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Nikolay RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
May Night - opera in three acts
Levko, Konstantin Lissovsky (ten); Hanna, Liudmilla Sapyeghina (sop); the Sister-in-law, Anna Matiushina (m.sop); The Governor, Aleksej Krivchenko (bass); Kalanik, Ivan Budrin (bar); Distiller, Yury Yelnikov (ten)
Grand Choir of the USSR Radio and TV
Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio/Vladimir Fedoseyev
No recording dates or venues given but believed to be 1983
Silver Edition
RELIEF CR 991044 [2CDs: 60.35+67.16]

Rimsky-Korsakov provides the link between the earlier Russian ‘nationalist’ composers, Glinka, Moussorgsky and Borodin, and the masters of the 20th century. He left a naval career and taught composition and was to devote much of his time to the work of others, especially their operas. He completed, orchestrated or produced performing editions, of what we now consider seminal works of the Russian repertoire; the two Glinka operas, Boris, Khovantschina and Prince Igor. During this period he also wrote his first opera and went on to write fifteen in all. Although he was of the ‘nationalist’ camp he did not follow the pattern of historical, often episodic, works. Instead, as his inspiration, Rimsky chose the origin of most of his operatic works in Russian folk tales.

The libretto of May Night, Rimsky’s second opera, derives from a fairy tale by Gogol. It tells the story of the love of Levko and Hanna who plan to marry despite opposition from his father, The Governor. Levko tells Hanna the legend of the girl who drowned herself to escape her stepmother and became a ‘rusalka’ (east European version of a ‘mermaid’). However, the stepmother also drowned and now cannot be distinguished from the ‘good’ rusalki. Later Levko finds his father serenading Hanna and complications arise at a drinking party of the Mayor leading to the sister-in-law being mistaken for the devil and nearly burned alive. Retreating to the tranquillity of the lake Levko sings in praise of Hanna. The rusalki appear, ensure that the Governor is outwitted and a happy ending ensues.

As in the composer’s well known Scheherazade, colourful settings suited Rimsky’s compositional technique. In May Night the orchestra is a major protagonist in conveying the magical atmosphere. This is heard to good effect in the Overture (CD1 tr.1) and the music of the rusalki in Act 3 (CD2 tr.5) where the imagery in the orchestra, aided by the sensitive chorus, conveys the atmosphere to perfection. In this recording the performance of both the orchestra and the choir is enhanced by a well balanced airy recording and by the sensitively paced and phrased, conducting of Vladimir Fedoseyev.

Of the soloists only Anna Matiushina as the sister-in-law leaves something to be desired being rather squally at times with the voice spreading under pressure. The Levko of Konstantin Lissovsky exhibits a true tenor with open lyric tone and good range of expression (CD1 tr.3). In the rusalki scene (CD2 tr.4) he is tuneful and sensitive although his legato is not perfectly held. Perhaps a more honeyed head voice would have helped. He is rather husky at this point. As Hanna, Liudmilla Sapyeghina sings with a clear, pure-toned lyric soprano allied to a good range of colours within the voice. She brings these attributes together to provide an expressive and convincing portrayal. As the inappropriate older suitor, the veteran bass Aleksej Krivchenko is superb in the lower reaches of the voice. His characterisation via vocal nuance and inflection, as well as good diction, allows a near definitive portrayal (CD1 tr.8) only marred by the upper reaches of his voice, which are a little threadbare. As Kalenik, the baritone of Ivan Budrin is sonorous if a little throaty (CD1 tr.11) whilst the Distiller has a good range albeit with a touch of harshness in the tone (CD1 tr.10).

In reviewing various of these ‘Relief’ label issues of Russian operatic works, some being the only available recordings in the UK, I have expressed frustration about the lack of information in the booklet and poor presentation of what is provided. I regret my criticisms continue here. The booklet provides a full libretto in ‘Roman’ form Russian (as distinct from Cyrillic) with no translation or even track points. The track listings are given in the same form on the inside face of the folding slipcase. The booklet provides artist profiles, and, joy of joy, a track-related synopsis, all in three languages. But this too is compromised, with the numbering for ‘CD 2’ being given as 12-25 to follow on from the 1-11 for ‘CD 1’. Needless to say it doesn’t make following the track listings easy … to say the least! My searches through the booklet, and slipcase cover, did not reveal any recording dates or venues. I did however discover the cast list, in minute print, below the track listing on an inner face of the folding slipcase.

The Gergiev series of recordings of Russian opera on the Philips label provides insight into some other of Rimsky’s operas, but to the best of my knowledge this is the first issue of a legitimate commercial recording of this work outside the former USSR. We are fortunate that the performance and recording allow the listener to enjoy its atmosphere and compositional pleasures to the full. For any future issues I hope that the associated information will be of a similar nature and quality as that provided by Philips for Gergiev’s interpretations. This, and the other performances in this series, deserves no less.

Robert J Farr

Michael Dailey wites in:

The Relief recording is not the first one out of Russia. I have one on Le Chant du Monde, one on Vanguard and the same one you reviewed on Deutsche Grammophon. It was originally recorded on Melodiya in 1971.

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