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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh - opera in four acts (1907) [180:36]
Tatiana Monogarova (soprano) - Fevronia; Vitaly Panfilov (tenor) - Vsevolod, Mikhail Kazakov (bass) - Prince Yury; Mikhail Gubsky (tenor) - Kuterma; Gevorg Hakobyan (baritone) - Poyarok; Marika Gulordava (mezzo) - Page; Gianluca Floris and Marek Kalbus (tenor, bass)- Notables; Riccardo Ferrani (bass) -Ballad singer; Stefano Consolini (tenor) - Bear-tamer; Alessandro Senes (baritone) - Beggar; Valery Gilmanov (bass) - Bedyay; Alexander Naumenko (bass) - Burunday; Rosanna Savola (soprano) - Sirin; Elena Manistina (contralto)- Alkonost; Mirko Dettori and Victor Garcia Sierra (tenor, bass) - Two men
Chorus and Orchestra of the Lyric Theatre Cagliari/Alexander Vedernikov
rec. Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, Sardinia, 2 and 4 May 2008
NAXOS 8.660288-90 [3 CDs: 64:07 + 61:12 + 55:17] 

Experience Classicsonline

The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia - to give the opera its full and cumbersome title - was the last of his stage works that Rimsky-Korsakov saw performed; the later Golden Cockerel ran into censorship problems and was not given until after his death. It is the composer’s greatest work in the genre and was probably expected by him to be his swan-song. Into it he pours all his fascination with nature and spirituality. It matters not that the plot itself, a curious mélange of Russian history and mythology, makes no real sense. We accept similarly nonsensical admixtures in the case of Parsifal. The comparison with Wagner is not at all inappropriate. Both works - neither were called operas by their composers - concern a protagonist who saves a spiritually dedicated people through a combination of divine intervention and trust in the healing powers conveyed by natural forces. The music, which unlike most previous Russian operas runs continuously and is through-composed, also recalls Wagner in places, particularly in the opening where the influence of the Forest murmurs from Siegfried and the Good Friday music from Parsifal is felt in writing of sublime delight. This is enhanced by the superbly refined orchestration that Rimsky provides.
This new recording makes the third modern recording of the work in the catalogue - the old Melodiya recording under Nebolsin from 1956 is in mono, disastrous in a work as finely textured in orchestration as this - all derived from live performances over the last fifteen years. Of those three recordings that from Fedoseyev on Koch Schwann is ruled completely out of court by the swingeing cuts which the conductor inflicts on the score, amounting to about an hour of music - that is, about a third of the total is missing. The performance of what is left does not begin to compensate for the massacre. The conductor in his booklet states that the excisions made for the Bregenz Festival production on which the recording is based “chiefly eliminated repeats, often in the large tableaux”. Even were that strictly true - and it most certainly is not - the wanton interference with the composer’s intended proportions would rule this version out of court despite some fine individual performances, the most integrated orchestral playing (from the Vienna Symphony Orchestra) and a very good recording.
The only real competitor to this set is therefore Gergiev, from his Philips series of Russian operas recorded live at the Mariinsky Theatre with his Kirov Opera forces, but a comparison of that recording with this Cagliari one reveals some surprisingly poor sound in St Petersburg with the voices dominating in a rather unresonant theatre acoustic. Nor is the balance of advantage in the performances as one-sidedly in favour of the Kirov set as one might perhaps expect. The orchestral playing from the Cagliari orchestra is very good in the atmospheric opening nature music, and is not at all disadvantaged by comparison with the Kirov forces. The players under Vedernikov sound well drilled, and at a marginally slower tempo make more of the showpiece interlude The Battle near Kerzhenets than the rather over-excited Kirov players under Gergiev. It is not clear what sort of warfare Gergiev has in mind, but surely horses never charged at this sort of speed.
Galina Gorchakova as Fevronia in St Petersburg sounds blustery and over-enthusiastic (in the wrong sense) by comparison with Monogarova here. At the time of the first performance Rimsky-Korsakov was criticised for his choice of a dramatic soprano to depict this “light, ethereal, disembodied” character. Mongarova produces just the right sort of tone. In the opening scenes her cries of Aou! display a beautifully shaded diminuendo as Rimsky requests, an effect that Gorchakova hardly hints at. Unfortunately with the entry of her future lover Vsevolod the emotional temperature is lowered, for Panfilov is much less heroic-sounding than Yuri Masurin at the Kirov. His over-precise phrasing lacks warmth, and when his fellow-hunters arrive he is almost drowned by the offstage chorus. In the brief closing scene, Hakobyan is not as firm as his Kirov counterpart.
The Second Act opens with a fair-tide scene which in some ways - particularly the sometimes startling juxtaposition of rhythms - anticipates the work of Rimsky’s pupil Stravinsky in Petrushka less than a decade later. Here in Cagliari the drawbacks of a live theatre recording are evident, with unrhythmic sounds of crowds milling and bustling around the stage obscuring the music. Gergiev overcomes this with his very forward reading which underlines the parallels with Stravinsky but at the same time loses some of Rimsky’s more subtle touches. Vedernikov here, with his more recessed sound, gets more light and shade into the music. The same sound allows more of the music to be obscured by the onstage noise, and his singers in the various small roles of market traders, buskers and beggars are less characterful than with Gergiev - although the fine voice of Dettori deserves a mention. The bear-tamer and the ballad-singer both sound much younger in St Petersburg, but the accompaniment to the ballad-singer’s third verse with its pizzicato strings is much clearer in Cagliari; it is quite inaudible at the Kirov. Vedernikov also appreciates the string imitations of the sound of the gusli in the links between the verses, where Gergiev’s players sound rather ordinary. Gubsky as the drunkard who assumes the principal male role in some of the closing scenes, although somewhat dry in tone, is every bit as good as the character tenor of Nikolai Putilin at the Kirov. Vladimir Galusin on the Fedoseyev set produces more ingratiating tone than either although he suffers most heavily from the cut text employed. The Cagliari chorus cope well with Rimsky-Korsakov’s ingenious and tricky choral writing, especially in the scene when the invading Tartars interrupt the reception of Fevronia into the city. Gilmanov and Naumenko as the two Tartar chiefs are more menacing and villainously impressive than the two rather woofy basses at the Kirov. At the end of the Act, as Fevronia prays for a miracle to save Kitezh, Gorchakova at the Kirov sounds somewhat backwardly placed on the stage. Monogarova here is far more impressively transported, and conveys the real feeling that her confidence in divine intervention might prove to be justified.
