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Nicolai Andreyevich RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Mlada - Opera in 4 acts. (1872-1903)
Text by the composer after S. A. Gedeonov and Viktor Krylov.
Prince Yaromir - Oleg Kulko
Princess Voislava - Maria Gavrilova
Prince Mstivoy - Gleb Nikolsky
Morena - Galina Borisova
Soul of Yaromir - Kirill Nikitin
Witch - Yulia Malkhassiants
The silent roles of Princess Mlada and Cleopatra are danced by Nina Ananiashvili
Bolshoi Symphony Orchestra and chorus/Alexander Lazarev
Video Production, Robin Scott; Video Direction, Barrie Gavin
Producer, Boris Pokrovsky; Designer, Valery Levental; choreographer, Andre Petrov
Recorded live at the Bolshoi Theater, Moscow, Russia, June 1992.
NTSC 4:3 Color. AC-3/Dolby 2.0 stereo. Menus in English
Subtitle languages: English, Deutsch, Español, Français, Italiano, Portugués
Region code 2, 3, 4, 5 [Region 1 version available from Kultur Video]
WARNER MUSIC VISION/NVC ARTS 4509-92052-2 [138.00]

 

 

Originally in 1872 the opera-ballet Mlada was to have been a collective composition by the whole “mighty handful,” but the result was never produced and most of the composers abandoned the project and re-used their music elsewhere. Nearly thirty years later Rimsky-Korsakov then proceeded to complete the work on his own adapting the libretto himself. Perhaps because the title character of this opera does not sing, this beautiful and fascinating opera was never popular on CD. Not until video recording can we finally enjoy this work in our homes.

This colorful opera is set in the times when the Natural Gods were celebrated in festivals by all Russians, before 988CE when the christianization of Russia was begun under a royal edict of Prince Vladimir Sviatoslavovich. These Gods appear as important characters in the story, sometimes as statues on stage. As the curtain rises, Princess Voislava, accompanied by young men and women, is preparing to celebrate the Festival of Kupala (Summer Solstice) and the arrival of Prince Yaromir whom she expects to propose marriage to her. Prince Yaromir really loved and was to marry Princess Mlada. The jealous Voislava, egged on by her father, Prince Mstivoy — who would like having the wealthy Prince Yaromir in the family — murdered Mlada by putting poison on her engagement ring. Voislava complains that Lada, the Goddess of Love (equivalent to Venus), is now unresponsive to her prayers. An old woman comes on stage and suggests to Voislava that instead she offer her prayers to Morena, the Goddess of the Underworld - a rather more menacing version of the Greek Persephone, wife of Pluto. At first Voislava is afraid, but is won over. Then the old woman is transformed into a manifestation of the Goddess of Death and frightens the other celebrants off the stage.

Yaromir arrives and is graciously welcomed, presenting a gift to his hosts. Voislava vamps him and, under Morena’s curse, he begins to succumb, praising Voislava’s beauty and eventually falling into a drunken sleep. In his dream, the Goddess Lada appears, grants him a vision of the murdered Mlada, and promises to protect them both. He awakens, bewildered by what he has seen but determined to resist Voislava and remain true to Mlada.

In Act II the villagers gather in the public square as merchants from far distant lands hawk their wares. Czech refugees beg for help in repelling the German invaders who have occupied their homeland and are forcing them to worship false gods. We hear the familiar “Procession of the Nobles” as Mstivoy, Yaromir, and Voislava (carrying a ritual axe) enter with their retinues, garlanded with flowers. Lithuanians and Indians* dance their native dances. The ram horn crowned High Priest of Radegast (Earth Fertility God of sowing and reaping, similar to Sator or Saturn) reveals that the God is perturbed; on stage only Voislava and Mstivoy know that Mlada’s death was not natural. The people are called upon to redouble their gifts of food to the song birds of the forest. The warriors lay out their spears in a grid on the ground and the priestesses of the white and black horses enter and dance upon them. The maidens wearing crowns of flowers dance in a circle and the youths are invited to choose wives. Voislava again has just about got Yaromir enchanted when all of a sudden the ghost of Mlada runs through the gathering and Yaromir follows after her, swearing he will go with her anywhere. There is general confusion as Voislava curses the Goddess Morena for her weakness, then Mstivoy commands with his whip that the fertility festival continue. The people resume their dancing and as the youths undress the curtain discretely falls.

