In 1904 Rimsky-Korsakov was feeling out of touch with contemporary musical trends as well as creatively tired. However, in conversation with his usual librettist, Vladimir Belsky, the two came up with the idea for an opera based on a combination of two old Russian legends: that of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the love of the forest maiden Fevroniya for a prince. As their discussions continued the story evolved into a mystical tale with pantheistic overtones - one that revived the composer’s creative forces to such a degree that he wrote what many consider his masterpiece - The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya
- to give the full title.
It is almost obligatory to refer to Kitezh
as the Russian Parsifal
. Belsky and Rimsky-Korsakov substituted legendary Russia for Wagner’s Middle Ages and worship of nature for Wagner’s brand of Christianity. Indeed, from the opening notes Rimsky’s music conflates the natural world with the idea of spiritual purity. This combination is exemplified by the composer’s use of music that is folk-like yet totally original. As a member of the Mighty Five Rimsky had always used folk elements but here they are handled with a plasticity and naturalness unprecedented in his output.
The music for Kitezh
is through-composed and the composer never lets the pace flag. The first music we hear contains the group of related themes that make up the work’s basic musical material. The opera takes place in a legendary time and place - Fevroniya is a maiden who has retreated to the forest where she can be one with nature. She is so good-hearted and benevolent that wild animals are unafraid of her. The music is at first unobtrusive, constantly unfolding variants of its main material as we are introduced to Fevroniya’s world. Into this peaceful world stumbles Prince Vsevolod, son of the ruler of the city of Great Kitezh. He has been separated from his hunting companions and wounded by a bear. Fevroniya’s healing powers, communion with animals and purity of heart overwhelm his own grim view of life and the two fall in love to gentle but passionate music. As Fevroniya describes her view that the forest is itself a church we first hear the bell motif that will assume such great significance later in the opera. When Vsevolod hears his companions in the distance he leaves promising to return for Fevroniya. Only when Vsevolod’s friend Fyodor and the other huntsmen arrive does Fevroniya learn Vsevolod’s identity.
Act 2 takes place in Little Kitezh, the earthly and dissolute counterpart to the holy city of Great Kitezh. In the marketplace the malicious drunkard Grishka Muterna is amusing the crowd when the people hear that Fevroniya, the Prince’s bride, is to pass through the town. The local nobles, incensed that the Prince has chosen a forest maiden for a bride, pay Grishka to insult Fevroniya, but she is not only unfazed, but genuinely sorry for Grishka. A wonderful bridal song follows, but this is suddenly broken off as Tatar hordes, led by Bedyay and Burunday, attack the town and kill all but Fevroniya, Fyodor and Grishka - the latter eventually agreeing to lead the Tatars to Great Kitezh. Before being carried off by the Tatars Fevroniya prays that Great Kitezh may be made invisible. The music in Act 2 slowly builds in intensity from the festivities in the marketplace of Little Kitezh to the village’s total destruction.
In Act 3 we are in Great Kitezh, the city that Vsevolod’s father, Prince Yuri, has made into a place of spiritual purity and earthly renunciation. Fyodor, blinded by the Tatars, has escaped from their camp and in a powerful sequence tells the people of the fate of Little Kitezh. Prince Yuri, in the equally powerful “O Glory, vain wealth” sings of how he had tried to protect the people of Great Kitezh from the evils of the world and how such an effort could only be doomed to failure. The people sing the chorus “Wondrous Queen of Heaven” - the choral highpoint of the opera - while prophetic visions of the coming destruction of the city increase in frequency. Prince Vsevolod summons the men to defend the city even though all know they are doomed. After they have left the bells of the city start ringing of their own accord and the city is slowly shrouded in mist. Fevroniya’s prayer is answered as the people of Kitezh are transfigured.
