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Exploring mysteries of the Russian soul: Rimsky-Korsakov Festival at the Mariinsky Theatre

May 2, 2019

Photo: Valentin Baranovsky, ©️ Mariinsky Theatre

 

A grandiose celebration of the 175th Jubilee since Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov birth was held at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg in March-April 2019. With St Petersburg Conservatory (which is just across the road from Mariinsky) bearing the name of Rimsky-Korsakov, and the man himself having spent his life in the city composing, teaching and forming what would be later regarded by the West as Russian school of composition and orchestration, St Petersburg is the perfect place for such a Festival. And in fact, Mariinsky did not have to rush with any new premieres, as all Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas have been in its repertoire (with different premiere days) during the last decade. It was more a matter of organizing the events which included operas, ballets, concerts, talks in a tight schedule and spreading them through three Mariinsky Theatre’s venues: the Old Mariinsky, the New Mariinsky, and Mariinsky Concert Hall. The programme allowed audiences to get the unprecedented insight into all creations of the composer. They ranged from his orchestral compositions, such as the famous Schererazade (heard in Valery Fokin’s ballet programme) to virtually all operas including The Tale of Tsar Saltan, May Night, Christmas Eve, Mlada, Sadko and the Snow Maiden on main opera stages and rarely performed Mozart and Salieri, Servilia and Kashchey the Immortal in unstaged or semi-staged versions in Mariinsky Concert Hall. It was as much an educational as an artistic project for Mariinsky, as various lectures and the exhibition of historic posters, programmes and opera costumes at the New Mariinsky proved. The best soloists of Mariinsky were summonned to appear in the scheduled operas, and the Music Director of the Mariinsky, Valery Gergiev, found time in his busy schedule to conduct some of the operas, including the Roman-themed Servilia on April 3.

 

 Photo: Natasha Razina, ©️ Mariinsky Theatre

 

Four operas attended during this outstanding Festival allow to make an overview of Mariinsky’s approaches to Rimsky-Korsakov’s legacy, which is of course not a system dividing operas to certain categories, but an attempt to see which sides of the original librettos and operatic creations are emphasized or reworked in modern productions. One important feature of the productions presented at the Festival is that they were trying to engage with the 20th century history of staged Rimsky-Korsakov operas and were using visual quotations both from early 20th century designs and from later mid-20th century Soviet productions at Mariinsky. Here different versions of interplay with Russian opera traditions and Russian history were presented. Some productions, however, made a bold step out of keeping within the relatively conservative approach to Rimsky-Korsakov operas and chose to transfer it to modernity tinged with satire, echos of pseudo-popular print and humorous clichés (lubok), trying to engage with modern realities of patriarchial power in Russia. There is no denial that there are many deeply rooted visions and presumptions about the role of a woman in the society, or the role of a tsar (a fatherly God-figure) or about Russian conservative family and moral values in the material Rimsky-Korsakov chose for his operas, so it is interesting to trace how directors of different operas treated them in their interpretations.

 

Photo: Valentin Baranovsky,©️ Mariinsky Theatre

 

