Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Rimsky-Korsakov - The Snow Maiden (Paris, 2017)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - The Snow Maiden

L’Opéra National de Paris, 2017

Mikhail Tatarnikov, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Aida Garifullina, Yuriy Mynenko, Martina Serafin, Maxim Paster, Thomas Johannes Mayer, Elena Manistina, Vladimir Ognovenko, Franz Hawlata, Vasily Gorshkov, Carole Wilson, Vasily Efimov, Vincent Morell, Pierpaolo Palloni, Olga Oussova 

ARTE Concert - 25 April 2017

Rimsky-Korsakov's telling of the fairy tale of The Snow Maiden is by no means a straightforward narrative. The story itself is simple enough and easy to follow, but it's elaborated on by the composer with all the colours and adornments of an epic Russian legend, with songs, dances, musical interludes, ceremonial folk dances and choruses. This however is not Sadko or The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, and as beautiful as the scoring is, it risks losing sight of the simple message at the heart of the story about love and time, about the seasons bringing change and renewal. You have to wonder then whether Dmitri Tcherniakov doesn't risk adding another level of distance in his production for the Paris Opera that takes it further away from the fairy tale moral.  

The Snow Maiden isn't performed as often as other works by Rimsky-Korsakov and it's only recently that we've really had a chance to get to experience a wider selection of the composer's work. It has to be said that for all the controversy that he brings with him, Dmitri Tcherniakov has been at the forefront of introducing rarely heard Russian masterpieces to the West and presenting them in a new meaningful light, and Rimsky-Korsakov works have been very much a part of that. The Snow Maiden however is clearly something of a challenging work to stage effectively. John Fulljames directed a beautiful and wonderfully illuminating production of The Snow Maiden for Opera North last year, but even that failed to thaw the icy heart of the work.  

The nature of Ostrovsky's work as a piece of folklore with a very Russian character and a magical fairy tale element shouldn't necessarily present a difficulty to a director like Tcherniakov who wants to modernise it to some extent, but his production of The Snow Maiden seems to fall somewhere in between. Not unexpectedly, the dispute of Mother Spring and Father Frost is seen in a rather more contemporary domestic light, with the unfortunate off-spring of their ill-matched union - the Snow Maiden - being given up for adoption to a old Berendeyan couple. The Berendey village in the woods however, while apparently some kind of little commune, still can't help but retain an old Russian folk character in its dress and customs.

Big and colourful, recreating a small village arrayed in a small semi-circle with a wood of tall trees behind, it's another one of Tcherniakov's extravagant sets that presents a busy stage for all of Rimsky-Korsakov's rich arrangements and choruses. It certainly captures the sense of a close community, and Tcherniakov's direction also creates an impression sense of real meaningful drama between the characters in as far as he is able. He can't resist having Tsar Berendey nod off for a few seconds as Kupova starts on an elaborate answer to the simple question of who has offended her honour, but it's playful and not mocking, recognising that there's a lot of filler and conventionalism in the telling of the story.

The connection between the tides and seasons of nature of those that bring about changes in the nature of man however isn't drawn quite as cleverly as John Fulljames' production for Opera North. Everything that needs to be said however is said fairly directly in the libretto; "The hearts of people are getting colder. I see less warmth in their love", Tsar Berendey observes. If Dmitri Tcherniakov doesn't really draw out or highlight the folk elements and rhythms of nature in his direction, nor find anything new or insightful to bring to it, his direction doesn't quite go as far as obscuring the intentions and the moral of the story. But when it does come to life, it seems to be more to do with the lovely performance of the Paris orchestra and the fine singing performances.

The fact that Rimsky-Korsakov's score is sumptuously beautiful is clearly apparent, but under the direction of conductor Mikhail Tatarnikov, the skill with which the composer has matched the score to the dramatic and narrative side of the work is even more evident here. It also works beautifully hand-in-hand with the singing. Aida Garifullina has everything you want of a snow maiden, glowing youth and freshness and a voice that soars not with confidence, but with an otherworldly beauty. It was quite extraordinary to hear Lel sung not by a female contralto, but by a male countertenor. Yuriy Mynenko brought out another dynamic out of the work, a persuasive beauty that Lel's songs should really possess.

Musically and in terms of the singing performances, the Paris production is indeed beyond reproach, with other fine performances to enjoy in Martina Serafin's Kupova, in Maxim Paster's Tsar and Thomas Johannes Mayer's Mizguir. Aside from the opening introduction sequence, which appears somewhat at odds with fairy tale nature of the remainder of the production, Dmitri Tcherniakov's direction actually tells the story clearly and without over-complicating matters and it looks marvellous. With its naturalistic approach to the simple folk lifestyle of living life out in the woods, it does promote more of a back-to-nature sentiment as a way of opening one's heart to the radiant flame of life, but despite the exquisite beauty of the work, it still feels a rather cold and lifeless affair that never really connects to human emotions in the way that you would like. Cold and beautiful however might just be the actual nature of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow Maiden.

Links: L’Opéra National de Paris, ARTE Concert