Based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol, The Fair at Sorochyntsi is a seldom performed opera by Modest Mussorgsky. It is a strange work indeed. By the time of the composer’s death in 1881, he had only half finished it, leaving some vague sketches for the completion. Various composers tried their hand at finishing it, with the 1931 version by Vissarion Shebalin being the one established as standard and also the one used for this production.

Hans Gröning (Gypsy) and ensemble © Monika Rittershaus
Hans Gröning (Gypsy) and ensemble
© Monika Rittershaus

The two-hour long work combines elements of magic, grotesque humour and erotic situations that reflect the rich Russian folklore tradition of the 19th century. Mussorgsky is better known for his dramas. This one is redolent with deep emotional choral and orchestral outpourings, including a dream sequence for the hero that musically incorporates elements of his Night on Bald Mountain.  

The story is a fantastic romp between dream and reality. A devil (Chernobog) is cast out of hell and decides to try his luck in the small Ukrainian village of Sorochintsy, where a fair is about to be held. Bored, he starts drinking and pawns his red coat (but keeps his red-soled shoes) to the innkeeper, intending to redeem it later, but the innkeeper sells it. Taking revenge, the devil haunts him at night in the form of a pig. Meanwhile, young Parasya has fallen in love with Gritsko. Although her father, the perennially drunk farmer Cherevik, approves, Khivrya, his current wife and stepmother to Parasya, does not. Khivrya herself is not innocent and awaits her lover in the kitchen, cooking and baking up a storm in order to seduce him. Cherevik returns early and Khivrya tells her lover to hide – pulling an oversize turkey over his head. Gritsko has a nightmare where satanic priests dressed as pigs enjoy a banquet worshipping the devil and he finds the devil’s red coat. Upon awakening, he meets Parasya and they sing of their love. Cherevik decides to go against the wishes of his wife and blesses the young couple. The village joins in to celebrate young love.

<i>Sorochyntsy Fair</i> ensemble © Monika Rittershaus
Sorochyntsy Fair ensemble
© Monika Rittershaus

Sorochyntsi Fair was last performed at Berlin's Komische Oper in 1948 by the legendary stage director Walter Felsenstein. Now Barrie Kosky, stage director and intendant, has tried his hand. With his usual inventiveness, Kosky creates a series of independent scenes, often held together by the chorus numbers. There is no doubt that one of the stars of the evening is the excellent chorus (directed by David Cavelius) which cavorts through the evening commenting on love and sorrow in updated peasant costumes, heavy with ribbons and bonnets by Katrin Lea Tag. She is also responsible for the minimalistic empty raked stage with only one mobile, multipurpose platform and for the realistic animal masks and props that are an integral part of the proceedings.

<i>Sorochyntsy Fair</i> ensemble © Monika Rittershaus
Sorochyntsy Fair ensemble
© Monika Rittershaus
The strong cast – singing in Russian – is led by the bass Jens Larsen as Cherevik, the perpetually drunk father with a heart of gold. He is ceaselessly henpecked by Polish mezzo Agnes Zwierko, excellently cast as his wife Khivrya, who has a tour de force scene preparing delicacies for her lover. Mirka Wagner is the young ingénue soprano in love with tenor Alexander Lewis as the simple country lad. Their music and characterization pale in comparison to what Mussorgsky has written for the older generation and chorus – ballads about love and life that fit right in with what we think of as the Russian tradition. Baritone Tom Erik Lie is the devil who sets the entire story rolling and who has a good laugh at the end. 

Henrik Nánási whipped his orchestra through Mussorgsky's score with gusto – was that the sound of birds on a summer’s eve? What’s that drinking song that Cherevik is singing with his chum? Nobody would think of Mussorgsky as a composer of a lighthearted comedy and so it is not surprising that there is a veil of melancholy overlaying even the cheeriest of tunes.

Credit to the cast, production team and conductor, even if many a visitor left slightly puzzled at this story of the goings at a country fair.