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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
The Tale of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia

Opera in four acts to a libretto by Vladimir Belsky
Prince Yuri Vsevolodovich - Ivan Petrov
Prince Vsevolod, his son - Vladimir Ivanovsky
Fevronia - Natalya Rozhdestvenskaya
Grishka Kuterma - Dmitry Tarkhov
Fyodor Poyarok - Ilya Bogdanov
The Lad - Lidya Melnikova
Favourites - Veniamin Shevtsov; Sergei Koltypin
Gusli Player - Boris Dobrin
Bear Keeper - Tikhon Tchernjakov
Mendicant Songleader - Mikhail Skazin
Bedyay, Tartar hero - Leonid Ktitorov
Burunday, Tartar hero - Gennady Troitsky
Sirin, Bird of Paradise - Maria Zvezdina
Alkonost, Bird of Paradise - Nina Kulagina
Chorus of Bolshoi Theatre
Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra/Vassili Nebolsin
rec. Moscow 1956, mono ADD
GREAT HALL MVT CD 063-065 [66:25 + 63:09 + 57:02]
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If you enjoy Prince Igor then this is a similar mix without quite Borodinís extraordinary level of inventive creativity.

Rimsky rather specialised in fairy-tale operas. The Tale of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia combines personal drama with a patriotic overview thus securing for it a continuing place at the Bolshoi ahead of such dangerous satirical parables as The Golden Cockerel. This is amongst the earliest of the operaís recordings; perhaps the first.

In the role of Fevronia, Rozhdestvenskaya has a powerful voice, with firm and even note production but with little variety of dynamic. Her lines are coloured by the birdsong which surrounds her in the first scene and is her hallmark all the way through to her transfiguration in Fevronia's Death (tr. 8 CD3). Fevronia is a girl of the people - a clever heroine yet with romantic susceptibility (listen to the lovely song in Fevronia's Vision). She is also compassionate even towards betrayers such as the finally demented Grishka sung by Tarkhov. Vsevolod, Fevroniaís suitor, is sung by the stalwart Ivanovsky. He is not as flexibly voiced as Rozhdestvenskaya and shows the strain at times.

The musical characterisation of the traitor Grishka is by no means obvious. Prokofiev in Semyon Kotko spares the villain nothing when it comes to caricatured condemnation. Rimsky establishes his characters in three dimensions. Here Rimsky finds some compassion for the wretched Grishka (CD1 tr 20). He is sung by Dimitry Tarkhov who is the master of the awed whisper; listen to his needy pleading scene with Fevronia at CD 2 tr. 12

Nebolsin conjures some nice effects as in the distanced songs of the hunting party in Arrival of the Hunters (CD1 tr. 7). The Merchants Song has the Bolshoi men in some truly ursine singing. The wedding choir is accompanied by the tinkle of the balalaika (CD1 tr. 17). The jingling wedding procession (CD1 tr. 15) recalls the joyous nuptial celebrations in Rachmaninov's The Bells. Act 2 launches with a whirlwind Dance of the Bears - surely acknowledging the example of Borodin. There is plenty of variety in the writing as we hear in the harp-accompanied Ballade of the old bard (CD1 tr. 10). The magically conjured orchestral effects at the end of tr.13 CD 2 where the city disappears but the reflection remains - the Tartars flee in consternation.

The Tartars are portrayed in tones of awed horror and Rimsky is not above some Tchaikovskian and Mussorgskian borrowings when he needs this mood. Listen to tracks 18 and 19 on CD1: The invasion of the Tartars.

The debt to Sibelius is strongly reflected in Scene of the Bear Keeper (CD1 tr. 11). Indeed the music often has a rustling Sibelian underpinning as at tr. 4 CD1. The orchestral ostinato at the start of the final Act rustles with the mystery, threat and tension you find in Sibelius's En Saga and First Symphony and in Rachmaninovís The Rock.
In a scornful gesture reminiscent of the explosive start to the finale of Beethoven's Chroal Symphony act III begins with Poyarok blinded by the Tartars telling Vsevolod and Yuri of the plans of the Tartars to destroy the city Greater Kitezh. This is accompanied by Lisztian melodramatic orchestral gestures.

The Battle of Kershenets is rumbustious but Nebolsin also catches its brutality (CD 2 tr.8). Those stabbing and slashing gestures surely inspired Rachmaninov in his Symphonic Dances.

Act Four is a long glowing hymnal ascent towards the cathedral marriage of Fevronia and Vsevolod where eternal happiness is now secure.

Nebolsin is no perfervid febrile inflamer of the passions - neither a Golovanov nor a Mravinsky. He has a good feeling for the lyric theatrical tradition - for bel canto - he strikes me as likely to be a fine Puccini interpreter but I doubt that he was ever let loose on the Italian's scores.

Background rustle has been completely tamed by Great Hallís engineers. The intrinsic sound solid is as a rock if not very refined and the voices are very forwardly favoured. Considerable care has gone into the technical aspects of the transfer. The results are better than might be hoped for from a Soviet recording from 1956. It is a pity then that there is no libretto and translation. What we do get is a literate and compact synopsis: it's pretty short though. In addition there is a detailed track-listing. Track creation is liberal (CD1: 20; CD2: 13; CD3: 15). The booklet is in both Cyrillic and English. Proof-reading is pretty good - certainly better than the counterpart booklet for Great Hallís 1936 Onegin.

This set is especially treasurable for some fine sturdy singing by Ivan Petrov; Natalya Rozhdestvenskaya and Dmitry Tarkhov. Letís not forget the outstanding orchestral contribution from the Bolshoi and from Nebolsin - try the briefly triumphant finale for proof (tr. 15 CD 3). I cannot claim perfection for this set but it does include some truly nectared singing.

Rob Barnett

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