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
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
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
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
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.
Also see the review
by Terry Barfoot