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Nikolay RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Snow Maiden - opera in 4 acts with prologue
Snow Maiden, Valentina Sokolik (sop); Spring Fairy and Lel, Irina Arkhipova (m. sop); Tsar Brendel, Anton Grigoriev (ten); Mizguir, Anatoly Moksayakov (bar); Kupava, Lidya Sakharenko (sop); King Frost, Alexander Vedernikov (bass); Bermiata, Vladimir Matorin (bass); Maslenitsa, Ivan Budrin (bass)
Grand Choir of the USSR Radio and TV
Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio/Vladimir Fedoseyev
Recorded 1975. No venue given
Silver Edition
RELIEF CR 991049 [3CDs: 60.50+61.38+65.05]

In my review, on this site, of Relief’s Rimsky’s ‘May Night’, I suggest that the composer, in his operatic plots, did not follow his Russian contemporaries with episodic historical subjects. Instead he preferred to pursue his love of mythology by setting legend and fairy tales to which he believed his gift for harmonic and orchestral colour was more suited. The ‘Snow Maiden’, to a libretto by the composer based on Ostrovsky’s drama, was first produced in St. Petersburg on 10 May 1882. It tells of a love triangle further complicated by the fact that some of the characters are mortals whilst others are from the fairy world.

The Snow Maiden (Snegurochka) is the daughter of King Frost and Spring Fairy and she yearns to leave her world and seeks to live with mortals. Despite the warning of her parents she does so and the songs of Lel, the shepherd, warm her frozen heart. However, her love for him meets no response as Lel is infatuated by Kapuva, the fiancée of Mizgir, who becomes so passionate about Snegurochka that he deserts his betrothed. Snegurochka is so bewildered about human love she returns to her mother who, in maternal solicitude, bestows on her child the gift of human love. No sooner does the Snow Maiden utter an avowal of love for Mizgir than a ray of warm sunshine falls upon her and she floats to heaven in a vapor. Mizgir drowns himself.

There are many more details to the plot than the above and these are given in the booklet, Act-by-Act, but only in French and German! The English synopsis is a summary more akin to the above, with the addition of an overly romantic description of the composition of the work, and inaccurate comments about the recording with names mentioned that do not appear in the cast! The information about the choice of singer for the name part is interesting, but no substitute for a detailed, preferably track related, synopsis. This performance appeared briefly in the UK in the early 1990s on the ‘Chant du Monde’ label whose origin in France may explain the particular language and translation vagaries and omissions of the booklet in this particular, Relief issue. Be that as it may, it does becomes a greater omission when the libretto is in Cyrillic script Russian with no translation in any language. This matter of booklet information and translation is a failing of these Silver Edition issues of Russian opera, which are filling major gaps in the catalogue. Purchasers deserve better in future if the discs are to achieve the commercial success that are the just desserts of the performances. The label should take as a model the Russian opera series, conducted by Gergiev, which appears on the Philips label.

For the role of the Snow Maiden the conductor was not happy with the singers available on the Bolshoi roster and brought Valentina Sokolik from Kiev for the part, preferring her lyric soprano to the usual coloratura. In normal circumstances his choice, and her performance here, would have guaranteed her future. As it was she committed the ‘political’ sin, at that time, of marriage and emigration to Israel. This state of affairs meant the banning of the broadcast of the performance and her substitution when conductor Fedoseyev took the company to Paris in 1983. There the opera was widely acclaimed. Valentina Sokolik exhibits a strong lyric voice with good extension, a solid middle with a touch of vibrato that she uses to give a wide range of expression whilst also being able to float a silvery phrase on a wisp of breath (CD 1 Trs. 9, 18-19). Her mother and Lel the shepherd are portrayed by that long time tower of strength of the Bolshoi Company, the mezzo Irina Arkhipova. Her purity of tone, fine legato and ability to inflect a phrase make for fine characterisation whenever she appears. Her solo in the Prologue (CD 1 Trs. 2-3), the continuing scene with King Frost, and also in Lel’s songs (CD 1 Trs. 16-17) illustrate her superb voice and singer’s skills in all their facets. I was initially less impressed with the King Frost of the veteran Alexander Vedernikov who is distinctly dry of tone, and not ideally steady, in ‘King Frost’s Song’ (CD 1 Tr 6). However, his vocal focus tightens and the voice warms as the scene progresses when his strength in the lower voice, and characterisation skills, come to the fore. This is particularly clear in the following scene with his daughter (CD 1 Trs 7-11).

Of the two betrothed lovers, the Kapuva of Lidya Sakharenko I found lacking in vocal nuance and colour, even a little shrill (CD 1 Tr. 19). Anatoly Moksayakov as Mizgir exhibits a powerful well-centred baritone, rather Slavic in timbre, and without any great tonal range or variety of colour. In the scene between him and Kapuva (CD 1 Tr. 2) I struggled to get a sense of what was happening. Not being able to read Cyrillic script didn’t help, but nor did the expression of the singers. However, by ‘Tr 3’ the orchestra was telling me more in its urgency; reinforced by the vibrant appeals of the chorus of people. As in so many Russian operas, the chorus is a major protagonist. It is self evident that this chorus will be idiomatic. But they are more, much more, than that. Their well articulated singing seems to underpin the whole in whatever they are portraying. Particularly appealing is their rendering of ‘the chorus of the blind singers’ (CD 2 Tr 4) where a production effect sets them further back on the sound stage with a touch of echo or added warmth. Of the other singers, there is rather more Slavic tone and wobble to be heard than on the other Relief issues. However this is not so much as to spoil enjoyment of this significant addition to the Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas on disc outside Russia.

The recording is clear and well balanced throughout in an open unconstricted acoustic. This allows the conductor to take full advantage of the wide dynamic range of Rimsky’s generous and rich orchestration, so full of colour, tonal variety and melodic invention. It is good to have this performance available again. I hope it lasts longer in the catalogue than last time it appeared. Potential purchasers will tolerate the limitations of the booklet information and luxuriate in the composer’s genius for painting orchestral pictures other than for ‘exhibition’.

Robert J Farr

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