|Rimsky Korsakov - The Snow Maiden - Opera North - James Creswell, Aoife Miskelly, Yvonne Howard |
photo Richard Hubert Smith
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 3 2017
A welcome outing for Rimsky-Korsakov's rarely performed opera in an engaging performance
|Heather Lowe, Elin Pritchard - photo Richard Hubert Smith|
|Aoife Miskelly, Phillip Rhodes, Elin Pritchard , chorus of Opera North|
- photo Richard Hubert Smith
The Snow Maiden was Rimsky-Korsakov's third opera, premiered in 1882, and represents his first really mature work for the stage. All of the ideas which the composer was to use later in his operatic career are present, particularly a fascination with the ritual of the Old Russia and its associated songs (The Snow Maiden uses a lot of calendar songs designed to go at a particular point in the year), and the combination of Old Russian, Oriental and Western music. But also a discursiveness and a lack of dramatic impetus. Rimsky-Korsakov's operas are largely leisurely affairs, taking their time.
The use of rituals for welcoming Spring, a wedding and other such moments in The Snow Maiden mean that the piece is slow to catch fire. In fact, in terms of structure (though not in terms of musical style or dramatic content) the work reminded me very much of Rossini's Guillaume Tell, with the same long-breathed act structure and the use of choral/dance divertissements to help depict a community. And the sense that the drama builds slowly out of this. As such it is a structure which you meddle with at your peril, though Opera North did indeed cut the work. David Nice in his review on The Arts Desk lamented the cuts, but at three hours including a single interval the piece was certainly long enough for a company that is taking the work on tour.
John Fulljames first directed the opera at Wexford in 2008 and it would be interesting to know how his ideas have changed. He was clearly concerned to reflect the sense of time passing and ritual, whilst steering clear of a fully traditional production. There was also a vein of gentle humour in the production, not making fun of it but including quirky details to help enliven the texture. I think without a detailed knowledge and love of Russian folk-lore, the opera might indeed come over as a bit 'pudding-y' without something extra.
So when we entered the theatre a projection of the January page of a calendar was up on the scrim, with a picture of Tsar Berendey. Throughout the opera, to indicate the passing of time and seasons, these calendar pages would gradually turn, with the photographs of the Tsar in increasingly unlikely places (June had him in a bathing costume at the seaside). The village of the original was now a sweatshop where the women worked on clothes and costumes, what they were working on varied according to the season and emotional texture of the opera. In the opening scene Father Frost costumes make way for Spring Beauty ones, at another point it is jeans, and in the second half, wedding outfits, and finally with the coming of Summer we have growth and baby clothes. Similarly the characters of Spring Beauty and Father Frost arose out of mannequins displaying their clothes with a neat piece of stagecraft making the Spring Beauty mannequin turn into mezzo-soprano Yvonne Howard.
|Heather Lowe, chorus of Opera North - photo Richard Hubert Smith|
The role of the Snow Maiden is frankly one of those tricky roles where the singer needs to spent part of the piece as an innocent youth and then open up with big dramatics at the end (think Madame Butterfly or Tatyana in Eugene Onegin). Daisy Brown had an ideal voice for the opening acts of the opera, a slimline lyric coloratura, and a stage presence which emphasised the character's naivety and innocence, her lack of understanding of the emotions of the real world. She made an appealing Snow Maiden, and sang the role with careful beauty, great charm and a sense of poignant naivety, In the final act, where in her desperation to learn to love the Snow Maiden calls on her mother and, on learning to love, dies, Daisy Brown gave the role her all but wisely without straining her voice. She concentrated on ease and fluency, but ideally the role needed a little more. That will come, as Brown's voice developed and what she lacked in amplitude she gave in commitment. I don't usually report on a cover performance in such detail, but felt that Brown's considerable achievement needed coverage.
|Yvonne Howard - photo Richard Hubert Smith|
Heather Lowe was a near ideal Lel, the shepherd boy whose on/off romancing of the Snow Maiden triggers the final crisis. Lel has a series of songs which form set pieces of the opera, with Heather Lowe singing with attractively flexible tone and great charm and personality. This latter was key, she looked and felt like a lively teenager with a convincing rangy physique du role, and a lively sense of how a young man behaves.
The opera is Midsummer Nights Dream like in its mix of mismatched loves (Ostrovsky, on whose play Rimsky-Korsakov based the opera, included a heavy admixture of Shakespeare into it). Kupava (Elin Pritchard) started out betrothed to Mizgir (Phillip Rhodes), was dumped and then chosen by Lel. So Pritchard went through the gamut of emotions, making Kupava's despair funny yet touching, shot through with anger, and flowering in the final act.
Mizgir is a strange role. He disappears from the action for a lot of the important periods. John Fulljames' ingenious solution was to have Kupava tape up his ankles, wrists and mouth (in fact he is delivered to Tsar Berendey's court in a box!). Only at the end of the opera did Daisy Brown's Snow Maiden release him, allowing him voice for the powerful ending. Rhodes made him vibrant and interesting, despite the rather monomaniacal side to the character.
Claire Pascoe and Joseph Shovelton as the Snow Maiden's adoptive parents, were delightfully characterful, he complete with a bottle of vodka and she constantly trying to part him from it.
James Sharpe was a find stand-in as Tsar Berendey, bringing a nice sense of character to the dialogue, though Sharpe was somewhat tested by the arias. Dean Robinson performed the role of Bermyata, Tsar Berendey's major-domo, with aplomb, coping well with the comic business which John Fulljames had created for the role.
|Rimsky Korsakov - The Snow Maiden - Opera North - Yvonne Howard, Aoife Miskelly, chorus of Opera North|
photo Richard Hubert Smith
Leo McFall and the orchestra of Opera North brought a feeling of lively character to Rimsky-Korsakov's attractively melodic score. Inevitably perhaps lacking the epic sweep of larger scale performances, McFall and the orchestra made the music immediate and melodically appealing, with some nice toe-tapping moments.
UK opera thatre still has not really discovered the operas of Rimsky-Korsakov, and John Fulljames' staging for Opera North was a striking example of bringin immediacy and charm to Rimsky-Korsakov's ritualised epic theatre.
Elsewhere on this blog:
- Disturbing video games: Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel from Opera North - opera review
- Vivid theatricality: Suzi Digby and Ora - concert review
- Strong stuff: Chamber music by Kodaly and Dohnanyi - cd review
- Seminal Bulgarian composers: Wind from the East from pianist Victoria Terekiev - CD review First fruits: Tim Mead's first song recital at Wigmore Hall with James Baillieu - concert review