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.
*India Indians, not Native
**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.