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Nicolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844 – 1908)
Opera Edition

Snegurocha (Snow Maiden) Fairy-tale Opera in a Prologue and four Acts (1881)
Elena Zemenkova (soprano) – Snow Maiden
Nicola Ghiuselev (bass) – King Frost
Alexandrina Milcheva (mezzo) – Spring Fairy
Avram Andreev (tenor) – Tsar Berendei
Stefka Mineva (contralto) – Lehl, a shepherd
Stefka Evstatieva (soprano) – Kupava, a young girl
Lyubomir Dyakovski (tenor) – Cottager
Vessela Zorova (mezzo) – his wife
Lyubomir Videnov (baritone) – Misgir, a merchant
Lyubomir Dyakovski (tenor) – Forest Sprite
Bulgarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Stoyan Angelov
Recorded at the National Radio, Sofia, Bulgaria, 1985
CAPRICCIO 10 749 – 51 [63:56 + 66:37 + 78:46]
May Night, Fairy-tale opera in three acts (1878)
Soloists’ Ensemble of the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow:
Vladimir Bogatschow (tenor) – Levko
Vladimir Matorin (bass) – Village Mayor
Galina Borisowa (mezzo) – His sister-in-law
Tatjana Erastowa (soprano) – Hanna
Maxim Michailov (tenor) – The Clerk
Vladimir Kudriachow (baritone) – The distiller
Michael Krutikov (bass) – Kalenik
Elena Brilowa (soprano) – The queen of water-nymphs
Cologne Radio Chorus/Helmuth Froschauer
Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Lazarev
Recorded in Cologne on September 25th 1994
CAPRICCIO 10 792 – 93 [52:33 + 70:47]
The Golden Cockerel, Opera in three acts (1907)
Nicolai Stoilov (bass) – Tsar Dodon
Lyubomir Bodourov (tenor) – Prince Guidon
Emil Ugrinov (baritone) – Afron
Kosta Videv (bass) – Polkan
Lyubomir Dyakovski (tenor) – Astrologer
Elena Stoyanova (soprano) – Queen of Shemakha
Yavora Stoilova (soprano) – The Golden Cockerel
Evgenia Babacheva (mezzo) – Amelfa
Sofia National Opera Chorus and Sofia National Opera Orchestra/Dimiter Manolov
Recorded at the National Radio, Sofia, Bulgaria, 1985
CAPRICCIO 10 760 – 61 [46:17 + 72:24]
Boyarinya Vera Sheloga Opera in One Act
Stevka Evstatieva (soprano) – Vera
Alexandrina Milcheva (mezzo) – Nadezhda
Stefka Mineva (mezzo) – Vlas’yevna
Peter Bakardzhiev (bass) – Boyar Sheloga
Dimiter Stanchev (bass) – Prince Tokmakov
Bulgarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Stoyan Angelov
Recorded in the 1st Studio of the Sofia Radio. No recording dates given
CAPRICCIO 10 762 [49:13]
CAPRICCIO 49 474 [8 CDs: 63:56 + 66:37 + 78:46 + 52:33 + 70:47 + 46:17 + 72:24 + 49:13]

 

In the West Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas are rarely played, even if several of them are well-known to music-lovers through individual arias and other excerpts. Others are completely unknown. Since he wrote operas from quite early in life until the very end, he naturally had a liking for the genre and there is no denying that they contain much wonderful music. Whether they are masterpieces as operas is another matter. I will touch on that subject while commenting on the individual works here.

The reason for issuing these works as a boxed set is that Capriccio had them available and saw an opportunity to recycle them at budget price. Since they are probably still available separately I have also listed them with individual numbers and timings.

The four operas cover around 35 years of Rimsky-Korsakov’s life and although three of them are fairy-tale based, their subjects and consequently their musical treatment differ quite markedly. Rimsky-Korsakov was a master of orchestration and we can enjoy his skill in many instances during the course of the nine hours it takes to play these eight CDs straight through.