The Maid of Pskov (1873) was performed in Mariinsky Theatre on 15 April 2019 and has been in the repertoire since 25 April 2008. It was preceded by a new premiere (March 2019) additon – a prologue ‘The Noblewoman Vera Sheloga’ which Rimsky-Korsakov originally wrote sepately and then, almost as an afterthought, allowed to be added as a prologue to his ‘Maid of Pskov’. The opera and prologue, directed by Yuri Laptev, used the original designs and costumes by Fyodor Fyodorovsky from the 1952 productions. Thus, the opera positioned as a revival, with Vyacheslav Okunev being the revival set designer and Tatiana Novikova the revival costume designer.  The libretto, based on a historical drama of Lev Mey, brings us to Pskov in 1570. From the prologue we find out that the noblewoman Vera Sheloga (Irina Churilova) had an illegitimate baby-girl from an unknown, powerful, irresistible stranger (appearing almost like a Zeus in her memories). It sets the root for the melodrama of discovery the true father in the very best traditions of 19th century romanticism. In the Maid of Pskov it is the daughter Olga (Irina Churilova, showing the continuity between mother and daughter), adopted by the man she thought to be her father Yuri Tokmakov (Mikhail Kit), the husband of the deceased Vera’s sister, that is torn between her love to a brave and young Mikhailo Tucha and her looming marriage to the noble boyar Matuta. In the end of the opera she discovers that her true father is the Tsar Ivan the Terrible (Stanislav Trofimov), who is depicted as a mighty, but not at all unjust and unfair, but in fact prone to sentimentality and kindness. Some patriarchial concepts (women shut in parental homes and given as brides to the chosen rich boyars) are non-questioned in the libretto, and neither they are in the production, that puts much emphasis on the ‘narodny’ (folk) elements of the story, such as the mass uprisings of Pskov people, the beauty of maiden singing and longings, and the figure of the tsar as a parental, kind and fair stranger that harbours love and care. The designs are usually presenting the backdrop scenes of Pskov or the fully three-dimensional gardens inside Tokmakov’s house or his palaty (chambers). The opera’s main attraction was the beautiful and psychologically refined singing by Irina Churilova  - Vera with her guilty love and torment and then Olga who is softer, kinder and is tenderly drawn to her young lover, as well as instinctively to Ivan The Terrible. Mikhail Sinkevich was carefully and patiently conducting this production that in many respects could be called an ethnographic reconstruction of the 16th century Russia, while its story seems too patriarchal and melodramatic to be even relatively close to truth by modern standards.

Photo: Valentin Baranovsky, ©️ Mariinsky Theatre

 

The second type of approach was the combination of modern stage directing and elements of modern psychology with the given material of Rimsky-Korsakov who worked and collaborated with different librettists in his operas. The results proved to be the best and left the deepest impressions on the audience. Paradoxically, the folk and historical motives need to be slightly reworked or updated to actually leave us with the feeling we have travelled to the old and unknown Russia and have discovered the deepest recesses of our Slavic souls. This effect was achieved in two operas: The Tsar’s Bride (directed by Alexander Kuzin) that was performed on 16 April 2019 and The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya (directed by Dmitry Tcherniakov) performed on 2 April 2019.

Photo: Valentin Baranovsky,©️ Mariinsky Theatre

 

The Tsar’s Bride (premiered on 21 June 2018) in Alexander Kuzin’s direction (set design by Alexander Orlov, lightning by Alexander Silaev and costumes by Irina Cherednikova) achieves the elegant effect of us not even noticing we are watching the modernized interpretation of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera (with the original libretto by Ilya Tumenev based again on Lev Mey’s drama). Interestingly, the material seems very close in conception – it is also the period of Ivan the Terrible, and the passions are tearing all the characters apart that range from mutual love to jealousy and possessiveness. The plot features the oprichnik Grigory Gryaznoi (Alexey Markov) falling in love with a beautiful and pure Marfa (Violetta Lukyanenko), while his current lover Lubasha (Yekaterina Sergeeva) plots up a potion to gradually kill Marfa who is in fact betrothed to her beloved Ivan Lykov (Alexander Mikhailov). All main characters die as the result of their passions getting better of them.

 Photo: Natasha Razina, ©️ Mariinsky Theatre

 

Kuzin in his comments on the production writes about the will to create the trule Shakespearean drama on stage without littering it with historical details of everyday live in 16th century Russia. So in fact he and the set designer Orlov leave the idea of historical backdrops behind, while still recreating the feeling of airy and spacious Rus’ through different stage levels from which the maidens and the folk people come and ago, where lovers meet and rejoice and where dark plans are brewed and delivered. The creative team uses contrasting colours to represesent different passions – according to Kuzin, the emotions soar to unprecendented, painful heights and fall into the deeply psychological depths – gold, red and black for Griaznoy and Lyubasha, green, white and azur-blue for Ivan Lykov and Marfa, where even the blue-grey and white set design supports this feeling of young lover’s lightheartedness and joy.  

