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Seen and Heard Opera Review


Mariinsky Masterworks (2) Rimsky Korsakov:Mlada (concert performance) soloists, orchestra and chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre, Valery Gergiev, Symphony Hall, Birmingham 27.05.2006 (BK)

People old enough to recall the introductory music for 'What the Papers Say' in its early days on UK television, will remember The Procession of the Nobles, from Act II of Mlada, the only extract played regularly in concert halls. It's a stirring piece that turns out to be typical of the music in this fascinating, masterly and sadly neglected score. Since the last complete performances of Mlada in the UK took place in 1989 and 1990 (at the Barbican and in Glasgow) the Mariinsky Theatre did Birmingham a great service in performing it there, as well as providing a memorable musical event.


Although usually cited as the fourth of Rimsky-Korsakov's fourteen operas, Mlada is really an opera-ballet in which two of the important roles (Mlada herself and Cleopatra) are danced rather than sung. The work had a long gestation dating from 1872, when the director of Russia's imperial theatres recruited four of the 'Mighty Handful' (Cui, Borodin, Mussorgsky and Rimsky) to collaborate on a mythic opera constructed from Baltic folk tales. This idea soon collapsed and twenty years later, after being inspired by Wagner's Ring, Rimksy-Korsakov returned to Mlada single-handed to produce one of his finest works.


The plot is simple enough although spread over four acts. Princess Voyslava and her father Mstivoy have poisoned Prince Yaromir's fiancée Mlada to promote a marriage between the young couple. Yaromir is visited by the Mlada's ghost, who shows him how she was murdered and he rejects Voyslava completely. Mlada then shows Yaromir the world of shadows and after terrifying encounters with demons including Kashchei (later to feature in Stravinsky's Firebird) and temptation by Cleopatra, Yaromir holds firmly to his love. Voyslava repents her part in Mlada's death and dies as Morena, goddess of the underworld, destroys the region with a great flood. Yaromir and Mlada are then re-united in death.


As well as requiring dancers, Mlada needs a cast of at least ten soloists and a large chorus - which represents Lada the goddess of love and a variety of demons, as well as human crowds of different sorts. The orchestral forces are expansive too: doubled tympani (sometimes with three players), soprano clarinets and pan pipes are needed in addition to harps and the full array of other symphonic forces. This is a rich and glowing score, easily recognisable by those who know Scheherazade and other familiar Rimsky works, but with a variety of other allusions including some Wagnerian references. The biggest surprises to the modern ear though are distinct and recognisable precursors of Kaschei's 'Infernal Dance' from the Firebird  - Stravinsky's father sang Prince Mstivoy in the orginal production apparently - and more curiously still, snatches of what would become Sibelius's Kullervo, also written in 1892 when Finland was still a Grand Duchy of Russia. This is a big work, packed tight with lyricism and drama in carefully crafted measures, crammed with melody, rich harmonies and skilfully constructed polyrhythms.


On the last night of a week in Birmingham (with a short, sharp diversion to Cardiff for the orchestra on the previous evening) many ensembles would have reasonably shown signs of strain. But this was the Mariinsky, noted with Valery Gergiev for tackling gigantic workloads, and they were indefatigable. Precision, clarity energy and commitment are clearly their watchwords and both playing and singing were magnificent for every minute of this 2½ hour performance. The big-voiced soloists were all uniformly splendid with a ringing tenor from Avgust Amonov's Yaromir, a dramatic yet poignant Voyslava from Mlada Khudoley and a sinister and sonorous bass from Mikhail Petrenko's Mstivoy. The palm goes of course to Gergiev whose fluttering fingers and well-known acrobatics guided the whole ensemble through difficult rhythms and huge orchestral climaxes without a quaver out of place. Extraordinary conducting made this a Mariinsky Masterwork in every sense.



Bill Kenny


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, Neil McGowan, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)