As with all Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas May Night
only has a handful of recordings, among them a Capriccio release
under Alexander Lazarev. That’s available as part of a four-opera
set – review
– which looks very tempting if you can get it at a good price.
Brilliant certainly has a reputation for producing discs on
a tight budget and, as Naxos and other lower-price labels have
proved, quality needn’t be compromised in the process. Thankfully
there’s no trace of old, Soviet-era sonics here, but Russian
vocal traditions take a little longer to adapt. But even if
you’re allergic to excessive vibrato May Night has enough
good tunes to keep you listening to the end.
It certainly starts well enough, with all the sparkle one expects
of this composer. As for the Bolshoi band, what they lack in
refinement they make up for in animation. The recording is somewhat
recessed – veiled, even – the chorus of villagers sounding a
tad fierce in the climaxes. Vitaly Taraschenko’s love-sick Levko
is pleasing, if plaintive, his serenade to Hanna sung with more
ardour than charm. In the ensuing duet, Natalia Erasova’s Hanna
sounds girlish enough, but there’s no disguising her wide vibrato.
It’s all rather underpowered, Taraschenko struggling under even
the slightest pressure; moreover, he delivers his tale of the
drowned maiden as an unvarying monologue, quite without life
Oh dear, not the most encouraging start. Nikolai Reshetniak’s
Kaleni the village drunk and Vyacheslav Pochapsky’s Mayor are
adequate although, as with Levko and Hanna, they’re apt to sound
monochromatic. And just sample the end of Act I, where Levko
tries to enlist the village lads’ help against his rival in
love; really, it’s hard to imagine a less vital performance
than this. Even Rimsky’s score is drained of its usual piquancy,
making one long for the energy and thrust of a Gergiev. As for
Act II, the broad comedy of the Mayor’s dinner with his sister-in-law
and the Distiller – interrupted by the hapless drunk – is painfully
short on humour, the band chugging along dutifully in the background.
Inexplicably, the trio and village lads’ song is split between
discs one and two, which is both annoying and unnecessary.
May Night isn’t Rimsky’s most inspired opera by any stretch
of the imagination, but it deserves a livelier, more committed
performance than it gets here. And although Elena Okolycheva’s
sister-in-law breathes some life into the performance it’s not
enough to stop it from flat-lining at times. Yes, the ethereal
opening of Act III is atmospherically done – how much better
it would sound if the orchestra weren’t so distant – and Levko
seems much more comfortable at low volume. There is some lovely
music here, but it’s only hinted at, thanks to Chistiakov’s
workmanlike conducting and a lacklustre recording. Matters improve
slightly with the appearance of Pannochka and the dances that
follow. That said, rhythms are generally flaccid and, as a whole,
the performance never rises much above mediocrity. It certainly
doesn’t do justice to Rimsky’s colourful score.
Listening to this May Night on a wet November one makes
the experience all the more dispiriting. Indeed, I can’t remember
an opera recording that fails so miserably – and on so many
levels – as this one. Avoid.