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S & H International Opera/Festival Review

Prokofiev: Semyon Kotko, The Kirov Opera of the Mariinsky Theatre, Metropolitan Opera, New York, 12th July, 2003 (BH)

A Co-presentation of Lincoln Center Festival 2003 and the Metropolitan Opera

Music   Sergei Prokofiev
Libretto  Sergei Prokofiev and Valentin Katayev, based on Katayev’s novella, I Am a Son of the Working People

Conductor    Valery Gergiev
Stage Director    Yuri Alexandrov
Set Designer     Semyon Pastukh
Costume Designer   Galina Solovyeva
Lighting Designer    Gleb Filshtinsky
Chorus Master    Andrei Petrenko
Vocal coach    Irina Sobolieva
Met Titles     Sonya Friedman


Semyon Kotko, a demobilized soldier Victor Lutsiuk
Semyon’s Mother     Lyudmila Kanunnikova
Frosia, Semyon’s sister     Olga Savova
Remeniuk,    Yevgeny Nikitin
Tkachenko, a rich peasant     Gennady Bezzubenkov
Khivria, Tkachenk’s wife        Olga Markova-Mikhailenko
Sofia, Tkachenko’s daughter  Tatiana Pavlovskaya

Tsaryov, a sailor       Victor Chernomortsev
Lyubka, Tsaryov’s fiancée      Irina Loskutova
Ivasenko, an old man        Mikhail Petrenko
Mikola, Frosia’s sweetheart     Yevgeny Akimov
Klembovsky, a workman and former landowner   Nikolai Gassiev
Von Wierhof, a German commander    Yori Laptev
German Sergeant      Yevgeny Fedotov
German Interpreter    Vladimir Zhivopistsev
Bandura Player      Mikhail Kit
First Old Man       Andrei Khramtsov
Second Old Man   Yevgeny Fedotov
First Woman      Lyudmila Kasianenko
Second Woman    Svetlana Volkava
Third Woman      Olga Korzhenskaya
First Anti-Bolshevik Ukrainian Cossack    Vladimir Samsonov
Second Anti-Bolshevik Ukrainian Cossack    Andrei Karabanov
First Haydamak      Vyacheslav Lukhanin
Second Haydamak     Victor Vikhrov
Young Man     Ilya Bannik

Orchestra and Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre

World premiere June 23, 1940, Stanislavsky Theatre and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theatre, Moscow; premiere of this production June 8, 1999, Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg.

North American premiere July 8, 2003, Metropolitan Opera House, New York


One of the unexpected stars in this clashingly powerful opera was its set designer, Semyon Pastukh, who brilliantly envisioned a vast wasteland littered with wrecked trains, bombed-out debris, and twisted railroad tracks leading nowhere.  In the background, a mechanical gear wheel and hammer chugged away in almost continual motion. The equally superb Gleb Filshtinsky had the wonderful inspiration to light this terrain in an evil, glowing red, underneath the landscape, transforming it seemingly into molten lava, as if the earth itself were waiting to erupt and swallow up everyone on stage.  When the title character finally entered, heroically sung by Victor Lutsiuk, he appeared to be standing on top of a world made of rivulets of fire.  The metaphor here was unmistakable.

The story is complex: three young couples‚ whose lives are torn apart by warring Russian, German and rebel groups, all of whom are indifferent to those caught in their path, converge in Semyon Kotko’s small village and ultimately cause its destruction.  In the meantime, we witness the wedding party of Semyon and Sofia, a scene of brief happiness in the midst of what is overall a grim chain of events.  

Musically, Semyon is as satisfying as anything in Prokofiev’s canon, and at least one scene is a bona fide classic.  Near the end of Act II, realizing the terror to come, Lyubka (in a star turn by Irina Loskutova) is overwhelmed and goes mad, staggering backward along the railroad tracks as a line of soldiers advance upon her.  Finally she is pressed against a wall and there is the suggestion of rape, at least in this production.  During the entire scene, she pours out her agony using a simple six-note figure that is repeated seemingly dozens of times (I couldn’t help but think of the ‘invasion’ sequence in Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony.)  As the tension increases, this motif grows to an alarming size, resulting in a wrenching climax that consumes the entire cast and orchestra.  

For the nightmarish finale of Act II, when the village is destroyed, the stage was bathed in a sickly chemical green light, while hordes of gas-masked soldiers fired smoke guns, barrels glowing red, as enormous snake-like pipes emerged from a huge pit.  When one of the characters shrieked, ‘What are they doing to us!’ it was almost too painful to watch, knowing that even more nastiness was to come. Amid a landscape strewn with dead bodies, the act closed with a long and blazingly loud climax, for which Gergiev and the orchestra pulled out all the stops.    

In some of its more idyllic moments, the score contains some unexpected charms, such as passages for accordion, and later, the surreal call of a cuckoo, all vividly done by the Kirov’s superb musicians.  Meanwhile, as in much of Prokofiev, the percussion section works overtime; I never tire of his ever-present triangle, cymbals and snare drum.  The compelling music combines the composer’s typical machine-like rhythms and acidic harmonies with the soaring melodic lines similar to his Romeo and Juliet.  Having savored both The Gambler and War and Peace at the Met, I found this score the most satisfying of the three, dramatic content aside.  And Gergiev made the most of all of it.  There are few conductors at the moment who can match him in this repertoire when he is inspired, and in this performance he got some downright savage playing from this great orchestra.

The production was filled with memorable details.  At one point, Lyubka stepped into a small pond for a short swim, her arms gliding through the water in pleasure.  However, the ‘water’ was actually strips of plastic, stretched loosely across the pond so that they parted with her body movements.  As she stepped onto the shore, wringing out her dress before carefully smoothing it dry, I thought, this is the kind of keen attention to stage action that is sometimes missing, but was always present here.

I absolutely loved Galina Solovyeva’s superb costume designs, which replicated the persistent, primary reds and greens.  These colors are used seemingly everywhere, including the striking final scene with the chorus dressed in identical Mao-like gray, all clutching red stars.  The clever staging and choreography here, fully aware of the ironies, only added to the impact as a bust of Lenin, glowing like a huge amber light bulb, rose in the middle of the crowd.  

With a production this ambitious, it is almost impossible to give it its full due here.  The historical awareness, the magnificent staging, the incisive orchestral playing, and the agile cast, all driven by the valiant and energetic Mr. Gergiev, combined to make the best possible case for one of Prokofiev’s still little-known masterpieces.  It is inconceivable to me that this great score has been sitting around, waiting to be uncovered.  Let’s hope it’s not another fifty years before it’s produced again.  

Bruce Hodges



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