> Alfreds Kalnins - Banuta [RB]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett


Alfreds KALNINS (1879-1951)
Banuta (1920 rev 1927-33)
Opera in four acts
Regina Frinberga (sop) - Banuta
Karlis Zarins (bar) - Vizuts
Aleksandrs Daskovs - Valgudis, King
Peteris Gravelis - Daumants, son of the King
Maija Krigena - Maiga, the King's daughter
Druvis Krikis - Zvantevaitis, leader of warriors
Ivars Krastins - Burvis, sorcerer
Oskars Bruveris - Zvalgonis
Andris Blaumanis - Krivs, priest
Karlis Miesnieks - Krivukrivs, High Priest
Valentina Grinberga - First Priestess
Vera Davidone - Second Priestess
Lauma Vanaga - Third Priestess
Choir and Symphony Orchestra of Latvian TV and Radio/Aleksandrs Vilumanis
RIGAS SKANU RS010 [CD1 75.06; CD2 75.41]


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This is a romantic nationalist opera set in pagan Latvia. It remains in the standard repertoire of Latvian Opera to this day occupying a place in Latvia comparable to that helf by Erkel's Bank Ban in Hungary.

Alfreds Kalnins established himself as an organist and composer of songs. When this opera catapulted onto the scene in 1940, complete with an ending conforming to Soviet ideology, the public were not prepared for it. Kalnins had overhauled the score while he was living in New York between 1927 and 1933. The politically-rehabilitated text was the version used in Latvia until, in 1979, with Perestroika radiating outwards from Moscow, the Latvians felt able to restore the original tragic ending. The original version's premiere in the West was at New York's Carnegie Hall on 5 June 1982.

Quite apart from the heroic and passionate exchanges between the principals this is an opera that makes extensive use of the chorus rather like Boughton's Queen of Cornwall and Alkestis. Here the chorus provide the crowd scenes and commentary - an analogue of the Latvian people just as Mussorgsky's choirs in Kovantschina speak for the downtrodden Russian people.

The plot follows a tragic storyline echoing 'Romeo and Juliet'. Banuta, a captured princess, is led back to Latvia by Prince Daumants. They are to be married. Daumants is killed by Vizuts the brother of Yargala who had been raped by Daumants when she refused his offer of marriage. To cut a long story shorter, Banuta falls in love with Vizuts and only when the two declare their mutual love in Act 4 does Vizuts confess to killing Daumants. Mortefied by guilt and sorrow the two commit suicide by stabbing each other.

This is a grand grand opera running the gamut of incident and requiring the usual infusions of credibility suspension. Along the way we get a welcome homecoming, triumphalism (especially in Act 1), a murder, a love-ban oath, midsummer frolics à la Smetana, carousal, love duets, a frustrated human sacrifice - complete with druids, woodland interludes, dawn awakenings (listen to the birdsong rustlings at act 4 0917) and a well paced Liebestod.

In Act 3 Kalnins taps a folk dance tradition explored by Dvorak and Smetana in Czechoslovakia and Ludolf Nielsen in Denmark. There is also a dash or ten of the dissolute carpe diem abandon of Part II of Bantock's Omar Khayyam. The meditative orchestral material often crosses Mussorgsky's Dawn on the Neva and Dvorak's New World.

The soprano role of Banuta is a true barnstormer and in her stormy climactic moments I was forcefully reminded of both Iolanta and Onegin by Tchaikovsky (the former a very strong opera contemporary with the Fourth Symphony) and of Rachmaninov's opera Francesca da Rimini. At 21.44 (Act 3) there is some especially fiery work for Banuta and it is unstoppably delivered by Regina Frinberga à la Raili Kostia (in the EMI Berglund-Bournemouth Kullervo); would that Karlis Zarins (as Vinuts) had been another Jorma Hynninen. The superheated mood is heightened by some pretty stark brass work, for example at 19.03 (Act 3).

The start of Act 3 has a sincere touch of Tchaikovsky's Winter Daydreams crossed with Borodin's Second Symphony and Brahms' Fourth. The choral singing by the women is simultaneously pristine and soft-focused like the Delian 'haze' in Patrick Hadley's The Trees (listen to the Lyrita LP if you can). The carousing among the young women, old men and young men is adeptly done with much cheery interplay reflected in the stereo separation. The parallels are with Howard Hanson's choral dances from Merry Mount - another work of the 1930s.

The last Act features some extremely lyrical music reminiscent of Fibich. In fact this opera could easily be a modern-ish counterpart of The Bride of Messina and Sarka by Fibich or, closer to home (Kalnins'), Madetoja's Juha or Peterson-Berger's Arnljot.

It is irritating that the tracking is rather stingy - four tracks in total across two discs: two per disc - one track for each of the four acts. With an unfamiliar work recorded with some hope that it might make its way beyond the Latvian communities, native and émigré, it would have been kinder to offer multiple tracking within acts to key scenes and incidents. The notes are so-so giving barely adequate information on Kalnins, a synopsis plus a full sung text with side-by-side translation into English.

The recording was sponsored by the Latvian National Opera Guild.

This work is a bit of a Russian nationalist throwback but it is a stirring piece and will appeal especially to anyone who appreciates their operas with a dominant role for the choir. If you can't get enough in the way of nationalist operas then don't delay. The only downside is the parsimonious tracking. One track per Act in an opera running circa two and a half hours is not enough. There is no shortage of commitment among the singers and orchestra which promises well for their CDs of Eugene Onegin. I do hope that Rigas Skanu will go on to record more Latvian opera to carry the good work to a world that would like to hear more of this music.

Rob Barnett


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