid, and involving, with resourceful use of chorus and orchestra. The musical setting of each scene is effective and sustains interest. If the libretto is no masterpiece, it does provide ample opportunity for dramatic confrontations, the expression of deep emotion, and colorful scene-painting, all elements in which the composer excelled. I am at a loss to understand how this work could be rejected by those who appreciate Tchaikovsky’s operatic idiom.
The Provatorov recording is not new, but to my knowledge it has never before circulated outside of Russia. The notes do not provide a recording date, but the names of the orchestra and chorus clearly identify this release as a product of the Soviet era. I believe that it dates from around 1980, at which time Melodiya was preparing a complete recorded edition of the composer’s works and for that purpose undertook new recordings of several of his lesser-known operas. The recorded sound is not immune to the high-frequency glare characteristic of Melodiya productions but is superior to the older Samosud version in clarity and frequency range, to the benefit of orchestral and choral detail. The conductor’s leadership is crisp and urgent, while chorus and orchestra are spirited and proficient. The cast does not include any singers who acquired major reputations outside of Russia but is nonetheless a strong one, without any major weaknesses, and overall is equal to that on the older recording. In the soprano role of Kuma, Natalia Sokolova, on the Samosud recording, has the lighter voice and the more youthful sound. Her counterpart, Rimma Glushkova, has a steadier, purer tone. As Yury, Samosud has the renowned lyric tenor Georgi Nelepp. Lev Kuznetsov, on the Provatorov recording, is a genuine dramatic tenor and endows the role with a larger scale and more heroic profile. Provatorov’s bass, Evgeny Vladimirov, projects Mamyrov’s implacable malevolence more forcefully, while Samosud has a nastier Prince Nikita in baritone Mikhail Kiselev. In the older recording, if the Prince and Mamyrov are present in the same scene, it is sometimes difficult to tell them apart. Oleg Klenov, the Prince on Provatorov’s recording, would probably make a good Onegin. His smoother delivery benefits the more lyrical sections of the role and renders the character a bit less repugnant. As the Princess, Samosud’s mezzo, Veronika Borisenko, seems the more secure and focused. The numerous smaller roles are capably handled in both recordings.
The VAI DVD documents a 1984 Moscow performance by a company from the very town where the action takes place. The staging is predictably old-fashioned, but without the opulence we would expect from more prestigious Russian opera houses. Costumes are traditional Russian, with no “updating.” Sets are modest but effective and realistically depict the sites where the action is supposed to occur: in the first act, the yard in front of Kuma’s inn, with the broad expanse of the Oka and the walled town in the distance; in the second, the courtyard of the Prince’s residence in the shadow of the town walls; in the third, the interior of the inn; and in the final act, a wooded area near the river’s edge. If the performance ranks well below either of the Melodiya recordings in musical quality, the results are far from unlistenable. The strongest cast members are the Prince and Princess, but Kuma and Yury gain in security and effectiveness as the performance progresses. The acting is mostly of the stand-and-sing variety, but I prefer this to the annoying hyperactivity that disfigures some current opera stagings. The mono sound is rather shrill at the top end and tubby below. The performance also cuts about 20 minutes of music by comparison with Provatorov’s recording. Whatever its shortcomings, this DVD probably represents the only opportunity most people will ever have to see this opera.
Lovers of the operatic Tchaikovsky should investigate this neglected work. Overall, the Provatorov recording offers the most satisfactory listening experience. In the absence of a libretto, the VAI DVD is a useful supplement, especially for listeners who do not understand Russian, as it enables one to follow the action in detail. Both these recordings, as well as the Samosud, will remain in my collection.
The sorceressby Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky Performer:
Oleg Klenov (Baritone),
Rimma Glushkova (Soprano),
Evgeny Vladimirov (Bass),
Lev Kuznetsov (Tenor),
Ludmilla Simonova (Mezzo Soprano)
Period: Romantic Written: 1885-1887; Russia
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Wonderful OperaJanuary 3, 2014By Jan Venter (Johannesburg, gauteng)See All My Reviews"It always surprises me when critics have so much to rant on about...I have this recording on the original Melodiya records..Im listening to them right now and what a pleasure on 3rd January 2014...the recording was released in 1977 and not in the 80's. My impression is one of passion and melody ...the drama is exciting. After all do we all understand Russian? So who cares what the drama is about in Russian when we have the story in English as long as we know what is going on...and the music is delicious...which it is....My sound on the vinyl is bright and clear with typical rich orchestral playing of the period...If I could afford the CD's I would purchase them.As a South African our Rand /Dollar is a nightmare at the exchange rate...happy listening and enjoy a masterpiece in my opinion...Gennady Provatorov is a great conductor and so is the cast....And I do have a libretto...Yay!!"Report Abuse