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Mikhail GLINKA (1804-1857)
Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842, ed. Teterina & Lavashev).
Taras Shtonda (bass) Ruslan; Etakerina Morozova (soprano) Lyudmila; Vadim Lynkovsky (bass) Svetosar; Aleksandra Durseneva (contralto) Ratmir; Vitaly Panfilov (tenor) Finn Vitaly; Maria Gavrilova (soprano) Gorislava; Valery Gilmanov (bass) Farlaf; Maksim Paster (tenor) Bayan; Irina Dolzhenko (mezzo) Naina; Chorus and Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow/Alexander Vedernikov. Rec. live at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, on April 23rd-27th, 2003. PENTATONE CLASSICS SACD PTC 5186 034 [203’32: 64’54 + 64’42 + 73’56

A marvellous performance, historically informed and caught absolutely on the wing. Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila, with its fairy-tale plot and quicksilver, feather-light orchestrational touch, is delightful. It will amuse and touch in equal measure - how lucky the audience was to be there at the Bolshoi in April last year; and how lucky are we, now, to enjoy the immediacy of the event.

Musicological detective work (and from the extensive and detailed booklet note, that’s the only real phrase for it) has led to this, the fullest and most complete Ruslan yet. The actual performance has all the advantages of live performance (immediacy and a real edge), yet few of the disadvantages (a miraculously silent audience; orchestral playing is consistently excellent and recording quality also, except for some distancings).

Long the piece may be, but when it sparkles like this, Wagner-like, it banishes time. The initial impression is that we may not be detained too long, anyway, so fast is the opening of the Overture. But it soon emerges this is to be a dancing, rather than turbo-powered curtain raiser, more of a bustling Russian Marriage of Figaro Overture. So, not as dynamic as some, certainly (and the catalogue is filled to bursting with versions of the overture alone), yet one that rather prepares the ground for the substantial opera to follow. The orchestra, anyway, has a chance to assert its excellence, as it does throughout not only in its sensitive accompaniments, but also in the purely orchestral numbers (the light ballet in Act 4, for example, or the extended, atmospheric entr’acte between Acts 1 and 2, or the delicate yet regal Turkish Dances in Act 4).

In fact the music of the Overture returns at the very end of the opera, its signified revealed, of course, as the jubilation so inherent in itself. Listeners familiar with the overture might be interested to hear the operatic flowering of the lyrical, cello-dominated melody in the second part of Ruslan’s Aria that begins Act 2 (CD2, Track 2, 1’05ff, ‘O Lyudmila, Lel promised us happiness …’).

The plot, attractive in its escapism may be found here. There is a plot summary in the booklet, but it is rather weak. In (very) brief, Lyudmila is kidnapped at her wedding celebration, and she is promised to the man who can return her. Cue encounters with magicians and dwarves for not only Ruslan, but also Lyudmilla’s would-be suitors Farlaf and Ratmir (actually sung by a contralto). Lyudmila is returned to the court by Farlaf, yet it is Ruslan who is able to produce a magic ring that brings her to consciousness and, finally, the wedding resumes. All celebrate.

Lyudmila’s contribution opens with a Cavatina, a song full of longing but also full of tricky melodic lines to sing. Morozova acquits herself excellently in this sad aria. She sings excellently, teasing Farlaf, and addressing Ratmir. Her pitching is superb, the atmosphere frothy. There are some aspirants in her runs, but not enough to seriously detract, and her closing vocal flourish is the perfect climax for her number. She sounds young and fresh in her scene at the beginning of Act 4. A delight.

Kiev-born Taras Shtonda, a bass-baritone, takes the part of Ruslan. He acts with his voice well (he does sound affronted when he contemplates Lyudmila’s being under the power of a sorcerer in Act 2 (Number 6, CD1 Track 9). His Act 2 aria, ‘O field, field!’ (CD2 Tracks 1-2, immediately before an enormous head appears - that’s the level to which you have to suspend your sense of reality) sums Shtonda’s assumption up. Heavy with sadness, his authentically Russian tone conveys all of his burden without descending into mega-vibrato.

Probably the most heavily-excepted part of the opera (excepting, of course, the Overture) is Farlaf’s Rondo (from Act 2, here CD1, track 11). Bass Valery Gilmanov (graduate of Novosibirsk, with the Bolshoi since 2001) does the honours. The Scene that immediately precedes the Rondo is shared with Naina (light-toned mezzo Irina Dolzhenko, who apparently has graced Wexford before now) bristles with the dramatic; the Rondo itself is tremendous fun, Gilmanov’s diction a model of clarity. One can almost see his stage gestures. In both of these numbers, Glinka’s comedic sense comes over strongly (this Rondo was a great favourite of Chaliapin, by the way). Gilmanov’s repertoire list includes Sparafucile (Rigoletto). That must be worth hearing.

Ratmir is taken by contralto Aleksandra Dursenova (who sang Amelfa in The Golden Cockerel at Covent Garden in 1999). Her voice comes across as rather heavy at the end of Act 1, yet she comes into her own in ‘her’ aria in Act 3 (CD2, track 8 - a pity the cor anglais almost but not quite gets through its solo intact). Here Dursenova reveals her creamy (and, yes, heavily-vibratoed) voice in all its glory. This long, multi-faceted aria is well followed through, encompassing a wide range of emotions.

A pity that the Svetossar, bass Vadim Lynkovsky, is weak, and the Finn (Vitaly Panfilov) is on the tremulous side. Maria Gavrilova makes for a touching Gorislava, while the star of the lesser roles is Maksim Paster’s Bayan. His aria is superbly despatched, and his eloquence seemingly knows no bounds (although his vocal range is stretched a little by the lowest notes). The luxurious harp accompaniment is perfectly caught in Pentatone’s superb recording (Producer Job Maarse; Balance Engineer Jean-Marie Geijsen). Glinka’s glittering orchestration only adds sparkle.

Glinka’s score is chock-full of delights. However its miracle lies in the ability to deliver a coherent whole rather than a succession of ‘numbers’. Do try to hear this set, even if you own Gergiev (Philips 486 746-2) - Vedernikov restores Ruslan, intact and complete, to its rightful place.

By the way, an excellent complement to this set is Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar (Ivan Susanin) - try Capriccio 10 783/5, from Sofia National Opera (Harold Moores) A Life for the Tsar similarly contains much to delight - here there is an added Polish colour to the music (including instrumental Krakowiak and Mazurka). Well worth seeking out.

Colin Clarke

Also see the review by Terry Barfoot


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