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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Story of a Real Man Op. 117 (1948)
An Opera composed in four acts, re-arranged in three acts by M Mendelson-Prokofieva
Libretto by S.S. Prokofiev and M. Mendelson-Prokofieva
Based on the novel by Boris Polevoy
Alexei, a pilot - Yevgeny Kibkalo (bar)
Olga, his fiance - Glafira Deomidova (sop)
Grandfather, Mikhailo, chairman of a collective farm - Georgi Shulpin (ten)
Vasilissa, grandmother - Vera Smirnova (alto)
Varya, a farm woman - Margarita Miglau (mezzo)
Petrovna, a farm woman - Antonina Ivanova (sop)
Seryenka, a farm boy - Aleksandr Suzanov
Fedya, a farm boy - Vladimir Kurguzov
Andrei, a pilot friend of Alexei's - Georgi Pankov (bass)
First surgeon - Leonid Maslov (ten)
Second surgeon - Nikolai Zaharov (bass)
Alexei's mother - Valentina Petrova (mezzo)
Klavdia, a nurse - Kira Leonova (mezzo)
Commissar - Artur Eizen (bass)
Kukushkin, a pilot - Alexei Maslennikov (ten)
Gvozdev, a tank driver - Vitali Vlasov (ten)
Vasili Vasilevich, the head surgeon - Mark Reshetin (bass)
Zinochka - Maria Zvenzdina (mezzo)
Colonel (Valeri Yaroslavtsev)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre/Mark Ermler
rec. studio, 1961, Moscow, based on 1960 Bolshoi Theatre production
CHANDOS CHAN 10002(2) [CD1: Act 1: 39.28 + CD2: Acts 2 and 3: 73.21]



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Chandos continue to surprise and delight. Here they make generally available the only recording ever made of Prokofiev's last opera. It is based on the original stage production which opened at the Bolshoi on 8 October 1960. A private performance took place behind locked doors in Leningrad on 3 December 1948 but this was for the benefit of the Party's cultural intelligentsia. The official opprobrium accorded to it was a predictable nerve spasm in the wake of the Zhdanov condemnation of formalism.

Tragically this opera had been something of an artist's riposte to 'justified criticism'. Ever since Semyon Kotko (reviewed on this site in the Philips recording by Gergiev) Prokofiev had been striving for the perfect Soviet opera. It must have been heart-rending for 'Story of a Real Man' to be rejected so brutally. Even the title reached out directly to the praesidium. Here was no tale of remote, dandyish society but the very acme of gritty wartime reality. The message was positive - exalting Soviet heroism and yet still it was rejected!

The scene is 1942 USSR during the Nazi invasion. The heroic pilot Alexei is shot down behind Nazi lines and despite terrible injuries to his feet crawls back to the Soviet side. He has prostheses fitted and against the odds (a Soviet Bader!) learns not only to dance but also to fly. Soon he becomes a leading fighter ace. At the end after seemingly going missing on an interception mission he returns and is reunited with his love, Olga.

Like Kotko the work is laid out in a series of film story-board tableaux. In this version there are four tableaux in Act 1, three in Act 2 and four in Act 3. Each tableau is multiply tracked and with praiseworthy attention to detail Chandos relate each track to the relevant pages in the libretto. The booklet presents the sung texts in the original Russian (Cyrillic only) alongside English, French and German. A pity about the lack of a transliteration. Its absence makes it difficult to locate exactly where you are unless that is you are able to handle Cyrillic.

The music can best be related to the world of the Seventh Symphony - a work most unfairly derided - and to Kotko itself. Irresistible popular elements fraternise with steely shimmering magical effects. Listen for example to the Prokofiev equivalent of the ‘presentation of the rose’ with its trembling trumpet at (tr.12 CD1: 1.40) and the shrill strings. This is to returns in tr.10 act 2 as part of the mid-act interlude. Hear also the resolute yet winsome tone of the Song of the Collective Farmers in tr.1 and tr.11. Popular light opera puts in an appearance in Kukushkin's Song - a swashbuckling encore piece with its urgent cries of ‘Anyuta’ (CD2 tr.7). Alexei's scene with the commissar is distinguished by the moonlight (‘immense and silent moon’) suggested by shimmering violins similar to the mysterious moonrise in Vaughan Williams Dona Nobis Pacem.

All the voices have the authentic ring that we associate with Golden Age Soviet operatic practice. This is especially true of the men and I would particularly single out for praise Yevgeny Kibkalo (Alexei, the pilot) and Artur Eizen (the Commissar). Chandos have wrought wonders with the sound. Analogue hiss from these forty-plus year old stereo tapes has been deeply subsumed and the resoundingly natural and grand musical signal emerges. Bass rumble is occasionally heard often at the start of a tableau but the sound itself is as stable as you could possibly want. The voices are rendered with gripping immediacy, every breath intake is caught. On the debit side this recording is not the full opera but a version with significant cuts and with scenes rearranged.

The excellent notes are by Daniel Jaffé.

This disc inaugurates Chandos's 'Historical Opera' series. I have my fingers crossed that they have some of the other 1950s and 1960s Melodiya opera tapes in their sights. I believe that there are Melodiya tapes of Betrothal in a Monastery.

The way remains open for Edward Downes or Gergiev to give us a complete version. We certainly need one. Even when one appears this set will retain its magnetic charge and its relevance as a vivid audio account of how this work first emerged into the world: fallible, damaged, but salty, emotional and valiant.

Rob Barnett



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