Photo: Valentin Baranovsky, ©️ Mariinsky Theatre

 

The opening scene in Griaznoy’s chambers is striking, as we see how he and his lover are tormented by two different passions that will both lead to tragedy, with Alexey Markov’s and then Yekaterina Sergeeva’s solos being extraordinary poweful and lyrical – Markov in his black clothes and a powerful posture dominates the scene and runs around like a wounded lion, while Sergeeva, on the contrary, is static and sings a folk song a-capella, and manages to channel all her pent up grief of having been abandoned in it. Another pair – Lukyanenko singing Marfa and Mikhailov singing Ivan – are also extraordinary, especially the woman soloist. Mikhailov manages to convey his naïve, healthy and youthful love to Marfa, while Lukyanenko achieves a real coup-de-force by transforming from a pure maiden to a made Lammermoor (or may be Ophelia?)-style tormented woman who takes Griaznoy for her beloved. Everyone admits their guilty passions and dies in the final act – the Tsar’s bride (Marfa was chosen by the tsar among other maidens) will never become one, and no one will satisfy their posessive longings, but how powerful, how modern, how striking and nuanced this opera turns out to be. A wonderful achievement deserving endless standing ovations for the soloists and the conductor Gurgen Petrosyan who led the orchestra towards these passionate sea of emotion which shows us Rimsky-Korsakov as a Russian Verdi and opens our ears and senses to his orchestration universe.

Photo: Valentin Baranovsky, ©️ Mariinsky Theatre

 

The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya, directed by Dmitry Tcherniakov and conducted by Valery Gergev on 2 April 2019 achieved quite similar effects with very different means, reaching even deeper to hidden corners of Russian sensuality and spiritualism. And indeed such approach, focusing on spirituality and the mysteries of the soul corresponds to the philosophy of this late opera by Rimsky-Korsakov (premiered at Mariinsky in 1907), his epic exploration of what keeps the eternal light in us, what drives us forward to heights of self-sacrifice, love, faith despite all the challenges we could meet on this way. Rimsky-Korsakov was moving away from Western operatic traditions and exploring Orthodox chants and choral music, and indeed, his findings in vocal composition transpire in solo and chorus singing in this opera. Its plot explores the trials and tribulations of a kind and spiritual maiden Fevroniya, and reveals the tenets of Russian Orthodox faith by showing the presence of invisible and immensely beautiful after-life world where everyone is filled with love towards others. Based on a libretto by Vladimir Belsky who transformed a Russian legend, it starts with Fevroniya (Irina Churilova) being found in her forest hermitage by the Prince Vsevolod Yuryevich – the couple falls in love, and Vsevolod (Alexander Trofimov) brings his bride to Lesser Kitezh where she is derided by the drunkard Grishka Kuterma (Leonid Zakhozhaev) as being unequal to her fiancé. When the Tartars’ suddenly invade the Lesser Kitezh (the devastation predicted earlier), it is Kuterma who betrays his homeland, agreeing to lead Batu Khan to Greater Kitezh. However, by the strength of Fevroniya’s prayer Kitezh is made invisible. Vsevolod dies, defending his city near Lake Svetlya Yar (receiving forty wounds, a very traditional figure in Russian folklore), while Kuterma and Fevroniya are being held prisoners by Tartars. When they run away, Kuterma leaves Fevroniya to die and she is transferred to a beautiful place resembling her own hermitage where magic birds Sirin and Alkonost bring her to Vsevolod, and they both enter the cathedral filled with light where they are to get married in the newly miraculously liberated Kitezh.

 Photo: Natasha Razina, ©️ Mariinsky Theatre

 

Dmitry Tcherniakov who is the director, set designer and co-costume designer together with Olga Lukina, uses this opera indeed as a legend that doesn’t need realistic explanations and logical developments. Interesentingly, in the beginning of each act he makes conscious reproductions from original designs by Konstantin Korovin and Appolinary Vasnetsov, as if juxtaposing them to what he then has to offer to a modern audience. Together with the renowned lighting designer Gleb Filshtinsky they frame the scenes of mass troubles and Tatar invasion (very impressive machine-horses are appearing on stage, almost like space invaders) in the middle of the opera with mystical, beautifully poetic, very tranquil and spiritual ‘hermitage’ scenes where the spirituality is nurtured that underpins and saves everyone and Kitezh itself. These scenes are fairy-tale like: they have talking animals (Fevroniya knows their souls, too), magic birds from paradise Sirin and Alkonost, unnaturally big jugs and cups (they are human-sized) and are lit by beautiful light which is brought by neither sun nor moon. The Kitezh scenes could be equaled to that of tribulations of Christ in the biblical stories as Fevroniya is subjected to humiliation and betrayal, but never loses her faith in people’s kindness, feeling sorry for Grishka all the way through. One leaves this long opera (almost 5 hours) conducted majestically by Valery Gergiev with the sense of deep revelation and almost close to tears, overwhelmed by the beauty of the final scene where everybody – alive and happy – moves center-stage to join the couple in celebration of love, victory and happiness.

