Notes and Editorial Reviews
The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronya
Vitaly Panfilov (
); Tatiana Monogarova (
); Mikhail Gubsky (
); Mikhail Kazakov (
); Gevorg Hakobyan (
); Marika Gulordava (
); Valery Gilmanov (
); Alexander Naumenko (
); Alexander Vedernikov, cond; Cagliari Th O & Ch
NAXOS 2.110277/78 (2 DVDs: 187:28) Live: Cagliari 5/2–4/2008
I wanted to see this video because, for many years, I’ve heard exorbitant praise from certain critics regarding
, yet in listening to the commercial recording conducted by Valery Gergiev I felt let down. The music seemed to me flat and characterless, lacking drama, development, and momentum. Surely, I said to myself, a good stage production would change my mind, as it did with Mussorgsky’s
Yet opinions on
The Invisible City of Kitezh
(to abbreviate its title) are divided. Although many critics wax ecstatic over Rimsky-Korsakov’s magnificent
for this work, few outside Russia are very impressed by the opera as a whole. It is an overlong, derivative grand opera in which two old tales of magic were welded together by librettist Vladimir Belsky, and finally presented intact in 1908. Even the first Russian audiences didn’t care much for it, finding it very old-fashioned in concept and musical style as well as overly rambling, though it is still periodically revived, mostly within Russia.
This production gives us a rare glimpse of the opera as performed in Italy. The audience reaction is not enthusiastic; on the contrary, when the applause comes at the ends of acts, it sounds like perhaps 80 to 100 people half-heartedly clapping.
One glance at the production tells you why. Although it is not
—the characters are, thankfully, clad in traditional-looking costumes—Eimuntas Nekro?ius’s idiotic staging has too much symbolism and too little that resembles reality. The first act, set in the “woods,” presents a stage littered with “wooden” structures, bird houses and the like. Get it? Woods. The presentation of Little Kitezh, where the maiden Fevronya is to marry Prince Vsevolod, is cluttered with giant, tinfoil-covered bell-like objects with people popping out of their tops. Get it? Bells. This kind of idiocy continues throughout a production of a work in which the music itself is also static and rarely wedded to the text. In act IV, scene 1, where Fevronya and Grishka are supposed to be wandering in the woods, what you see is a plain blue-tiled floor with two Erector-set structures in the background. Apparently, Nekro?ius ran out of birdhouses, but not to despair! When Grishka runs off into the woods and Fevronya is left alone, two giant, hideous bird creatures sneak out of the woods and behind her as she sleeps. Perhaps Nekro?ius has seen too many of the
movies. In the final scene, supposed to represent Kitezh triumphant, the stage is filled with objects that look like rocket silos.
Musically, many passages sound like leavings from
and not good leavings at that, so even when the singers are excellent the plot crawls along. It is an opera more about characters who stand there and sing than about characters creating a musical drama. Compare, for instance, the first act to the similar situation in Verdi’s
A prince meets a beautiful woman in the woods, and they fall in love. Verdi miraculously manages to wed lovely music, some of it even memorable, to a flexible musical structure in which the orchestra comments on or moves the action. Rimsky-Korsakov creates a static structure wedded to pretty but undistinguished melodies that just toodle along, and do so for half an hour.
Moreover, the plot is remarkably dismal and depressing for a magic or fairy-tale opera. Everyone sings about death even
the Tartars invade Russia, and several characters die except Fevronya and the seedy drunkard Grishka Kuterma, who becomes a traitor, willing to turn Kitezh over to invading Tartars
finger Fevronya as the snitch just to save his own worthless hide. Prince Vsevolod goes off to battle for Kitezh, not to win it but to die in it. (I’m guessing he flunked military school.) He does so, but returns in the second half of act IV as a ghost, and at the end of the opera Fevronya marries the ghost. And you talk about overlong … each of the first two acts runs over a half hour, but each of the
two acts runs more than an hour apiece.
