Enter the magical world of Rimsky-Korsakov opera with five celebrated recordings made by the Kirov Opera under Valery Gergiev: Kashchey the Immortal, Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, The Maid of Pskov, Sadko, and The Tsar's Bride.
R E V I E W S:
Kashchey the Immortal
Rimsky-Korsakov's 'autumnal parable' is a strange and fascinating work. Cast in one act (three linked scenes), it tells of the evil sorcerer Kashchey who has imprisoned the Princess, eventually rescued by her lover Prince Ivan; the secret of Kashchey's immortality is discovered to lie held in the frozen tears of his daughter Kashcheyevna, and these flow when her failure to seduce the Prince touches the heart of the Princess, who embraces her. Human warmth can destroy even the fiercest sorcery.
There was clearly an opportunity here for a contrast which had served Russian composers, including Rimsky-Korsakov himself, ever since Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila, that of the weirdly sinister and chromatic versus the comfortingly human diatonic. By 1902, the pattern might have come to seem a little threadbare, were it not for the fact that Rimsky-Korsakov had been impressed by what some aspects of Wagner's harmony might hold for him. The outcome was his own most advanced harmony, astonishing and terrifying in the portrayal of Kashchey, a powerful role which is here sung with magnificent villainy by Konstantin Pluzhnikov: this is a real tour de force. The human diatonics cannot help but be weaker, though Larissa Diadkova manages very affectingly the Kundry-like transition from seductress to suppliant under the Princess's compassionate embrace: she has considerably the more interesting part, and makes more of it than does Marina Shaguch of hers. Alexander Gergalov, too, is at his best in the seduction duet with Kashcheyevna. Perversely, the opera was a success in the 1905 uprising as a metaphor of humanity overcoming frigid authority, and retained some of that popularity in Communist times. We are not likely to see it in Western repertories; Gergiev's splendid version is well worth hearing.
-- John Warrack, Gramophone [12/1999]
Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh
Considered by many to be Rimsky-Korsakov's greatest opera, recordings and performances of The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya (as the full title goes) have been virtually non-existent, even from Russia. Tradition assigns the blame for this to the libretto (big surprise), which is a conflation of two separate mythological stories, but this is nonsense. Frankly, if I read one more liner note that talks about the composer's dissatisfaction with his librettist, the screaming you hear isn't going to be that of the singers. What matters is that Rimsky-Korsakov set the words as they stand, so it was good enough for him. More to the point, the opera contains, in the portrait of the drunken loser and "bad guy" Grishka Kuter'ma, the most fascinating character sketch in all of his operas, not to mention literally acres of music that is simply drop-dead gorgeous by any standard.
Rimsky-Korsakov's conception of opera was a personal one, owing little to the late-Romantic concern for character development and psychological insight. In fact, it most closely resembles Rossini, whose characters are almost mechanical in that they function as cogs in the great plot machine, seldom changing or developing but rather representing a consistent point of view or theme. While unfashionable as a dramaturgical theory today, there's absolutely nothing wrong with this conception as a valid starting point for an evening at the theater. Rimsky's operas are full of attractive arias, ensembles, and choruses. Even at their most static, they are so marvelously orchestrated and saturated with attractive music that their neglect in the West (to say nothing of Russia) is simply incomprehensible.
The plot of this particular opera, Rimsky's second-to-last, is complex in detail but simple in essence. The maiden Fevroniya is the very soul of goodness. She meets and falls in love with Prince Vsevolod, and the two agree to marry (Act One). The Prince is the defender of Kitezh, and the great noble families, distressed that their prince will marry a commoner, hire Girshka to destroy her reputation (Act Two). In the meantime, Fevroniya gets kidnapped by Tartars planning to invade Kitezh; the prince is killed in battle, and Grishka claims that Fevroniya is leading the invaders to the capital city, which God has thoughtfully rendered invisible at the request of the terrified populace (Act Three). As the invaders approach, the city of Kitezh reappears long enough to scare them away, and Fevroniya rejoins her prince inside the gates: he and all of the vanquished have been granted eternal life within. Grishka, naturally, is denied entry, but Fevroniya sends him a letter of forgiveness as the city once again disappears (Act Four). It may sound implausible, but it's a myth, after all, and as always in cases such as this, great music (and make no mistake, this is very great music) brings the whole thing magnificently to life.
Valery Gergiev's ongoing Rimsky-Korsakov series is simply the most important thing happening in the world of opera today, promising revelations on a par with Philips' previous explorations of Haydn and early Verdi, or Decca's fabled Janácek cycle. He has assembled an outstanding cast, headed by Galina Gorchakova's sweet and sensible Fevroniya as well as Vladimir Galuzin's superbly tormented Grishka. Taken from live performances, but with minimal audience and stage noise, the performance starts well, but then really catches fire in the last two acts, which also contain the most luminous music. The recording has the feel of a major "event," which is exactly as it should be. We can only hope that Universal isn't in such poor shape that it can't continue with this tremendous series. After all, we still need great recordings of works such as The Snow Maiden, Christmas Eve, May Night, Tsar Sultan, and Rimsky's very last opera, The Golden Cockerel. It's a legacy very much worth getting to know.
