Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - The Snow Maiden
Opera North, 2017
Martin Pickard, John Fulljames, Aoife Miskelly, Bonaventura Bottone, Dean Robinson, Yvonne Howard, James Creswell, Joseph Shovelton, Claire Pascoe, Heather Lowe, Elin Pritchard, Phillip Rhodes
Grand Opera House, Belfast - 17th March 2017
The Snow Maiden has all the classic fairy-tale elements; folklore, dreams, love, magic and poignant tragedy. All those elements are elevated to suitably epic proportions in Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's opera version of Aleksandr Ostrovsky's play, tying the magical qualities of the story Cunning Little Vixen-like into the every-day magic of nature and the changing of the seasons; the magical changes that are all part of the rhythm of life. John Fulljames's production for Opera North ambitiously and inventively adds another level onto the proceedings that joins up and connects those different levels. It's impressive, it's beautiful, but unfortunately it's also just a little dull.
But just a little, and disappointingly that seems to be down to the nature of the story and Rimsky-Korsakov's rather academic scoring of the work, which never seems to have either the verve or grandeur of his work in The Tsar's Bride, Sadko or The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh. What The Snow Maiden has in common with each of those works - and with the fairy-tale satire of The Golden Cockerel - is an essential Russian character, and that at least is authentically retained in Opera North's production which not only presents its themes well but meaningfully elaborates upon them.
John Fulljames with production designer Giles Cadle (who does great work also on Hansel and Gretel and La Cenerentola) attempts to anchor Rimsky-Korsakov's rather serious minded treatment of the fairy tale by finding another great way to create magic out of reality. Again, it seems to arise out of the need of someone living in less than favourable circumstances to find a way to escape from their humdrum reality and live a dream of life that has a more meaningful and hopefully romantic purpose. The 'Snow Maiden' here is a seamstress in a clothing factory.
The changing of the seasons is evoked in this setting by the winter clothes line being put aside for the new spring fashions. One girl on the production line looks like she is lost in a dream, caught up in the changing times, wondering if this year is going to be the year that someone comes and melts her heart like the story of the Snow Maiden whose heart is too frozen to love. It's a simple framing device - one that Fulljames often seems to favour - that ties legend, folklore and the power of storytelling to reality in a way that makes it come alive; and in the context of the Opera North season of fairy-tales, it's a consistent theme that gives the magical element a relatable basis.
Thereafter the production manages to place the fairy-tale as another level on top of the reality that is always present beneath. At times, the storybook imagery of The Snow Maiden takes over, at others the dreaming seamstress seems to be drawn back to the real world, where competition and jealousy takes root between the girls over the handsome supervisor Lel, and over the upcoming marriage of one of the working girls Kupova to her fiancé Mizgir. Again in this Opera North season, it's the effective use of projections that permit such rapid and subtle transitions to be made not only between different scenes, but between different levels of reality, dream and the fluid and indefinable characteristic of what constitutes magic.
In The Snow Maiden it is fairly clear that the magic lies in the miracle of the changing seasons, in the transformations nature brings not only to the land, but to the influence and change it exerts over the temperament, mood and nature people of the land as the years go by. There are powerful changes occurring within the young girl who identifies with the Snow Maiden, her thoughts turning to love, to finding the right partner, unsure whether she is ready to give her heart away and whether it will be accepted. The language of nature and the seasons used in the libretto makes the implications plain, with there being much talk of plucking flowers and scattering seeds.
Using shifting abstract patterns, the projections not only add a level of magic-world beauty to the production - and it really looks spectacular - Fulljames and Cadle's designs also emphasis the connections between magic, nature and the real world. The setting of the drama within a clothing factory certainly makes the sentiments of love, jealousy and betrayal apparent and relevant, but the fairy-tale layer subjectively heightens the feelings as they are experienced by a young and sensitive girl. It's the projections that blend them together so well, making connections between lace patterns and snowflakes, the patterns spreading like growing shoots, the sap rising as the seasons pass and the personal dilemma of the Snow Maiden reaches a critical level
Clearly it's a well thought out production, where everything blends and works together wonderfully, keeping it moving and flowing when it could otherwise be quite static; it looks spectacular and magical at the same time. The singing is also of the highest order; Aoife Miskelly's deeply heartfelt Snow Maiden contrasted to good effect with Heather Lowe's warmth and sincerity as Lel. There is greater diversity in character and voice that further enriched the production, notably in Elin Pritchard's down-to-earth, heart-on-her-sleeve Kupava, whose laughter crackled through the drama, and on the part of Phillip Rhodes as the passionate Mizgir.
Fulljames's book-ending framing also manages to help take the cold edge off the inevitable tragic conclusion that comes to a Snow Maiden in the summer. There ought to be a positive side to this outcome of the passing seasons and the production supports this, making it a little more glorious and cheerful without taking anything away from the wistful tone of sadness. Despite every effort however, the production still can't quite overcome the inherent serious-minded gravity of the proceedings. Martin Pickard's conducting of the score captured all the elegance of the arrangements and the beauty of Rimsky-Korsakov's composition, but it still never managed to provide that spark that would melt the core of ice that lies at the heart of The Snow Maiden.
Links: Opera North