 Photo: Natasha Razina, ©️ Mariinsky Theatre
 

And finally, The Golden Cockerel (performed on 12 April 2019), the last opera by Rimsky-Korsakov (premiered in 1909, with the premiere at Mariinsky made only in 1919) stands out as a quite different, may be too radical production that doesn’t keep all the rash promises it makes. It was premiered in 2014, with now famous film director (she was only moving up in her career at that time) Anna Matison directing the opera. Matison, similarly to Tcherniakov, also was a costume designer and, together with Sergei Novikov, production designer. There are also video graphics in it by Kirill Malovichko. Indeed, the opera itself made quite a step from the original Pushkin’s fable in Vladimir Belsky’s libretto, it becoming a satire on a sleepy kingdom that ruins itself from inside and in the end is left, similarly to another Pushkin’s tale about Golden Fish, with nothing. The aim of this critique mildly disguised behind a fable was obvious for 1909 – the Revolution of 1905 and crumbling tsarist Russia left the composer with indelible impression of chaos and loss of that spirituality that he was endlessly seeking in his creations.

 Photo: Natasha Razina, ©️ Mariinsky Theatre
 

However, Matison’s goal is unclear, as she modernises the opera so that it looks like a lubok made with a foreign viewer in mind, with the kindgom where the Golden Cockerel dwells stylized as a very clichéd Russia that could not be attributed to any concrete epoch. And the inhabitants of this Russia are all, almost in Father Ubu-style, outrageously grotesque – wearing enormous Orthodox church domes as their crowns, eating and sleeping and entertaining themselves without end. The leader of this kindgom is Tsar Dodon, and unfortunately Sergei Aleksashkin sometimes forgot the lyrics and evidently strained his voice in this vocally not very demanding part. Then another story is the encounter of Tsar Dodon with the Queen of Shemakha (Olga Pudova) as he goes in search of his disappeared sons who turn out to have slain each other in jealousy.

 Photo: Natasha Razina, ©️ Mariinsky Theatre
 

Here Matison seems to find the true raison d’être for her creation and uses the video graphics extensively, as the dragons and dream-like colours begin to whirl around the sky, and magic and poisonous fresh maidens to encircle Dodon’s army. The Queen itself seems to impersonate a lonely woman’s desires, as she continuously sings about her dreams and longings, looking at Voivode Polkan (Andrei Serov) all the time while enticing Dodon to marry her. There were many children in the audience, and I doubt if they got either the satire of the first act or the exploration of female psyche of the second. In the third the Golden Cockerel (Kira Loginova), who is actually an alien and a voyeur type of a modern teenager making selfies all the time, exchanges the clothes with the parrot (another creature for entertainment) and leaves the kindgom with the astrologer (Andrei Popov), having killed the tsar and left the Queen to her own devices. The parrot dressed as a teenage girl becomes a new onlooker left in front of the kingdom gates.

 

 Photo: Natasha Razina, ©️ Mariinsky Theatre
 

Many interesting avant-garde ideas are left unfinished, and some of them are too obviously constructed to make a lasting impression. However, Kira Loginova’s singing was immaculate, and Olga Pudova’s extraordinarily high arias were quite a feature of the evening. This attempt at re-imagining Rimsky-Korsakov proves that productions of his operas have to retain the link with spirituality, folk motives and deep emotionality that is characteristic for the composer, as otherwise they become too dry and intellectual and lose the originality and that specific Russian sensuality and depth that we look for in the composer’s operatic creations. All in all, one is grateful to Mariinsky Theatre for this incredible and outstanding achievement in scheduling a long line of productions over two months and giving the audiences a unique chance to form a comprehensive vision of the composer’s works in this marathon-style Festival celebrating Rimsky-Korsakov’s 175th Jubilee.    

 

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