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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Snegurochka/The Snow Maiden (1882)
Aida Garifullina (soprano) - Snow Maiden; Valdimir Ognovenko (bass) - Father Frost; Elena Manistina (mezzo) - Spring Fairy; Yuriy Mynenko (counter tenor) - Lel; Martina Serafin (soprano) - Kupava; Vasily Effimov (tenor) - Wood Goblin; Vasily Gorshkov (tenor) - Bobyl Bakula; Carole Wilson (mezzo) - Bobylikha; Thomas Johannes Mayer (baritone) - Mizguir; Maxim Paster (tenor) - Tsar Berendey ; Franz Hawlata (bass) - Bermiata
Choeurs et Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris/Mikhail Tatarnikov
Stage Direction and Set design: Dmitri Tcherniakov
Costume Design: Elena Zaytseva
Lighting: Gleb Filshtinsky
Video: Teni Burkhalter
rec. April 2017, Opéra National de Paris (Opéra Bastille)
Sung in Russian with subtitles in English, German, French, Spanish, Korean, Japanese
Filmed in High Definition; Picture: 1080i/16:9 Anamorphic Widescreen;
Sound: LPCM Stereo/ DTS-HD MA 5.1; Region code: A,B,C
BELAIR CLASSIQUES Blu-ray BAC486 [194 mins]

Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1882 opera Snegurochka was among his earlier successes. It has been presented onstage occasionally in its native Russia as well as very infrequent productions in France, the U.K. and the U.S.A. There are many countries, my own included, which have yet to see a fully staged production of this sweetly charming fairy tale opera.

In 2017 the Paris opera decided to go all out on a new staging of the work to bring it to a newer audience. It is this effort which makes possible the very first production available on home video. Dmitri Tcherniakov follows up his rather uninspiring 2016 production of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta/The Nutcracker (review) with this almost successful staging of The Snow Maiden. Tcherniakov has provided an extremely well thought out attempt to update the action to a modern day audience. Where he falls resolutely flat is in shying away from the depiction of the supernatural elements of the plot. The action of the Prologue presents us with a Spring Fairy who has been turned into the proprietress of a children’s ballet school. Father Frost has become a trench-coated secret service body guard. A reference to the cold war... Get it? There have been several stage directors recently who have managed to offer supernatural elements in a new and fresh way for the modern era. I think of two recent productions of Dvorak’s Rusalka for the Met (Mary Zimmerman) and for Glyndebourne (Melly Still) in which the updated fantastic creatures were truly memorable. Tcherniakov offers a poor alternative which is also not interesting enough to sustain the plot of this opera that causes things get off to a slow start. The remainder of the opera fares much better, as it takes place in a breathtakingly beautiful and realistic forest glade setting which is altered by the addition of various elements, such as some wonderful, vintage-looking camper vans for the Berendeyans. They are portrayed as a group of mediaevalist re-enacters who have gathered in the forest for a midsummer festival, which unfortunately leaves the story with an absence of snow. This has the effect of making one of the more important plot elements; that of the eternal winter the Berendeyans must suffer through utterly lost and leaves the poor Snowmaiden to die pointlessly. Aside from these quibbles Tcherniakov shows how well he can get the principals to enter in to his concept and he demonstrates a real affinity for getting the chorus and extras to behave as individuals.

The cast is an impressively strong one and for the most part they make a great case for this opera, which can sound rather long indeed if it is not well sung. The petite soprano Aida Garifullina seems to have been born to sing the Snow Maiden and here we have her at the zenith of her career, displaying gorgeous crystalline tone for all of her scenes. This is combined with her touching acting of the lonely remote Snow Maiden. It pleases me no end to know that Decca’s glitzy promotion of her as one of their artists a few years ago has for once proven to be justified. Martina Serafin nearly steals the show with her lusty portrayal of the wronged Kupava. She sings and acts passionately and she looks attractive enough to make her abandonment by Mizguir all the more puzzling. Vocally, she sings with a bright and vibrant tone and the numerous high climactic notes hold no fears for her. Elena Manistina is a rich-voiced Spring Fairy with the added benefit of looking incredibly beautiful in her costume. Carol Wilson makes a lively cameo as Bobylikha, Snegurochka’s adoptive mother among the Berendeyans.

Among the men in the cast, Tcherniakov and conductor Mikhail Tatarnikov have had the inspired idea to give the trouser role of the poet shepherd Lel to a counter tenor, in the person of the handsome-looking Yuri Mynenko. His beautiful, cool sounding voice and his extremely effective costume present a Lel who is even more remote and unattainable than usual, this really accentuates a vital plot element. His songs become the truly haunting experiences that they should be, and he receives a well deserved ovation from the audience. Vladimir Ognovenko makes a strong showing in his brief role as Father Frost and Vasily Gorshkov is very convincing in the character role of Bobyl. Tsar Berendey is sung quite memorably by Maxim Paster. Tcherniakov gives the Tsar a quirky, almost bookish persona that Paster conveys with an ingratiating charm that matches his warm and pleasing tenor. Franz Hawlata puts in a memorable cameo performance in the small role of the Tsar’s servant Bermiata. Only with Thomas Johannes Mayer’s Mizguir was there some disappointment with his singing, as he voices the conflicted bridegroom with some rough sounding tone. His acting however is superb and he is a strong presence throughout the opera.

Mikhail Tatarnikov proves to be a sympathetic conductor for this difficult piece, which can easily be killed with too much kindness. His reading finds a nice balance between expansiveness and urgency in his tempi. The Bastille Opera Orchestra gives a very good account of its current high musical standards and the well engineered recording does them full justice. The chorus in particular sound quite resplendent under their chorus master José Luis Basso. The picture quality and camera direction are without flaw and the 2-channel stereo track is of similar quality.

Mike Parr

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