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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Semyon Kotko - opera in five acts (1938)
Libretto by Sergei Prokofiev and Valentin Katayev
Based on Katayev's story 'I am a son of the working people'
Semyon Kotko - N. Gres (ten)
Semyon's mother - T. Yanko (mezzo)
Frosya, Semyon's sister - T. Antipova (sop)
Remeniuk, chairman of the village Soviet - G. Troitsky (bass)
Tkachenko, a former serjeant-major - N. Panchekhin (bass)
Khivrya, Tkachenko's wife - A. Kleshcheva (mezzo)
Sofya, Tkachenko's daughter - L. Gelovani (sop)
Tsaryov, a sailor - M. Kisilev (bar)
Lyubka, Tsaryov's fiancee - T. Tugarinova (sop)
Mikola, a young lad - N. Timchenko (ten)
German soldiers, Haydamaks, women, old men, Semyon's companions
USSR Radio Choir
USSR Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mikhail Zhukov
rec. MONO, 1960, studio, Moscow, ADD
CHANDOS CHAN 10053(3) [77.10+53.27+52.08]

Semyon Kotko was the fifth of Prokofiev's eight operas and the first specifically written for the Soviet stage. When he wrote this work it was within the three years after his return to the Soviet Union after years in France and the U.S.A. He still had something to prove.

The conductor of the present recording is Mikhail Zhukov who conducted the premiere at Moscow's Stanislavsky Theatre on 23 June 1940. The production had started off in the hands of Vsevolod Meyerhold but he 'disappeared' while the production was in hand (and was executed in 1940). Serafima Birman took his place.

Prokofiev's timing was, in any event, far from perfect. At that point the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact was in place. Portraying Germans as the enemy was not going to be acceptable. The invaders became Austrians in that first production. It is strange that, when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded the USSR in 1940, Prokofiev's lyrical opera was not embraced with fervent enthusiasm. Regardless, the opera fell from favour ... and fell deep. It resurfaced only in 1958 in Brno (the scene of the first performance of Romeo and Juliet in 1938). and appeared two years later in the studio for this Moscow-based Melodiya production. There was a Bolshoi stage production in 1970. There have been other productions since including several celebrated revivals conducted to Sergei Gergiev.

The plot essentially deals with Kotko the hero returned to his village from the Great War. He is to be married to Sofya to whom he declared himself before he left for the fighting. Now the way is surely clear for their marriage? Sofya's father, the collaborator, Tkachenko is set against the match and forbids it even in the face of a formal match-making ceremony. Tkachenko expects to be able to make a better match after the Bolsheviks have been thrown out of power.

The arrival of German soldiers to requisition supplies causes resentment in the village and using a ruse the soldiers are disarmed and sent packing. Of course the Germans return with their Haydamak allies to punish the villagers. They make an example by summarily hanging Tsaryov and Ivasenko. Tkachenko hands over a list of prime suspects for elimination and, of course, Kotko's name is at the head. The Kotko's house is razed to the ground. Semyon takes refuge in the woods with the other Soviet partisans (this work might make a fascinating mini-season with Inglis Gundry's contemporary opera The Partisans). One of Tkachenko's workmen referred to as Staff Captain Klembovsky is to be married to Sofya instead.

An order arrives from Red Army HQ that the partisans must attack the Haydamak centre of operations in the village. At the start of Act V preparations are in hand for the forced wedding of Sofya and Klembovsky. They enter the church. Semyon alone rushes in calling on Sofya to lie down as he throws a grenade. Klembovsky, Von Wierhof and Tkachenko are all injured in the explosion but alive. Semyon is arrested and is sentenced to death. Tkachenko has the pleasure of presiding over the execution but the Red Army is advancing and drives the invaders from the village. Remeniuk captures the villain Tkachenko who is led off to execution. Kotko and Sofya are blissfully reunited. The villagers join in a paean to celebrate the liberated Ukraine.

