Saturday 4 January 2014

Rimsky-Korsakov - The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - The Legend of Invisible City of Kitezh

De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam 2012

Marc Albrecht, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Svetlana Ignatovich, Vladimir Vanseev, Maxim Aksenov, John Daszak, Alexey Markov, Mayram Sokolova, Morschi Franz, Peter Arink, Gennady Beszubenkov

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

At the heart of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Legend of Invisible City of Kitezh is an epic battle between the forces of good and evil that recounts the legend of the invasion of the city by Mongol hordes. The librettist for the work however, Vladimir Belsky, also brought Christian elements into the story from the legend of Saint Fevronya and from folklore that lift the work towards flights of spiritual mysticism and rapture. There's something of a gulf then between the realistic literal depiction of the horrors of war and the pantheistic depiction of nature that doesn't entirely come together in Rimsky-Korsakov's score, but in many ways it just makes it all the more fascinating. I'm not sure that either the conductor Marc Albrecht or director Dmitri Tcherniakov manage to reconcile the inconsistencies in the opera, but it remains a glorious, intriguing work.

The first thing to note about Tcherniakov's direction is that he changes the plot slightly in order, presumably, to highlight the contrasts in the work and perhaps find a way to bring them together. Consequently he invents an 'end of the world' scenario, where Fevroniya is not some holy fool who communes with nature in the woods, but has fled there because, in Tcherniakov's prelude description, "after what has happened on earth, life can never go on as before". The beautiful set consequently depicts a Tarkovsky-like post-apocalyptic spiritual view of nature seen in The Sacrifice, and it's one that is also well-suited to the Cunning Little Vixen quality of Fevroniya's oneness with nature, Fevroniya even dining with human versions of the crane, the bear and the auroch that are referred to in the libretto. The intrusion of the outside world in the form of the Prince Vesvelod who asks her to marry him still doesn't fit realistically however with the main body of the legend of the invisible city and the attack on it by the Mongol hordes.

The beautiful scenes at the beginning and the end of the work (Tarkovksy again looking to be the inspiration for the familiar boxed lighted rustic house/room that is a familiar feature in many Tcherniakov productions) do at least serve to bookend the highlighted ugliness of the central scenes of the drunken revelry of Grishka in Little Kitezh, the horror of the invasion of the Tartars and the lamentations of the citizens at the destruction that has been visited upon them. You couldn't really say that the director captures the majesty of the long central third act, relocating it from the Cathedral Square in Great Kitezh to a makeshift refugee camp, while the miracle of the invisible city heralded by the spontaneous tolling of the bells is reduced inexplicably to a flickering strip of neon. The scene is very much underplayed, but when you listen to the gorgeous musical composition and striking arrangement of this act, it is undoubtedly a scene that is problematic to stage.

The first scene of this extraordinary third Act for example has long Parsifal-like symphonic and choral arrangements, as Prince Yury, a gusli-player and the Page sing for the fate of the city and its people in mournful laments with folk rhythms with a sweep of shimmering symphonic strings. It's deeply mystical in its sentiments, evoking the city of Kitezh as a celestial paradise, a light in the impenetrable darkness, a spiritual "haven and a refuge to all who suffer, thirst and seek". The act is divided however by a symphonic battle in which Prince Vesvelod is killed off-stage, the second scene taking place on the shore of Lake Yar, where Grishka and Fevoniya are held captive by the Tartars. Grishka has led them to Great Kitezh, but he has blamed their new Princess Fevroniya for the betrayal.

The third act should be the dramatic turning point of the work, the one that contrasts and attempts to join the two stark and contrasting visions of the world, where the actions of the good and faithful in the material world of war and death will be rewarded in the afterlife (in Act IV). The drunken, bitter, trouble-making and traitorous Grishka's has no conception of any world outside his own small ugly little existence, and it's such a shock to Fevroniya that she even thinks he might be the Antichrist. Tcherniakov isn't able to bring the two views convincingly together, but - as beautiful and uplifting as the music is - it's debatable whether Rimsky-Korsakov, the composer opposed to the religious Wagnerian liturgical touches of Belsky's libretto, manages to reconcile them either. Despite this, and despite the staging attempting to undercut the mysticism further, the third Act is still wondrously operatic.

If it all does indeed manage to come together and even raise itself onto another plane by the final fourth act, much of it is to do with the singing and Rimsky-Korsakov's writing for the voice. There are no real arias in The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, or overt folk dances and set pieces that you might find in other mythological works by the composer like Sadko or The Golden Cockerel. It's more through composed, with a Romantic sweep and even some Wagnerian quotes in spite of Rimsky-Korsakov's opposition. It's the naturalistic roll of the Russian consonants however, flowing out unstrained in long solid arioso singing and in glorious, glorifying choral arrangements that anchor the sentiments in the real world even as they achieve a level of rapturous transcendence.

The Amsterdam production is marvellous then in that it has the deservedly much-praised chorus of the De Nederlandse on fine form, but it also has a fine mostly Russian cast that give solid, unfailing performances throughout. They are led by the young soprano Svetlana Ignatovich, who fulfils every vocal and visual requirement for the saintly role of Fevroniya. The picture of innocence and strength, of faith and forgiveness, the completion of her transformation into martyrdom and sainthood at the end of the work is achieved with an ecstatic acceptance of her fate. Tcherniakov again downplays any elaborately literal vision of paradise much in the same way that Rimsky-Korsakov refuses to let the music push it too far (the direction of the orchestra under Marc Albrecht similarly restrained yet ecstatic, resisting the usual Russian bombast), but everything that needs to be expressed has been done so in the writing for the voices and in the performances here.

The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh is released on Blu-ray disc by Opus Arte and it looks and sounds impressive in the High Definition format. In addition to a Cast Gallery, there is the usual informative look behind the scenes at De Nederlandse in a short 20-minute featurette with interviews that hint at the conflicts between the music and the staging. The BD is region-free and subtitles for this release are in English, French, German, Dutch, Japanese and Korean.