The operatic productions put on termly by our music conservatoires provide an invaluable training ground for young singers getting to grips with the classic roles of the repertoire. But they also play a vital role in keeping some of the peripheries of that repertoire alive, mounting works that the professional opera companies don’t or won’t do, and thus giving the students a taste for adventure while giving audiences something different. A case in point is Royal Academy Opera, which has followed last term’s Le nozze di Figaro with one of the sorely neglected works of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. May Night, sung here in the original Russian, was the composer’s first folk opera, and was premiered in Moscow in 1880. It may lack the musical sophistication of his later, more exotic fairytale works such as The Golden Cockerel or Tsar Saltan, but there’s a freshness about his folk-imbued idiom that is very much of its place and time, and which sets him apart from the more cosmopolitan Tchaikovsky and epic Mussorgsky.

Royal Academy Opera: <i>May Night</i> © Robert Workman
Royal Academy Opera: May Night
© Robert Workman

The plot of May Night, based on a story by Gogol, is sheer hokum and one in which realism and the supernatural sit together uneasily. A libidinous father is thwarting his son’s marital ambitions because he’s after the same girl. The son persuades his friends to help him play tricks on the old man in revenge, but only achieves victory over his father with the intercession of a Rusalka, a water sprite that traditionally wreaks havoc during the so-called Green Week that marks the arrival of spring in rural Russian folklore. Christopher Cowell’s production injected a little social realism into the story, setting it during the early years of the Soviet Union at a time when rural life was belatedly experiencing industrialisation, signified here by the plan to upgrade the village distillery in which he sets the entire action.

Emma Stannard (Ganna) and Mikhail Shepelenko (Levko) © Robert Workman
Emma Stannard (Ganna) and Mikhail Shepelenko (Levko)
© Robert Workman

Much of the plot rests on the rights and responsibilities of the social hierarchy, with the father’s position as local Headman (mayor) putting him under the thumb of the military Commissar, whose supposed diktat that his son must have his girl holds sway (the letter containing this command is the son’s reward from the Rusalka for saving her from the witch in their midst). Designer Bridget Kimak and her student team from the Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance turned the former concrete testing hall of Westminster University, now know as Ambika P3, into an effective auditorium, with a set dominated by the still and vat of the distillery and with plenty of exits and entrances to cater for the plot’s often farce-like comings and goings.

Royal Academy Opera: <i>May Night</i> © Robert Workman
Royal Academy Opera: May Night
© Robert Workman

The folk-opera genre, with its dances, choruses, lyrical numbers and comic set-pieces, gives plenty for a young and enthusiastic cast to do, and it was encouraging to sense a real ensemble at work in an organisation that inevitably has a regular through-put of individuals. Mikhail Shepelenko was a highly lyrical Levko, the Headman’s son, with an airy, fluid tenor timbre that only could have done with a little more heft to rise above the rather exposed orchestra. Ganna, his eventual betrothed, was effectively portrayed by Emma Stannard, a mezzo with plenty of deep colour to her voice. Timothy Murphy, a splendid Bartolo in Figaro last time, reconfirmed his excellence in buffo roles with a vocally resourceful and characterful assumption of the Headman, a man whose authority and control of events seem under constant attack. Phil Wilcox had fun with the drunken peasant Kalenik and Claire Barnett-Jones likewise as the Headman’s put-upon, live-in ‘sister-in-law’ – excellent vocal control both, without letting the comic antics compromise the gusto of their singing. Both Martins Smaukstelis as the Distiller and Henry Neill as the Clerk despatched their roles with aplomb and Lorena Paz Nieto’s contribution as Pannochka, the water sprite saved from her witch step-mother by Levko, made for a heartfelt third act, where Rimsky’s music finally comes into its own with some of his most evocative, magical orchestration and harmonic chromaticism. The chorus, whether playing villagers or Rusalkas, was accomplished throughout, and the Royal Academy Sinfonia, under the RAM’s incoming director of opera Gareth Hancock, brought professional elan to the composer’s ever-inventive orchestral writing.