At the beginning of Act III the ghost of Mlada runs on stage followed by Yaromir to a moonlit temple on the sacred mountain. But now they cannot see each other, so Mlada dances with the spirit of Yaromir and Yaromir sings a love song to a statue of Mlada. They go off separately and abruptly the scene changes to the gates of the Underworld, as the imprisoned spirits come out and dance wildly. The evil Kastchei, known to us from Stravinsky’s Firebird, dances to some music unsurprisingly reminiscent of that Stravinsky ballet. Morena manifests in the body of the old woman and defiantly refuses to give up, summoning Cleopatra** to entrap Yaromir. The scene changes abruptly again to an Egyptian palace with Cleopatra and her courtiers dancing to strange exotic music. In a fantastic cultural mélange, onstage musicians in eighteenth century dress play the solo parts in the orchestral music walking nonchalantly among the costumed ancient Egyptians dancing as represented on Egyptian wall paintings. There is a miniature Yaromir present, and the ghost of Mlada attempts to shield him. As Cleopatra’s dance grows in passion so does the representation of Yaromir until he is a giant, and then the lights go out and he is seen lying flat while Cleopatra dances around him. Dawn comes and the palace vanishes; we see Yaromir lying on the ground under a huge tree. He wakes and determines to ask the Priest of Radegast about his strange dream.

In Act IV Yaromir appears at the temple of Radegast, presents a valuable amber necklace to the high priest, and implores him to interpret his strange dream. The Priest assures Yaromir that the Gods will answer his request. Lada appears on stage followed by a procession of the spirits of the ancestors, the great kings and queens of the land, who all tell Yaromir that Mlada was murdered by Voislava and he must avenge her. Voislava appears with Mstivoy and Yaromir determines to kill her. But not so fast: The goddess Morena disarms Yaromir. Voislava admits her guilt and urges Yaromir to forget his dead fiancée and marry her, join their kingdoms and reign in power and wealth. Again struggling under the curse of Morena, he almost gives in, but the priestesses give him a magic sword and he strikes Voislava down. But Morena magically restores her life! Voislava rises up and screams Morena’s defiance to the Gods of Light, calling down floods and tempests. Huge waves of water engulf the stage as the people cry for deliverance and flee for their lives. The scene changes to a quiet paradisal space where the spirits of Yaromir and Mlada appear as two innocent children. The adult Mlada and Yaromir now enter, able at last to touch, and they and the chorus of priestesses dance and sing of their love and happiness as the Goddess Lada blesses them and ascends on a cloud into the starry sky.

As you can see it’s a thrill-a-minute story, full of brilliant stagecraft, ballet, and pageantry in addition to beautiful music beautifully sung.

So, why did Rimsky-Korsakov, Kapellmeister to the private chapel of the Russian Christian royal family, composer of many motets and choruses on Christian texts, a former naval officer who would have sworn an oath unto death to God and the Czar, write an opera so explicitly sympathetic to the Old Religion? Paganism in a modern opera needs no justification since the very first opera, Monteverdi’s Orpheo, was to a Greek Pagan myth, perhaps because the Medieval church had claimed something of a monopoly on drama involving Christian characters. The first Egyptian opera was Mozart’s Magic Flute; Bizet’s Pearl Fishers was supposedly Hindu/Brahmin; Verdi’s Aïda in 1871 was Egyptian again. In Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah in 1877 the Pagan Dagonians have all the best music, all the girls, and all the fun, and are cruelly martyred in the end. The Wagnerian German Pagan Sagas had been current on stage since the premier of Das Rheingold in 1869. The Mlada project, begun in 1872, may have been simply a way of saying to the world, “Hey, we Russians have a Pagan history, too.”

Long after the original idea of having each of the “mighty handful” compose one act of the opera fell through, why Rimsky-Korsakov decided to expand his contribution and complete the opera-ballet himself one can only conjecture. Two years later he would be suspended from his teaching post temporarily for sympathizing with the students in the 1905 uprisings against the Czar. Three years after that he would be dead, having with virtually his last breath bitterly fought against the Czarist censoring of his final opera, Le Coq d’Or. In 1913 his student Stravinsky would shock the world with “Images of Pagan Russia” the subtitle to Le Sacre du Printemps. Rimsky-Korsakov is often described these days as being an arch conservative, but perhaps we need to look again.

I do not normally read others’ reviews, but in this case I note that several commentators remark vehemently on the poor video quality and poor camerawork. I don’t see the video clarity as any worse than other opera recordings of this period. Camera work and video direction (by non-Russians, by the way), while nothing to write home about, are certainly adequate to the purpose. The sound is generally pretty good, but near the end the volume rises and falls inexplicably, perhaps in anticipation of loud sounds from the orchestra. These are not distracting enough to be annoying.

Paul Shoemaker

*India Indians, not Native Americans.

**Cleopatra, in spite of the inflammatory writings of Emperor Augustus’ Propaganda Minister Plutarch, was not only more ordinary a queen, but probably more likable than Catherine the Great. Alas, Cleopatra appears condemned to be forever as the female archetype of seduction and corruption.

 

 

 

 



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