Three of the four operas were recorded in Sofia with Bulgarian forces back in the mid-eighties while May Night was set down in Cologne with local orchestral and choral forces and with soloists from the Bolshoi a decade later. These should be favourable conditions for authentic performances.

Sound quality is good without being exceptional – the Bulgarian recordings tend to favour the solo voices. The result is that if you find a nice setting of the volume to enjoy the orchestra, when the soloists enter you have them right in your lap. Of course you adjust to this but the effect is that the voices can sometimes sound harsh, since there is a great deal of Slavonic vibrato and hardness of tone to be heard. The results would have been more pleasing to listen to if the recording had been made with more space around the voices. Orchestral playing is mainly good and choral singing is full-voiced and well-drilled ... just not very subtle. The exception is the Cologne recording (May Night), where legenday chorus master Helmuth Froschauer has an excellent team of singers at his disposal. Here we also have a more realistic balance between orchestra and soloists.

Over, then, to the individual works:

Snow Maiden, the longest work here with a playing time of 3˝ hours, was first performed in St. Petersburg in 1882. The text is by the composer, based on a comedy by Alexander Ostrowskij. The central theme is the misalliance between the Spring Fairy and King Frost. This has serious consequences since Snow Maiden, their child, has inherited from her mother a longing for love but from her father an incapacity for it. The rhythm of the seasons has been disrupted and to protect the daughter from the sun-god, her parents send her to the humans where she lives with a poor couple in Tsar Berendey’s realm. Snow Maiden is unhappy and to cheer her up her best friend Kupava invites her to her wedding and introduces her to her fiancée Misgir. He falls in love with Snow Maiden and leaves Kupava, who turns to the Tsar for help. The Tsar questions Snow Maiden who answers that she doesn’t love anybody. The Tsar who is at a loss how to reconcile the two girls invites them to a ball, intended to mark the end of the winter. In the evening Misgir declares his love to Snow Maiden who is so moved that she returns to the forest and asks her mother to give her love to Snow Maiden. The Spring Fairy appears with garland of flowers for her daughter, who feels something new within her and goes to meet Misgir. She accepts his proposal. Before the wedding Misgir goes to the Tsar to get his blessing, but a ray from the sun, the symbol of love, falls on Snow Maiden, who melts and disappears. In his distress Misgir throws himself in the lake, but as soon as King Frost’s daughter has melted the sun starts shining again.

For this plot Rimsky-Korsakov wrote wonderful music, based partly on Russian folk music sources. His orchestration is masterly. This doesn’t mean, though, that the score is over-loaded; on the contrary much of the writing is very restrained and transparent. He uses solo instruments frequently, which gives the whole opera a chamber music feeling. The solo violin, the horn, the flute and most of all the clarinet are heard in solo over and over again. But there are also more monumental scenes: the Carnival procession with chorus (CD1 tr. 13), the lively forest scene beginning act 3 (CD3 tr. 1) and the dance of the tumblers (CD3 tr. 4) are all exciting, not to mention the short but intense final chorus (CD3 tr. 17). The flower chorus (CD3 tr. 13) is also very attractive.

Among the soloists the two internationally most well-known are also among the best. Alexandrina Milcheva, the Spring Fairy, has a full, vibrant mezzo-soprano, beautiful and dramatic. Her aria (CD1 tr. 3) shows her at her very best with long, steady phrases; the recitative that follows is full of intensity. And when King Frost appears in the shape of the magnificient Nicola Ghiuselev (CD1 tr. 7) the drama is even tenser. He has a big voice, still, at nearly fifty, without any signs of ageing. He was for many years second best only to his compatriot Nicolai Ghiaurov, and here he has a tremendous presence. It is a pity that neither he nor Milcheva has anything more to sing when the Prologue is over. King Frost was, by the way, sung at the premiere by Fjodor Stravinskij no less, father of Igor, who was born just a couple of months after the premiere.

