There's a wonderful painting by Ilya Repin of an aged Leo Tolstoy in peasant clothing. Having renounced his aristocratic lifestyle, the great writer didn't just adopt peasant dress, but lived and worked alongside the workers on his estate, ploughing the fields, repairing their homes. Dmitri Tcherniakov's depiction of Tsar Berendey in his new production of The Snow Maiden reminded me of this painting. His Tsar is no remote ruler, but the leader of a commune trying to recreate the old days. Rimsky-Korsakov's opera is a great hymn to nature and Tcherniakov completely embraces its spirit.
His production begins slightly uncertainly. Sixteen years earlier, Father Frost (grainy bass Vladimir Ognovenko) and Spring Beauty (mezzo Elena Manistina) had a daughter together – The Snow Maiden (or Snegurochka). The opposing seasons are in conflict and Frost has raised the child, who is cold and incapable of love. In Tcherniakov's staging of the Prologue, Spring Beauty is a schoolmistress, rehearsing her little charges in a quirky song and dance number as birds, when Frost interrupts to announce his imminent departure to the north. The school hall set is narrow and means that Ognovenko and Manistina were frequently swallowed by the orchestra. However, when they decide to allow Snegurochka to go and live with the Berendey community, the set splits to reveal a spectacularly realistic woodland setting where the rest of the opera takes place. The voices were much freer in this acoustic.
The Berendeys live in little chalets dotted between the trees, apart from Bobyl and Bobylikha (Snegurochka's adopted parents) who reside in a dodgy caravan. Maslenitsa is being celebrated, the festival bidding farewell to winter and welcoming spring. Praises are sung to Tsar Berendey while he sits painting at his easel. We later see effigies of Maslenitsa in the woodland, ready to be burned as part of the spring rites, in which dancers – dressed in no more than a garland of flowers on their heads – leap and frolic between the trees. This woodland is miraculously lit by Gleb Filshtinsky – from shafts of sunlight piercing its depths to a shimmering moonlit scene as Snegurochka flees the amorous advances of Mizgir. The scene where Snegurochka pleads with Spring Beauty to make her capable of love had Tcherniakov's set turning a double revolve in opposite directions which was jaw-droppingly gorgeous.
Aida Garifullina, making her Opéra de Paris debut, scored a notable triumph as Snegurochka, her limpid, bell-like soprano crystal clear, her acting thoroughly moving as the girl struggling to comprehend human love. She sculpted phrases of cool marble and – dare one say it – melted hearts. Martina Serafin's powerful soprano provided a weighty foil to Garifullina as Kupava, the would-be bride abandoned by wealthy merchant Mizgir as soon as he claps eyes on Snegurochka. A celebrated Tosca, Serafin certainly had the decibels to vent her anger.
Rimsky-Korsakov wrote the part of Lel, the shepherd whose songs Snegurochka is enchanted by, for a mezzo. Tcherniakov controversially recasts it as a countertenor role, which Yuriy Mynenko carried off with aplomb, played as a long-haired love god. Lel's three songs are lightly scored, with plenty of clarinet and cor anglais impersonating shepherd pipes, so Mynenko rarely had to cut through vast orchestration, his striking timbre sounding other-worldly.
Thomas Johannes Mayer was a disappointment as Mizgir, his baritone worn and gruff. There needs to be a Hvorostovsky-like glamour for this character to really work, sadly lacking here. You never believe Snegurochka ever truly falls for him; neither does Tcherniakov, who has her deliver her final words of love, as she melts, to Lel instead. Elena Manistina's sturdy mezzo had real authority in her woodland scene, while Maxim Paster (replacing Ramón Vargas at pretty short notice) sang plangently in the high tessitura demanded of Tsar Berendey. Having Franz Hawlata as Berendey's boyar was luxury casting.
The chorus did a convincing impression as a Russian choir, providing plenty of bass weight and depth. Mikhail Tatarnikov conducted a magnificent account of Rimsky's dazzling score, the Orchestre de l'Opéra National de Paris responding with character and colour. It was ironic that, in a very full account, the one number to be cut was also the most famous – the energetic Dance of the Tumblers the unfortunate casualty (in January, Opera North effectively pasted it as an entr'acte after the interval).
Snegurochka melts, Mizgir kills himself, but life goes on, the cycle represented by the burning of a huge cartwheel as the festivities continue. Rimsky was very fond of Snegurochka, regarding it as his “ninth symphony”. Tcherniakov's rite of spring is immensely fulfilling, imbued with real love for Rimsky's work. Following his The Tsar's Bride and The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, this production proves Tcherniakov is today's greatest champion of Rimsky-Korsakov's operas.
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