The opening of the Third Act clearly demonstrates Rimsky-Korsakov’s debt to Mussorgsky, with the choral writing in particular recalling the death scene from that opera. The basically bass voice of Hakobyan - in what is admittedly a rather low-lying baritone part - cannot avoid a sense of strain in his upper register here. On the other hand Kazakov is more dominating and noble as the Prince of Kitezh than Gergiev’s rather gritty Nikolai Ohotnikov. Although the Page of Gulordava is very feminine and is not at all distanced when she is supposedly up on a watchtower looking out on the devastation of the land, she sings most beautifully in her heartfelt lament. Again Panfilov rather lets the side down with his decidedly unheroic address to his soldiers as he leads them out to battle against the Tartars. In the second scene, with the prince killed in battle, it falls to Gubsky to take over as the leading male protagonist. His voice displays a considerable degree more strength in the first of his lengthy duets with Fevronia.
By the beginning of the final Act, with the Tartar invaders miraculously foiled, the dramatic action of the plot of Kitezh is effectively completed, as in Wagner’s Parsifal. All that remains is a lengthy series of resolutions between the principal characters including Panfilov as the prince, now conveniently returned as a ghost. After an impressive mad scene for Gubsky and a sort of transfigured Good Friday spell beautifully sung by Monogarova, we are introduced to Alkonost the bird of death and Sirin the bird of joy, both firmly sung here if without any hint of mystery, and re-introduced to Panfilov, who sounds somewhat refreshed by his new status as a ghost although his voice remains resolutely unheroic. The chorus sing with proper fervour in the final scene, and it is a reflection on the care with which this performance has been prepared that a clearly incorrect note in the choral soprano part (at track 9, 5:45) in the vocal score published in 1962 has been amended - a similar alteration is made by Gergiev and Fedoseyev. In this final scene there is a passage which could be dangerously anticlimactic, as Fevronia dictates a lengthy letter of forgiveness to Kuterma - Fedoseyev unpardonably cuts the whole of this section - but which in the right hands can be as effective as the similar scene of reconciliation in Janáček’s Jenůfa. Gorchakova for Gergiev is a little blustery here, but Monogarova is ideally simple and the result is most touching. Although at the very end the recorded balance in St Petersburg gives more presence to the chorus than here in Cagliari, the sound remains rather forward and blatant.
One major complaint about this set is the fact that there is no text or translation provided either in the booklet or online. This is simply unacceptable with a work as complex as this. Not complex in the plot; the basic synopsis which is provided gives enough information to supply this; but - to take just one example - the duet in the opening scene between Fevronia and her prince is not a conventional love-duet in which, to quote the booklet synopsis, “he is captured by her spirituality and love of nature. They sing a love duet…”. No, it is much more than that - their duet is a philosophical colloquy to rival that in Tristan, where Fevronia speaks of the way in which she feels drawn to God not through religious ceremonial but through a communion with the whole of the natural world. The music closely reflects every word that she sings. Without a detailed translation the listener is getting much less than half the story. This production is also available on DVD (Naxos 2.110277-78), and presuming that in that version it comes with full subtitles it would certainly appear that the viewer would at least be able to appreciate the subtleties of the score even if - as appears from the booklet photographs - the rather static-looking production itself might leave something to be desired. 
There have been a number of studio recordings of the suite which Rimsky extracted from the opera stretching back to the early stereo Supraphon under Smetaček in the 1960s. These amply illustrate the richness and depth of the score in a way that these theatre recordings cannot match. To take just one example again: the opening scene for Fevronia begins with a series of birdsong imitations on various woodwind instruments - like Wagner’s woodbirds. These are generally not of recognisable species but their songs are repeated to underpin Fevronia’s words and act as a counterpoint to them. There is one passage for piccolo which sounds rather like an over-excited quail, and when this is heard without the voice it is clear in both recordings. When it recurs - in counterpoint with a clearly recognisable cuckoo call - one can clearly see it in the vocal score, but one cannot hear it at all. This simply illustrates the point that this is a score which cries out for a properly balanced studio recording with the balances carefully calculated. No live theatre recording will ever be able to match in sound even the recordings we have of the suites.
Nevertheless this is a work which should be in the collection of everyone who is interested in nineteenth century opera, romantic music, or Russian music of the period. It is quite simply - to employ a much over-used phrase - a neglected masterpiece. When you add it to your collection - as you must - you have only very limited options to choose from. At the cheap Naxos price you could well invest in this set as a stop-gap until a studio recording eventually appears, or purchase the DVD - which would at least give you the English subtitles which you really need to appreciate the complexities of the action.
Paul Corfield Godfrey 



















































































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