--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
Maid of Pskov
The received view of Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas is that they are essentially for Russian consumption only, placed beyond the scope of a wider audience by complex questions of language, legend and arcane tradition. However, [this recording] underline[s] the fact that, on a musical level and in terms of dramatic impact, Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas reach beyond national boundaries, whether performed in Russian (as here) or not. On a purely geographical point, there is no reason why we should need a detailed knowledge of north-western Russia simply because the maid happens to come from Pskov, any more than we need a gazetteer of Spain to prepare for Il barbiere di Siviglia or, indeed, one of Merseyside for Emilia di Liverpool.
The themes on which Rimsky-Korsakov touches in his stage works – love, loyalty, remorse, death and so on – are scarcely peculiar to Russia, but his art was to place them musically in an unmistakably Russian context and to create in his operas a rich tapestry of national colouring. That he devised diverse ways of doing so is demonstrated in these four scores spanning, as chance would have it, almost the whole of his creative life. The Maid of Pskov, Rimsky’s remarkable and dramatically astute first opera, has points of contact with Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. This is no mere accident, for both composers, sharing common creative ideals, were writing their operas at the same time, in the same flat and at the same desk. Both operas have a vivid backdrop of Russian history; each centres on a Russian Tsar, Boris in the Mussorgsky, Ivan the Terrible in the Rimsky. Neither Boris Godunov nor Ivan the Terrible had an exactly unblemished record in human rights, but both operas incorporate revelatory passages of soul-searching, which hint at a more humane side to their characters and at the same time establish in the operas’ developing plots a crucial moment of reflection.
In The Maid of Pskov, Ivan, although his first appearance in Act II triggers understandable apprehension, is dissuaded from ravaging rebellious Pskov when he realises that Princess Olga (the maid of the title and ward of the ruling Prince Yuri Tokmakov) is his own daughter from an earlier dalliance with one Vera Sheloga. At this juncture, The Noblewoman Vera Sheloga comes into play. Ever the self-critic, Rimsky-Korsakov made no fewer than three versions of The Maid of Pskov. The second one is preceded by a prologue, explaining how Olga came to be born. In the definitive, third edition (recorded here) Rimsky lets the information slip in gossip and overheard conversation: this is a much more subtle manoeuvre, posing, from the point of view of comprehension, no more problems than we have, say, in Il trovatore. The explanatory prologue was shorn off and made into the separate one-acter The Noblewoman Vera Sheloga. Rimsky-Korsakov, like Mussorgsky in Boris Godunov, aimed to reflect in the music of The Maid of Pskov the natural contours and inflections of speech, its varieties of pace and, in a notable example in Act I, the cross-cutting and confusion of argument.
-- BBC Music Magazine
How does the Kirov keep producing singers of such astonishing quality? Though none who appears here has yet established the international reputation achieved by the likes of Hvorostovsky, Leiferkus, Borodina, Prokina or Gorchakova, it can only be a matter of time. This performance of Rimsky’s fantastical opera-bïlina (a heroic ballad) – the story of a minstrel and his love for the daughter of the King of the Sea, set mostly underwater – is outstandingly well played and sung. Gergiev conjures a magical and magnificent sound from the Kirov orchestra, and the singers are, without exception, first rate. The tenor Vladimir Galusin is heroic in the title role, striking and powerful, and Valentina Tsidipova’s honey-voiced soprano, with its gloriously fluid line, makes a ravishing Volkhova. That artistes of the calibre of Larissa Diadkova (Nezhata), Bulat Minjelkiev, Gegam Grigorian (Lensky in last year’s Royal Opera House Onegin) and Alexander Gergalov (the merchants) have such small parts is evidence of the standard of casting. Rimsky’s sublimely lush music may verge on schmaltz – its influence on Hollywood film scores is striking; it’s no surprise that the Indian merchant’s aria is better known in the West as the Tommy Dorsey tune ‘Song of India’ – but its capacity to convey water and the movement of the ocean is both atmospheric and dazzling. Live recordings (this was made at the Maryinsky last year) can be blighted by noise – here there are obtrusive thuds on stage, scattered snatches of applause, and the orchestra can be heard tuning up before several scenes, but these are merely minor irritants.
-- Claire Wrathall, BBC Music
The Tsar's Bride is a venerable staple in Russian opera houses, yet the work hasn't exported well. Perhaps the reason lies with its convoluted plot, which in turn is thickened by a wordy, sometimes static libretto. A succession of set pieces governs the musical structure, at the risk of dramatic diversion. There's plenty of musical variety, though, served up in brilliant, colorful instrumental garb, as one would expect from a nonpareil orchestrator like Rimsky-Korsakov. Gryaznoy, the opera's villainous protagonist, bears the brunt of the opera's narrative weight, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky's multi-dimensional portrayal abounds in sonorous felicities. Olga Borodina brings equal proportions of defiance and delicacy to the role of Lyubasha, Gryaznoy's lover. Her nemesis Marfa gets a rather unyielding, but intense performance from Marina Shaguch, and the suave Evgeny Akimov stands out as Marfa's paramour Lykov. Valery Gergiev has this score in his bones, and communicates its musical and dramatic potency to the hilt through the good graces of his responsive Kirov musicians. All told, this is one of the finest releases in Gergiev's important Russian opera survey. Full texts and translations are included.
--Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com