Weather forecasters would have a meteorological field day with Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snow Maiden. Freezing temperatures have prevailed for sixteen years, and the immediate outlook in the Prologue is for further isolated snow showers, before a warm front eventually sweeps in from the south during Act IV. University College Opera, ever keen to present rare operatic repertoire, this week enthusiastically offers the work in a new English translation by director Christopher Cowell.

Christopher Foster (Frost), Vanessa Bowers (Snyegùrochka) and Martyna Kasprzyk (Spring) © www.johnreading.co.uk
Christopher Foster (Frost), Vanessa Bowers (Snyegùrochka) and Martyna Kasprzyk (Spring)
© www.johnreading.co.uk

Although best known for his oriental fantasy Scheherazade, Rimsky-Korsakov principally considered himself a composer of opera. In his autobiography Chronicle of My Musical Life, he wrote, “Snegurochka is not only my best opera, but perhaps the best contemporary opera in general”. It was not a view shared by the press. “The critics treated Snegurochka with scant sympathy… I ‘possessed talent’ as a symphonist, but not as an operatic composer.”

In a programme note, conductor Charles Peebles notes that Rimsky’s opera could well bear the subtitle Stravinsky used for The Rite of Spring – “Pictures of pagan Russia”. Based on Ostrovsky’s spring legend of 1874, The Snow Maiden is bursting with Rimsky’s melodic invention and his trademark orchestral colour. He loved Russian folklore and pantheistic themes, both of which find their way into the score. As well as folk tunes, Rimsky also made use of leitmotifs, long before he’d heard much Wagner. He later noted that Wagner wove his leitmotifs from the orchestral fabric, whereas he had used them vocally too.

Snegurochka is the child of Mother Spring and Father Frost and has been raised in winter’s icy grip. However, she has become enchanted with the shepherd boy Lel, and longs to experience life with humans, to feel their longing and passions. Her parents relent, but it’s a recipe for disaster. A few disappointments and broken relationships later, Snegurochka offers her heart to the wealthy merchant, Mizgir and, breaking Frost’s spell, she melts as the sun returns.

<i>The Snow Maiden</i> © www.johnreading.co.uk
The Snow Maiden
© www.johnreading.co.uk

The staging was solidly traditional, with Bridget Kimak’s simple set alluding to stylized birch trees. The greatest invention surrounded the use of colourful origami-style props to transform the chorus into birds in the Prologue and later to unfurl a forest of spring flowers. A giant disc becomes the sun, glorified in the rousing final chorus, but is also employed for some effective choreography in silhouette.

Polish mezzo Martyna Kasprzyk’s dark timbre and Slavic diction rather stole the vocal honours, doubling as Mother Spring and the shepherd boy, Lel, whose songs first enchanted Snegurochka. Kasprzyk showed fine command of the style needed for this material, especially in the first of Lel’s songs, maintaining pitch remarkably well, accompanied mostly by woodwind tweets and trills without any support for the vocal line. The clarinet was Rimsky’s favourite woodwind instrument at the time and it was played with ornithological abandon here in the introduction and postlude to Lyèl’s scene.

Sheridan Edward (Tsar Byerendèyi) and Katerina Miná (Kupava) © www.johnreading.co.uk
Sheridan Edward (Tsar Byerendèyi) and Katerina Miná (Kupava)
© www.johnreading.co.uk

Greek Cypriot soprano Katerina Miná offered further idiomatic English as Kupava, the feisty village girl abandoned by Mizgir the moment he sets eyes on Snyegùrochka. Miná played the role in grandiose style, relishing the dramatic possibilities, although her icy tone found her pitch occasionally wandering. Up against such vivid female interpretations, Vanessa Bowers had her work cut out to present Snyegùrochka as a rounded character. Her opening aria “Picking up the forest berries with my friends” revealed an attractive voice, sometimes lacking weight on high notes. Dramatically, she broke free in Act IV to deliver a touching death scene.

Adam Green’s statuesque Mizgir was the standout male performance, his classy baritone full of warmth. Christopher Foster’s Frost enjoyed excellent diction, while James Russen and Joseph Dodd brought out the Orthodox resonances in the brief duet for the two heralds. Sheridan Edward’s Tsar Berendey, a tenor of Mozartian poise and lightness, wasn’t always able to spin phrases to their end, but made for a benevolent ruler.

Considering UCL has no music department, their musical results are splendid. Professional singers take the principal roles, but minor roles, chorus and orchestra are enthusiastically fulfilled by students. The chorus is an important part of any UC Opera production and its contributions were dispatched with a good deal of charm. There is something rather heart-warming about hearing a chorus of largely untrained voices singing with such genuine enjoyment and the singers threw themselves into the choreography with abandon. The ensemble performed the largely unaccompanied hymn at end of Act II securely.

Under Charles Peebles, the orchestra played lustily, packing plenty of heft when required along with some characterful woodwind solos. In a long evening (might a 7pm start have been advisable?) it seems churlish to complain about cuts, but not to include the opera’s most famous numbers – “The Dance of the Tumblers” – was regrettable, not least because of its ability to showcase the orchestra. Nevertheless, this was a joyous evening of music-making to melt the iciest of hearts; that it was also in the cause of Rimsky-Korsakov’s neglected operas makes it even more reason to rejoice.

****1