The Chandos booklet runs to 124 pages mostly occupied by the side-by-side libretto in two columns per page - English on the left; Cyrillic (unfortunately not transliterated Russian) on the right. Each scene is given a timing and page number in the meticulous track-listing on pages 4-9. There are four photographic plates from a latter-day Bolshoi production of Semyon - several might well be from the 1970 Bolshoi run.

All credit to Chandos and their integrity in declaring, on the outside of the package, that this is a mono recording from 1960. There should be an industry award for such consumer-orientated frankness; a narrow commercial view might have resulted in the usual 'tactful' non-disclosure.

At the masthead of the front cover we are addressed with the words 'Chandos Historical Opera' so there should be no surprises. However this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, primitive or crude sound. Unsophisticated it may be but it is usually sturdy as a pit pony and honest as the day is long. In fact it is in general a pleasure to hear.

Technically the Chandos lab staff have made the tapes sound as good as they possibly can. Of course the sound is in mono and is analogue yet hiss has been practically eliminated. Technical flim-flam, apart from a discreetly displayed 24bit symbol, is absent. We are told who the transfer engineer is but not treated to a dissertation on what was done to produce the generally very solid and sweet or tangy sound. This time I would have appreciated knowing something about what was done. Was the lab working with LPs or original Soviet tapes. Whatever necromancy has been worked the results are splendidly secure. A good demonstration track is tr.1 on CD2 and special note should be taken of the orchestral episode right at the end of scene 10. Here you can hear the nicely conjured dynamic contrasts - all very subtly executed by the USSR Radio Symphony.

On CD2 the burnished eloquent duet (tr.4) between the serenading Semyon and the fiery Sofya takes us close to the Eugene Onegin stage music and Romeo and Juliet. The orchestral writing in Act III is a world treasure. The great love melody runs into tr 5. and weaves its way through the whole of the Act. The grand clashing chorus pound out with motoric punctuation at end of CD2 as Sofya and Lyubka call out against the injustice of the hangings of Tsaryov and Ivasenko by the Germans and their allies the Ukrainian Haydamaks. The 'engine pounding' of the music (CD2 tr.16) well captures the temple-pounding despair and hysteria. It operates as if one of Borodin's Polovtsian choruses had been gripped by a malign intelligence and deprived of all pliancy of rhythm and melodic life. Detail a after detail registers effectively in this mosaic of an opera. At CD2 tr. 12 the little agogic pauses before each phrase is echoed between voice and orchestra.

Semyon's glorious ringing tone is another highlight of the set though with a hint of emery paper in the edge of his voice (CD2 tr.13). Contrary to Slavonic cliché only one male voice is afflicted with 'wobble'; otherwise the cast are secure in vocal production. While the sound is intrinsically strong and stable there is an occasional and infrequent a rawness under pressure. This can be heard in the massed choir at tr. 3 CD3 at the start. The work loses some of its originality towards the end and the final chorus (CD3 tr.12) is not the emotive pay-off it might have been. That said this is a work well worth discovering.

The competition is in stereo. Gergiev recorded what must be a cut version of the opera in 2000. His recording on Philips 464 605-2 plays for only 136.46 as opposed to Zhukov's 182.45. Looking at the timings for each scene the difference is accounted for by many small cuts here and there. The Chandos version gives us far more of Prokofiev's music than Gergiev. From that vantage point the Chandos is essential listening for fans of Prokofiev as well as for collectors of authentic Soviet recordings.

Chandos will want to play their cards close to their chests but in the delta where nostalgia and the appreciation of full-blooded music-making meet there are many listeners who await their next ex-Soviet release with excited anticipation. Whatever next - The Gambler, Love in a Monastery, or a complete Rimsky-Korsakov opera series. Now if only Chandos were able to get hold of Ostankino radio tapes of Ivan Dzerzhinsky's Sholokhov-based operas ...! More please.

Chandos here cater to a small but developing market in their second historic release from Melodiya or Mezhdunarodnaya Kniga sources. This highly attractive opera is given with superb voices and with orchestral imagination. It is also a most vigorous and emotionally telling tribute in this the year (2003) of the half-centenary of Prokofiev's death.

Rob Barnett

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