The Snow Maiden is a high soprano and Elena Zemenkova has a beautiful voice with good coloratura. This is also a vibrant voice but she is no wobbler. Her lyric arietta (CD1 tr. 11) is a fine sample of her capacity. Not all the others are on this level of excellence, but Stefka Evstatieva, who can also be heard as Santuzza on Naxos’s Cavalleria rusticana, has a great voice, while Stefka Mineva’s fruity contralto is a bit over the top with a heavy vibrato that doesn’t make one think of a young shepherd. She has a great deal of feeling though and if you have strong nerves you could take a risk and try CD1 tr. 18. The Tsar has a fine cavatina in act 3 (CD3 tr. 2) but it is spoilt by uningratiating tone and an ugly vibrato. Since Rimsky-Korsakov on more than one occasion in his operas levelled criticism at the Tsar it might be intentional. On the other hand Misgir, the merchant who falls in love with the Snow Maiden, sung by baritone Lyubomir Videnov, has a sonorous and warm voice, a little reminiscent of Renato Bruson’s. He can be heard to good effect in the duet with Snow Maiden (CD3 tr. 7), where Zemenkova also sings fine, hitting the high notes plumb centre.

There is a lot of fine music here, well performed by most of the singers. Whether it is also a good opera is another matter. The composer regarded it as his best, but while act 4 is undoubtedly a well knit drama, the preceding acts are too rhapsodic to my ears. Maybe seeing it as well as hearing it would give another, more favourable impression. As it is it may be Rimsky-Korsakov at his best, but not as opera composer. Given that the music is so lovely the missing drama becomes unimportant.

If Snow Maiden is infused with Russian themes, May Night, written three years earlier, is permeated with them. And here, probably more than in any other work by Rimsky-Korsakov, the music dances and the orchestrator had a field-day. Several commentators have found it too sophisticated, too much of "an inappropriate salon atmosphere" to quote the German authority on Russian opera, Sigrid Neef. This is evident from the outset in the fairly long overture, which is very romantic with forest feeling: French horns, tremolo strings illustrating the rustlings of leaves. This is a fine piece, well worth mounting as concert opener at any symphony concert. Trumpet fanfares and then rattling tambourines are heard when the curtain rises and the village people dance and sing a spring song. The Cologne Radio Chorus is excellent, probably more fine-tuned than an opera chorus would sound but maybe not as idiomatically Russian as the Bolshoi would have been. There are several scenes for women’s voices, e.g. the Whitsun song (CD1 track 6) and the long scene in act 3 with the water-nymphs (CD2 tracks 5-7).

The plot, based on a story by Nicolai Gogol and taking place in a Russian village in the 19th century, is as follows: Levko sings a serenade to his beloved Hanna. She is worried because Levko’s father, the Mayor, won’t accept their marriage. Levko sings about an old legend, connected to the castle at the far end of the lake.

In the second act the Mayor and his unmarried sister-in-law have as a guest a rich man who plans to set up a brewery at site of the castle. They are interrupted by Levko and his friends singing an impudent song. There is a fight and the sister-in-law is by mistake locked in and accused of being a witch.

The third act plays at the castle ruin where Levko sings a lovesong to Hanna. He recognizes Rusalka, the queen of the water-nymphs, a step-daughter of Pannochka, who drowned herself in the lake when she realized that Rusalka was a witch. Out of gratitude Pannochka’s spirit gives Levko a document which will set aside his father’s objections to their marriage. As a matter of fact it is an accusation against the Mayor for his incompetence and an instruction for the pursuit of the wedding. Easy to understand? Well, who said that opera plots should be easy to understand? Anyway on this text Rimsky-Korsakov lavished much wonderful music, well performed by German forces under the then chief conductor of the Bolshoi, Alexander Lazarev, whom I actually heard conducting a wonderful performance of Eugene Onegin at the Royal Opera in Stockholm, the day before I finished this review. (See review at Seen and Heard).