As the act continues Prince Vsevolod and his men do battle with the Tatars in the well-known symphonic interlude The Battle of Kerzhenetz
. All are killed. The Tatars, conducted by Grishka, arrive at night at Lake Yar at the foot of Great Kitezh. They chain Grishka so he cannot escape and after arguing over Fevroniya, all fall asleep. Grishka is losing his mind but at this point only he can hear the tolling bells of Great Kitezh. He and Fevroniya escape the Tatars. When the sun rises the Tatars hear the bells and see the reflection of Great Kitezh in the lake but cannot see the city itself and flee in panic.
Act 4 opens to despondent music weeks after the events of Act 3. Fevroniya and Grishka are lost amid the thickets of the forest near Great Kitezh. Grishka eventually goes mad and runs off. The exhausted Fevroniya lies down and sings a beautiful lullaby while the strings play progressively more ethereal music. As she dies her words from Act 1 come true-the forest is transformed into Paradise. The bells of Kitezh return as do Vsevolod, Prince Yuri and the other characters - two-legged and four-legged. To the accompaniment of the bells all enter the transfigured city of Great Kitezh.
Musically there are several elements that make Kitezh
the great opera that it is. Foremost is the endless variety with which Rimsky develops his basic musical material, tailoring it perfectly to the various dramatic situations. Secondly, he ably balances the gentle and violent elements of the story as well as the overall dramatic flow. Finally, he shows great flair for musical characterization while avoiding the sentimentality which the story could have engendered.
In looking at the cast-list for the opera one might be struck by the fact that, except for that of Fevroniya, all the major roles are for male voices. However, Fevroniya is onstage throughout the opera - except for the first half of Act 3. This proves no problem for Svetlana Ignatovich. She is strong both musically and dramatically from beginning to end although her acting really does not become firm until Act 2. John Daszak sings Grishka, Fevroniya’s spiritual opposite, with great skill although his acting is somewhat overwrought. Maxim Aksenov as Vsevolod is less impressive although he sings well in Act 3 and is dramatically very convincing in the opera’s conclusion. In the role of Prince Yuri Vladimir Vaneev is alternately impressive and benevolent. Vsevolod’s friend Fyodor is the only major character besides Fevroniya to appear in all four acts and Alexey Markov handles the different characterizations for each act skillfully. Smaller roles are uniformly well-sung, especially Gennady Bezzubenkov as the Gusli Player and Hubert Francis as the Bear Handler.
Dmitri Tcherniakov is the director, set designer and costume designer for this production. The sets are very effective-especially the misty forest of Act 1 and the Paradise of Act 4, although the overall conception seems to be rural Russia in the present day. Tcherniakov is also very effective at keeping things moving to match the score and keeping our attention on what is happening. In this he is ably assisted by Misjel Vermieren the screen director. While it is customary nowadays to set operas in the present this can sometimes take away from an opera with a fairy-tale setting such as Kitezh
, but that is not the major problem here. Rather it is Tcherniakov’s overall avoidance of the opera’s fairy-tale aspects that renders this production out of sync with the conception of Belsky and Rimsky and this causes the production to lose some of the opera’s emotional effect.
Mark Albrecht has been chief conductor of the Netherlands Opera since 2011 and has built a real rapport with his players. This is evident in the way they follow him through the many musico-emotional contrasts of the score. They also play with great finish-all important in Rimsky’s somewhat pointillist scoring. Albrecht's conducting itself is a little lacking in force but this is balanced by his ability to maintain the continuous flow of the music and to bring out the varied developments of the basic material. The Netherlands Opera Chorus is somewhat lacklustre but they do very well with the Huntsman’s chorus at the end of Act 1.
Opus Arte is to be commended for the crispness of its HD filming on these discs. The level of detail is outstanding without being obtrusive. The sound quality for the singers is a little harsh but perfect for the orchestra-all important in this particular work. This two-disc set includes interviews with cast and crew and a cast gallery. There are informative if not copious notes by Tcherniakov although they deal only with his own interpretation of the opera as opposed to the more standard ones. At present the only other DVD version of Kitezh
is on Naxos with Alexander Vedernikov conducting. While this version has a number of merits (see link
) the Albrecht version is the one to get in spite of the directorial concerns.