The libretto of Prokofiev’s Soviet opera Semyon Kotko clobbers you on the head with revolutionary doctrine. Understandably, the work has never gained an international foothold. Even in Russia, where it is now part of the repertoire, it was ignored for decades shortly after its 1940 première, which was by no means an unequivocal success. Then the critics focused on the opera’s lack of instant popular appeal rather than its musical qualities. As this concert version at the Concertgebouw demonstrated, these are considerable. Prokofiev’s intricate score, enriched with folk music patterns, thrums with tension throughout and reaches moments of colossal drama. As the first non-Russian orchestra to perform this work complete, the 100-strong Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra acquitted itself with honours under the precise and eloquent Vladimir Jurowski. The Netherlands Radio Choir and Flemish Radio Choir, claiming a similar first, crowned the performance with choral glory.

Vladimir Jurowski © Roman Gontcharov
Vladimir Jurowski
© Roman Gontcharov

Based on a luridly propagandist novel by Valentin Katayev, the plot could be summarised as “partisans are patriots, anti-revolutionaries are Satan”. Semyon Kotko is a demobilised Ukrainian soldier returning to his native village towards the end of the First World War. His simple hope is to marry Sofya, but her father, the fanatically anti-Bolshevist Tkachenko, opposes the marriage. The fact that Remeniuk, the head of the village soviet, and his comrade Tsaryov try to broker the marriage does not help. When Tkachenko conspires with the Germans to get Tsaryov and another villager arrested and hanged, Semyon joins the partisans to take revenge. After a violent struggle, the revolutionaries gain control and Tkachenko is executed. Semyon and Sofya can get married. The opera ends as the Red Army marches cheerily into the village.

If there is one thing that Prokofiev’s agile music makes clear it is that, in a struggle this deadly, everyone must eventually pick sides. He juxtaposes simple village life, evoked by peasant choruses and accordions, with menacing, dark waves of sound and tugging rhythms. Time and again this sense of urgency invades the rural lyricism. Prokofiev’s animated scoring of the wordy dialogue propels the prosaic text forwards. Singers and orchestral sections swiftly relay melodic figures to each other or weave them into each other. The composer also pokes fun at the earnest rhetoric, such as when he punches Remeniuk’s pompous speech about land redistribution with an irreverent tuba. The singers and musicians deserve the highest praise for sailing through these swift acrobatics. On the rostrum, Jurowksi was a veritable magician, highlighting the nervous lyricism of the work and skilfully building up to its terrifying crescendos. Occasionally unsure in which direction he was taking them in the broader phrases, the orchestra followed his crisp rhythm at all times, and their performance kept gaining strength.

Everyone in the huge cast, almost all native speakers, was highly involved in their roles. The carat of the performance would have been purer, however, if a couple of key roles had been stronger vocally. As the villain Tkachenko, the theatrically gifted Maxim Mikhailov wielded a bass that is no longer as large and rich as it evidently once was. Lyubov Petrova sang his daughter Sofya with oodles of temperament, but the upper range of her soprano sounded consistently pressed. And Vladimir Ognev’s dry, grainy bass added little allure to Remeniuk’s heroic haranguing. On the other hand, tenor Oleg Dolgov was tireless as Semyon, with a vigorous, velvety timbre and surefire top notes. Projecting confidently and with interpretative flair, baritone Andrej Breus made a dramatically vivid Tsaryov. Soprano Evelina Dobračeva was fantastic as his fiancée, especially when Lyubka goes mad with grief after Tsaryov’s execution, a scene that reaches its fearful climax with brilliant layering of orchestral colours. Mezzo-soprano Alexandra Kadurina was equally excellent as a delightfully spontaneous Frosya, Semyon’s sister. Her charming “rain” aria, where the orchestra mimics falling raindrops, was one of the finer poetic passages. Tenor Igor Morozov as the German translator and baritone Vitali Rozynko in three different parts were standouts among the numerous, scrupulously cast smaller roles.

It is impossible to skirt around this opera’s politics, and Jurowski chose to end the performance with a subtle but clear political statement. Nowhere is the score so majestic as in the choral music accompanying the funeral of the murdered partisans. Prokofiev’s setting of the patriotic poem Testament by Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko equals the most stupendous pages in Russian opera. He first swells up the choral and orchestral forces to an anguished cry, then tapers them off to a solitary drummed heartbeat. Jurowski repeated this hymn at the end of the opera, this time in the original Ukrainian, and tied it off with the last bars of the overture. In the programme he called this addition “a personal dedication to ALL people populating today’s Ukraine and Crimea”. Not only did this choice refer to the work’s political baggage, it also gave it a musically shattering ending.