The solo singing is more variable. Levko is one of the great tenor parts in Russian opera and it is entrusted here to Vladimir Bogatschow, who partly sings quite well. His highest notes are strained and his vibrato widens alarmingly as soon as he sings anything above a mezzo-forte. (CD1 tracks 3-4). He sounds very much as I remember his Otello at Covent Garden in 1997, if my memory doesn’t deceive me. And he actually gets worse: the song where he mocks the Mayor (CD1 track 9) is wobbly and the most famous aria, How calm, how cool it is here, as one English translation has it, embedded in the scene with the water-nymphs in act 3 (CD2 track 5) has none of the elegance and melting tone that it sorely needs. I only had to take out Vladimir Grishko on a Naxos recital (Naxos 8.554843) where we hear a true heroic ring and steady tone, and the even more accomplished Sergej Larin (Chandos CHAN 9603), who also has a meltingly lyrical pianissimo. I’m afraid Bogatschow is a near-miss. His Hanna, Tatjana Erastowa, is a bit thick of voice and is probably more mezzo-soprano than true soprano. If you listen to her five minutes into the long duet with Levko (CD1 track 4), after the beautiful violin solo, she sings really well with steady tone and fine high notes. Of the two basses, Michael Krutikov gives a fine portrait of the constantly inebriated Kalenik (CD1 track 7), who mocks the Tsar. He is an excellent character singer, and so is Vladimir Matorin as the Mayor. This is an important role, first sung - again! – by Stravinsky Senior. Matorin doesn’t possess the most beautiful of bass voices but it is big and expressive. The trio in act 1 (CD1 track 8) is a fine example. Among the others Vladimir Kudriachow as the Distiller stands out, a character with fine high notes (CD2 track 1), while the once quite famous Galina Borisowa’s mezzo-soprano has lost most of its former glory and is unpleasantly wobbly. Even the Queen of the Water-nymphs, Elena Brilowa, has a voice that is monochrome and unstable. Even if there are many good things here, there are too many draw-backs, mainly concerning the soloists, to merit a whole-hearted recommendation.

The Golden Cockerel, written 1906-07 and premiered posthumously in October 1909 at the Solodovnikov Theatre in Moscow, is a political satire, again directed against the Tsar. It is based on a story by Alexander Pushkin and the plot, divided into a short prologue and three acts, tells, as the Astrologer proclaims in the prologue, a legend, the lesson of which can be applied to real life. The kingdom of Dodon is threated by an enemy. No one knows what to do until the astrologer appears with the Golden Cockerel, who is said to crow whenever there is danger. Tsar Dodon feels relieved and promises the astrologer whatever he wishes, a promise that the astrologer wants written down. Very soon the cockerel crows and Dodon and his two sons march off with their armies. Thus ends act 1. In act 2 we are in a mountain pass, where Dodon and his soldiers are resting; the two princes and many soldiers having been killed. In the fog general Polkan catches sight of a tent and is about to shoot, when the beautiful Queen of Shemakha appears and admits that she is responsible for the death of the princes. Then she enchants Tsar Dodon with her voice and appearance. Soon she is under his thrall. She also agrees to marry the tsar. In act 3 we are transported to the open place before the Tsar’s palace, where the town-people are waiting for Dodon to return. He arrives with the Queen of Shemakha at his side and the astrologer demands to have his wish fulfilled: he wants the queen! Dodon refuses and kills the astrologer. Thereupon the Golden Cockerel attacks the Tsar and pecks him to death. The queen and the cockerel disappear and leave the people bewildered. Curtain. In a short epilogue the astrologer appears before the curtain and reassures the audience: this was only a fairy-tale and only he, the cockerel and the queen were real, while the "real" people – the Tsar and his subjects – were only shadows.

For this tale Rimsky-Korsakov wrote a colourful score, as always masterfully orchestrated and once again with a folk-music flavour. In the introduction to the prologue (CD1 track 1), after a short muted trumpet fanfare, we hear a glimpse of the well-known "Hymn to the sun" theme, music that I first heard in Fritz Kreisler’s famous arrangement for violin and piano. It is to return later, in act 2. The choral singing is good – note especially the chorus of slaves, concluding act 2, with fine steady women’s voices (CD2 track 5). The most impressive part of the whole opera is the big choral scene in the beginning of act 3 (CD2 track 6) where the people are waiting for the Tsar to return. Readers who are familiar with the four-movement orchestral suite from the opera will recognize this music from the last movement of the suite. My recording with Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra at break-neck tempo is undoubtedly thrilling but it is far more telling in the original.

