Modest Mussorgsky - Sorochintsy Fair
Komische Oper, Berlin - 2017
Henrik Nánási, Barrie Kosky, Jens Larsen, Agnes Zwierko, Mirka Wagner, Alexander Lewis, Ivan Turšić, Tom Erik Lie, Hans Gröning, Carsten Sabrowski
Opera Platform - March 2017
Who knew that Mussorgsky composed and left unfinished another opera in between the unfinished masterpieces of Boris Godunov and Khovanschina? I didn't anyway, so all credit to Barrie Kosky and the Komische Oper in Berlin for uncovering this little known and almost never performed work by one of Russia's greatest composers. The question however is whether there might be a reason for Sorochintsy Fair being relatively unknown. Is it any good?
Happily, the answer is a resounding yes, and what a pleasant treat this surprise opera turns out to be. Then again it's hard to imagine any Mussorgsky lyrical piece not being worthy of performance other than for sake of its incompleteness, and that indeed is yet again the case with Sorochintsy Fair, the opera being completed after the composers death by Vissarion Shebalin. Sorochintsy Fair is not a grand epic masterpiece like Boris Godunov or Khovanschina, but it has one essential quality that all Mussorgsky's work has: it's essentially Russian.
It could hardly be anything but essentially Russian, but based on a story by Nikolai Gogol (the same source as Tchaikovsky's similarly themed Cherevichki), Sorochintsy Fair has a more down-to-earth, common people quality elevated to a mythical or surreal folk-legend status that demonstrates colourful and lyrical qualities that we don't often see in Mussorgsky. And another side and feature of the Russian character that we would not expect from a composer more associated with historical epics; a devilish sense of humour.
Sorochintsy Fair demonstrates brilliantly where Gogol's macabre folk tales of grotesque characters and surreal situations often find their origin: in drink. All good intentions for selling his wheat and the mare go out of the window when merchant Cherevik has a few drinks at the market in Sorochintsy with his friend Chumak. Clearly he has been laid astray by the devil while celebrating his acceptance of a proposal by a young peasant lad, Gritsko, to marry his daughter Parasya.
Cherevik's wife Khivyra however, quickly hiding her lover away inside a large pig she is cooking, is less than pleased by the developments. She has ideas of a better match for her daughter than the son of a peasant and gives her foolish husband, who comes back home roaring drunk, no small amount of abuse for failing to sell their produce. With the wheat unsold, how are they supposed to pay for a wedding?
You can see how the ghost stories of supernatural events arise from explaining all those bumps in the night. The husband staggering in drunk, the wife hiding the lover in a wardrobe (or pig) have to be explained somehow, and clearly it's all the work of the devil. Parasya and Gritsko however realise that they can make this work to their advantage also, Gritsko making a deal to sell oxen to the gypsy at an advantageous rate if he plays up the legend of the Red Overcoat at the Sorochintsy fair.
Mussorgsky illustrates all these colourful situations of bedroom farce, marital discord, slapstick falling around drunkenness and innocent romance with the most glorious musical compositions. He also captures the colour of the fair in the opening sequence with the most wonderful choral songs. Demonstrating that the Russian idiom can be effectively played by non-Russians, the musical performance under Henrik Nánási is richly colourful, and who better to illustrate these kind of colourful situations than director Barrie Kosky.
I'm sure that the Intendant and chief artistic director at the Komische Oper has already overspent their budget with a host of extravagant productions this year. This one is a little more pared down but it still moves brightly along, keeping the limited dramatic situations engaging and fun. And that suits the nature of the work, where the pleasures are simple ones and where there is time for both reflection and irreverence. Sorochintsy Fair is a work that in many ways carries its own spectacle, with Gritsko's dream of the 'Sagana' devil's feast. It's a choral extravaganza that couldn't be anything but a show-stopper, and indeed it works terrifically here with demonic figures in red coats and pig heads tormenting the young lovers.
The Komische's ambition is also well served by a wonderful cast who demonstrate that roles of such deeply Russian character can also be sung well by a wide mix of international talent. The singing and acting performances are just outstanding, fully in the spirit of Gogol, Mussorgsky and Kosky. Jens Larsen's Cherevik's has a thoroughly Russian deep bass clarity and resonance; Agnes Zwierko entertains with a well-sung comic performance as Khivyra; Mirka Wagner and Alexander Lewis as the young couple Gritsko and Parasya offer a lighter lyrical delivery that adds complementary vocal textures to the more strident choruses and comic declamation.
Links: Komische Oper, Opera Platform