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S & H International Festival/Opera Review

Rimsky-Korsakov: The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia, Kirov Opera of the Mariinsky Theatre, The Metropolitan Opera House, New York, July 17, 2003 (BH)

Music Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Libretto Vladimir Belsky after a Russian legend
Conductor Valery Gergiev
Stage Director Dmitry Cherniakov
Set Designer Dmitry Cherniakov
Costume Designers Olga Lukina and Dmitry Cherniakov
Lighting Designer Gleb Filshtinsky
Chorus Master Andrei Petrenko
Vocal Coach Natalia Mordasheva
Met Titles Cori Ellison

Orchestra and Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre


Prince Yuri Vsevolodich Sergei Alexashkin
Prince Vsevolod Vladimir Grishko
Fevronia Olga Sergeeva
Grishka Kuterma Vassily Gorshkov
Fedor Poyarok Fedor Mozhaev
Page Zlata Bulycheva
Two Well-Off People Vladimir Felenchak, Alexei Tanovistsky
Gusla Player Alexander Morozov
Man with a Bear Vladimir Zhivopistsev
Beggar Vyacheslav Lukhanin
Bedyai Mikhail Petrenko
Burundai Fedor Kuznetsov
Sirin Olga Kondina
Akonost Nadezhda Vasilieva [replacing Olga Markova-Mikhailenko]

World premiere February 7, 1907, Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg; premiere of this production January 20, 2001.

With the Kirov’s blazing realization of Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko fresh in my mind, this version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s magical story could not be more different in its structure and mood. Dmitry Cherniakov, the director, is clearly a major talent and overall, devised intriguing solutions to what must be a difficult piece to stage. If some of the pictures seemed to linger in place too long, diluting their impact, never mind. This opera is worth seeing precisely because it is so rare, at least here in the United States.

Cherniakov’s vision was helped by a terrific cast, especially Olga Sergeeva as Fevronia, and Vladimir Grishko as Prince Vsevolod, who displayed the heroic singing coupled with acting fervor that have marked much of this company’s distinguished stay here. She, in particular, was singing for much of the evening, and if her voice finally showed some understandable strain at the end -- this is, after all, compared to Parsifal -- it hardly mattered when she sang with such devotion and intensity, and acted the role as if she might never set foot on stage again.

Just to impart the briefest of plot details, the city of Kitezh is under siege, and to save it, Fevronia prays to God to make it invisible. When the invading Tartars finally arrive, they can see the reflection of the city in a lake -- but the physical buildings and their inhabitants have vanished. After a spiritual odyssey Fevronia and Vsevolod eventually find themselves reunited with their fellow citizens, now relocated in heavenly glory.

I suspect the Tartars' lurid charms won over many in the audience, particularly the leader, Bedyai (strongly sung by Mikhail Petrenko), whose spectacular, Terminator-esque entrance in Act II made the most gripping image of the night. As a huge crowd sang in joyous praise their revelry was cruelly interrupted by the black fur-clad Bedyai riding atop a huge robotic creature that crashed through the back wall. With what appeared to be horses' hooves on the back, and, on the front, metal earth-digging claws armed with floodlights cutting through the fog -- well, this was one of those images you never forget.

In Act III, when the citizens of Kitezh meet at midnight, the entire cast was onstage -- some 250 people -- starkly arranged in rows and dressed in bluish-gray costumes seemingly from all countries and time periods. In the opera’s last scene, the cast is revealed in similarly diverse attire but this time all in creamy white. These brilliant touches, by director Cherniakov and Olga Lukina, solved the problem of how to evoke the otherworldly feeling of a fairy tale for modern audiences glutted with information and visual stimuli. In this case, the costume design only magnified the story’s timelessness.

The final act took place in an intimate forest cottage, and I was struck by how sensitively designer Gleb Filshtinsky captured the appearance of candlelight, softly flickering in the interior. Throughout much of the scene, the house was silhouetted against a black backdrop, which at the climax expanded to reveal the white-clad citizens of Kitezh, standing in rows and singing from their newly-divine vantage point. For my brain, perhaps still reeling from the Prokofiev production, this final tableau somehow did not quite satisfy. After four hours‚ praise for the wonder of this city, I felt primed for a stage picture that was perhaps just a bit more over-the-top in splendor, given the director’s multiple insights elsewhere. The combination of the composer’s somewhat static major chords appearing over and over (albeit gloriously played), coupled with the cast aligned in a symmetrical block made me wish just a bit for ‘something else’‚ whatever ‘something else’ might be. However, from the ovations at the end, this clearly did not matter to many in the audience.

In any case, speaking of legends, Valery Gergiev led the great Kirov musicians in a glowing account of the score, with the brass really outdoing themselves in the final pages. Special mention to the uncredited cellist and violinist sitting onstage, whose sweetly lustrous solos were a fine contrast with the flashier, more glittering episodes. If I did not particularly care for Rimsky-Korsakov’s music in the last act, at least on first hearing, the orchestra played it as effectively as one could want, and to the musicians and Gergiev’s credit, no one in the audience applauded during the final luminous chord.

Overall, it must be said that few opera companies would even attempt this massive work -- suddenly I’m recalling the similar difficulties of bringing Strauss’ Die Frau Ohne Schatten to life -- and seeing this production makes me count my blessings. It must have been daunting to interpret a fanciful tale like this to a contemporary audience, but Cherniakov has created a haunting experience.

Bruce Hodges



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