Those familiar with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade or Flight of the bumblebee might be surprised to know that the composer was a vigorous and even accomplished composer of opera: in fact, Flight of the bumblebee actually comes from one of them, The tale of Tsar Saltan. Opera composition occupied him from the 1860s until almost the year of his death, but the works are quite rarely performed outside Russia. That fact made the presentation of Rimsky’s one-act fantasy Kashchey the Immortal at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Sunday 18 March a real event — the first performance in Australia, but one of the few you’re likely to hear anywhere.
Sunday’s performance by Citiopera was under the direction of Alan Cook, a young conductor with a considerable amount of international experience already behind him and a particular passion for the operas of Rimsky-Korsakov, on whom he is carrying out PhD research. I have known this opera for some time via the CD recording made by Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Opera and Ballet, one of a series of recordings they made of Rimsky’s operas in the mid-90s. Cook’s approach to this work is quite different from Gergiev’s. Those who know Scheherazade probably expect Rimsky’s operas to be lavishly scored, but Kashchey is actually quite modest orchestrally, almost conceived along classical lines. Gergiev is evidently more fixed on getting maximum payback from the slight forces Rimsky accords him — the orchestral sound is rich, plump and full. If Cook’s orchestra seemed less focussed on sheer generosity of sound, the comparatively more transparent sound he elicited brought into sharper relief some of the modernities of the score that hadn’t really occupied me in the Gergiev recording. Rimsky’s music in this opera is filled with odd turns of expression, motivated by the symbolist libretto — tritones and whole-tone scales, the ominous creaking of the contrabassoon, even the thematic material somehow seemed more strongly etched than in Gergiev’s reading of the score.
Those who know Rimsky’s connection to Stravinsky assume a straight line from Scheherazade to the Firebird. That’s one way of seeing their connection; the other is the line through this opera to works like the brutalist Les noces. Cook’s direction was contained; a bit like Pierre Boulez’s recording of Pelléas et Mélisande, he revealed Kashchey as a first fruit of modernity rather than the feeble and ill-worked-out tail end of romanticism. I found myself wondering what Cook might do with Rimsky’s Mozart and Salieri (another great yet forgotten Rimsky opera and on the same scale as Kashchey) or Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, Busoni’s Doktor Faust or even Pelléas, all on a bigger canvas. Cook’s direction was thus insightful, and pretty tight notwithstanding some of the singers’ desire to defy his direction.
The singers were definitely a mixed bunch. Christiana Aloneftis (soprano) had much of the stage to herself in the first tableau in the role of the Tsarevna. Hers is a well-produced soprano but just had insufficient cut to penetrate the smallish orchestra, often becoming completely overwhelmed; she also refused to stick to the beat in the first tableau or in the Tsarevna’s sardonic lament in the third tableau. In the first tableau, Aloneftis played opposite Michael Lapiña in the title role and Alex Pokryshevsky as the Storm Knight. Both of them were certainly up to the vocal demands of their respective roles, but both had also decided their characters had only one mode.
The choice for a, well, blustering characterisation for the Storm Knight is certainly justified by the libretto but Pokryshevsky seemed to be taking the role too literally by clutching precipitously at his music stand, as though he himself were about to be blown away. Lapiña had also decided on a characterisation justified by the libretto — a sneering, nasty, sorcerer — but in his case Rimsky does write something slightly more than a one-dimensional character. When Raphael Wong, again armed with an attractive and suitable voice for the role, sang Ivan-Korolevich without attempting much in the way of characterisation, I began to wonder whether either the libretto or the non-staged nature of the production were to blame. Certainly a fully staged production would have made better sense of the fantasy elements of the story and the libretto, symbolist mess that is often is (and made even more ludicrous by inept surtitling), has a historic moment within which the listener can make sense of it and it is not without its own strikingly beautiful moments.
Any reservations I had about either vocal appropriateness for role, or acting, or the lack of staging or the libretto were exploded by the singing of Viktoria Bolonina in the role of Kashchey’s daughter, Kashcheyevna. Here was a singer whose engagement with the text was immediate — she is a Russian speaker — and it told in every detail: her glance; her entire bearing oozing disdain; the way she conjured up the sword with which she would kill Ivan-Korolevich and the potion with which she would make him forgot his commitment to the Tsarevna with a few effortless gestures; and the way she moved the audience with the pity and sorrow of her first tears, liberating the lovers and sentencing Kashchey to a well-deserved death. Bolonina proved in one fell swoop that Rimsky’s opera is real drama and that Kashcheyevna is fit to stand next to Kundry. Nothing Bolonina did or sang for the entire time she was on stage was wrong. Utterly, utterly accomplished in singing and acting, she could — frankly — have been singing the Yellow Pages: it would have been every bit as riveting.
Small details, including some ill discipline in the chorus, made me wonder whether this work had had just too little rehearsal to allow the music’s complexities to sort themselves out and, in the case of the solo singers, for complex characterisations to blossom. But there’s no diminishing Cook’s bravery and commitment in bringing this work to public attention at all.