The solo singing is variable. The astrologer, Lyubomir Dyakovski, has a bright lyrical tenor voice and sings well in the prologue but is hard pressed further on. Tsar Dodon, Nicolai Stoilov, has a sturdy bass, not exactly beautiful and at times unsteady, but he makes a real character of the tsar and he improves in the second act. The Golden Cockerel, which isn’t a very large part in spite of being the title role, is sung by Yavora Stoilova, who has another of those high, bright, penetrating slavonic soprano voices. It suits the cockerel, though. There is also a wobbly mezzo-soprano – Evgenia Babacheva – and an impressive Queen of Shemakha. The latter sings the famous melody – Hymn to the Sun – when it appears in full in act 2 (CD2 track 2) and this is something that should be heard. Elena Stoyanova has no problems with the fiendishly high-lying tessitura; she has a rapid vibrato, sometimes close to a flutter, and her tone can be quite hard with a tendency to shrillness. But one gets used to it and at about 16:00 (it’s a very long track) she suddenly fines down the voice and sings a beautiful piano (well, sort of). Mainly though this is rather one-dimensional singing – but impressive for her stamina. This must actually be one of the most demanding roles for a lyric soprano, singing almost constantly for more than half an hour (CD2 tracks 2-4) and then being required to dance with veils (à la Salome).

The fourth opera in this box, Boyarinya Vera Sheloga, is something of a curiosity. The plot is simple. To quote the booklet: "Boyar Ivan Semyonovich Sheloga is an old war-horse who loves war more than anything else. He marries a young woman, but continually deserts her to answer the call of soldiering. During one of his periods of absence, his wife Vera has an affair with Tsar Ivan Vasilyevich Grozny that is not without consequences for her: a child – Olga – is born. Vera Sheloga now dreads the return of her husband; she is afraid he will kill the little girl. Vera’s sister Nadezhda intervenes to protect the child from the soldier."

This one-act opera was originally intended as a prologue to his opera The maid of Pskov, written 1868 – 1872. The maid of Pskov is Olga, the illegitimate child of Vera Sheloga and the Tsar. Rimsky-Korsakov first composed some music for this prologue in the late 1870s but later he revised and expanded it and in 1898 it was first performed on its own, but not until a few years later when it was used as a preface to The maid of Pskov. When he rewrote the music in 1898 it was in "my new vocal style" as Rimsky-Korsakov writes in his "Chronicle of my musical life". This new vocal style was what Sigrid Neef calls "imitation of the spoken word and melodic stylization”, a method that Janáček carried a step or two further.

The long overture has much of the "old" Rimsky-Korsakov, starting with heavy brass, but then follows a string tune, slightly reminiscent of Scheherazade. But then, apart from the Lullaby (track 3), which is beautiful – and beautifully sung – to a gently rocking, dreamy orchestra (this piece was the only remaining item from the original sketches), the rest of the opera is performed in a reticent, declamatory style with a mostly very discreet accompaniment. It’s all very beautiful but a little lifeless. For long stretches the orchestra just produces long chords as a black-and-white back-drop, and there isn’t much drama until the very end when the boyar returns. Stevka Evstatieva as Vera, who carries the main burden of the singing, is an expressive singer with an ability to soften her basically bright voice. Her long monologue (track 6) is indeed fine and here the orchestra is also more active. Of the two mezzo-sopranos Alexandrina Milcheva as Vera’s sister is excellent.

It has been interesting and rewarding to listen through these four operas within a limited timespan. All is not gold and some of the singing is, honestly, something of a liability. I hope this review can be a guide to readers with an interest in this repertoire. Snow Maiden is probably the one I will be most tempted to return to and, since I will keep my notes, I will know where to pick and choose in the others.

Göran Forsling



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