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 or feeling.
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.
Dan Morgan

I can’t remember an opera recording that fails so miserably – and on so many levels – as this one.