Getting to the performance, Tatiana Monogarova is simply magnificent as Fevronya, not only vocally but histrionically, which is important because this is a rare Russian opera in that the soprano dominates everything. Here is a woman who fully understands how to inhabit a role. You come to believe wholeheartedly in her character within the first five minutes she is onstage, and she holds you in her thrall to the end. As for her voice, it is a remarkably rich lyric soprano, close to spinto in power, exactly the kind of voice Rimsky wanted for this part. Her midrange, in fact, reminds me strongly of Mirella Freni at her best, only with more power. The top range is not as lovely as Freni’s, but it has its own interesting luster and more metal. Monogarova made her American debut as Lisa in
in Houston in 2010, and also began singing Cio-Cio-San around the same time in Europe. She is signed with IMG, and I really do wish her well in what I hope will be a major career.
Vitaly Panfilov, as Prince Vsevolod, is neither an interesting actor nor a particularly fine singer. The voice is fluttery, dry, and percussive. He sings on pitch and phrases well, but that is all one can say of him. His stage presence registers somewhere between nil and mediocre. On the other hand, Mikhail Gubsky as the nefarious Grishka Kuterma is a superb stage actor, though his voice is strictly that of a good comprimario. Nevertheless, the world needs good comprimarios, and he is certainly one of them. His pathetic wheedling is completely believable.
A word of praise is also due Marika Gulordava in the somewhat thankless role of the Page. The Page is analogous to Cassandra in
or the Simpleton in
someone who warns of danger to come. Though her role is important it is not as long as either of the other two, yet Gulordava is simply stunning in her one big scene. Her voice is not as beautiful as Monogarova’s, but it has a laser-beam focus with a bright, perhaps over-brilliant top. As a musician and singing actress she is first-rate. I also hope for her to have a good career. Mikhail Kazakov, singing the role of Vesvolod’s father, Prince Yury, has a nice voice but an uneven flutter and a constricted low range, a real detriment for a Russian bass.
Alexander Vedernikov is a fine conductor who obviously loves and understands this music. He brings out all of the wonderful orchestral subtleties of the score and moves the opera about as well as can be expected under the circumstances. Indeed, his conducting here is finer for this particular work than Gergiev’s.
My copy of the DVD may have been defective, but all through the first two acts the video is out of synch with the audio, as if one were watching something in which the video was on a two-second tape delay. On the second DVD, most of it is in synch, yet there are still strange moments when the picture freezes for a couple of seconds, only to jump ahead and eventually catch up with the audio.
Thus there are good and bad points to be taken into consideration in approaching both the work and the performance, but if you are fond of
I would recommend this for the excellent acting of a handful of participants and the excellent singing of the two sopranos.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
THE LEGEND OF THE INVISIBLE CITY OF KITEZH AND THE MAIDEN FEVRONYA
Opera in 4 Acts. Sung in Russian
Libretto by Vladimir I. Belsky
Prince Yuri Vsevolodovich – Mikhail Kazakov
Hereditary prince Vsevolod Yuryevich – Vitaly Panfilov
Fevronya – Tatiana Monogarova
Grishka Kuterma – Mikhail Gubsky
Fyodor Poyarok – Gevorg Hakobyan
Page – Marika Gulordava
Two notables – Gianluca Floris, Marek Kalbus
Bedyay – Valery Gilmanov
Burunday – Alexander Naumenko
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Lirico di Cagliari
(chorus master: Fulvio Fogliazza)
Alexander Vedernikov, conductor
Eimuntas Nekrošius, stage director
Marius Nekrošius, set designer
Nadezhda Gultiayeva, costume designer
Audrius Jankauskas, lighting designer
Recorded live from the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, Sardinia, 2 and 4 May 2008
Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Sound format: PCM Stereo / Dolby Digital 5.0 / DTS 5.0
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Running time: 187 mins
No. of DVDs: 2 (DVD 5 + DVD 9)