Rimsky-Korsakov - The Snow Maiden (Snegurochka - La Fille de Neige)

ONP bastille, Monday April 25 and Wednesday May 3 2017

Conductor: Mikhail Tatarnikov. Production and Sets: Dmitri Cherniakov. Costumes: Elena Zaitseva. Lighting: Gleb Filshtinsky. Snegurochka (the Snow Maiden): Aida Garifullina. Lel: Yuriy Mynenko. Kupava: Martina Serafin. Tsar Berendey: Maxim Paster. Mizgir: Thomas Johannes Mayer. Spring Beauty: Elena Manistina. Grandfather Frost: Vladimir Ognovenko. Bermyata: Franz Hawlata. Bobyl Bakula: Vasily Gorshkov. Bobylikha: Carole Wilson. Wood-Sprite: Vasily Efimov. First Herald: Vincent Morell. Second Herald: Pierpaolo Palloni. Tsar's page: Olga Oussova. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris. Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine.

I’d been delighted to see some Rimsky-Korsakov on this year’s schedules at last, but maddeningly missed the Golden Cockerel in Brussels, in Laurent Pelly’s production, because a sudden cold snap froze the trains. Fortunately there was still The Snow Maiden to come, and my experience of Cherniakov so far had been promising.

He transposes the action to involve what seems to be a kind of sect, mostly of young people, meeting to celebrate the solstice in a sort of rite of spring. As we take our seats, the curtain is up on a clearing in what is the most realistic forest I've ever seen on stage, and a variety of trailers, gingerbread chalets and caravans parked there. The youngsters arrive in assorted, multi-coloured contemporary hiking gear and greet each other cheerfully. There is even some actual tree-hugging. But five minutes before the start, the curtain drops. When it rises again, we are in a dance studio, bright and functional, with wall bars and an upright piano, in a stage school for children. It is run by the diva-like Spring Beauty in big, blond hair and a trailing grey silk gown with a giant gardenia. She has the children, dressed in colourful bird costumes, practise a perky song and dance to keep warm. Snegurochka is escorted in, very young and demure, finishing-school style, in the palest pink coat trimmed with white fur, a white woolly bonnet, flat shoes, short white socks, and mittens dangling on threads from her sleeves, by her father in a suit, hat and coat. It appears, then, that her parents are estranged bourgeois and Snegurochka wants to break away and join the young crowd in the woods.

The schoolroom breaks apart spectacularly at the end of this first scene, disappearing to reveal, once more, the forest clearing (this production makes impressive use of the Bastille’s fancy machinery and vast volumes – not often the case, oddly). As the work progresses, the young revellers change progressively into traditional Russian costumes, though to the very end the odd woolly bonnet, baseball cap, anorak or Adidas trainers can be spotted among them. The Tsar is, so it seems, the guru of this sect, wry and blasé, sitting behind an easel painting Spring Beauty's portrait. Lel is played as a narcissistic cynic, his tic being to stroke the long fair hair back from his face. As the solstice approaches, the staging offers some really magnificent images, with maypoles, satin ribbons streaming from the bushes, giggling streakers, and giant corn dollies decked with spring flowers; gradually we slip from a "real" world into the supernatural.

When Snegurochka calls at last on Spring Beauty for help, the now-empty clearing turns dark and shadowy, and the giant trees start magically to dance, circling majestically round. In Cherniakov's vision, the Snow Maiden sings her final aria, as she melts into death, clinging feebly but desperately to Lel, whom she still loves but who doesn’t seem to care, not to Mizgir. The chorus haul up a flaming wheel on ropes: the sun, and the final curtain falls.

Cherniakov’s directing throughout is detailed and competent. Writing earlier this year about Thomas Jolly’s production of Fantasio, I remarked: “Fabricating fun on stage is hard, and in this case the students' glee remained factitious and stubbornly unconvincing.” Cherniakov, on the contrary, pulls it off: the horsing around on stage looks like real fun, thoroughly convincing, and the comic acting is managed with great skill – including but not (as they say in the US) limited to Martina Serafin’s Ms-Piggy-like Kupava, who makes her first entrance with her bouncy blond hair wound round electric curling tongs. Bobyl Bakula and Bobylikha form a great double act.

Rimsky-Korsakov
You may wonder, however, to what extent any director can transpose a fairy tale into something realistically contemporary - at any rate fairy tales as gentle as this one (the more vicious kind may work better). Of course you get frequent, bizarre mis-matches with the libretto, and often find yourself puzzled as to what’s supposed to be going on. Was this sect (if it was indeed a sect) supposed to have been plotting all along the eventual sacrifice of Snegurochka at the solstice? Cherniakov almost seems to have been in two minds himself: after starting off in realistic vein, he gives in, in the last act, to the supernatural (chassez le surnaturel, il revient au galop…). I was more convinced by his Macbeth and Trovatore.

The score of The Snow Maiden is absolutely gorgeous, though perhaps more like a long concert of gorgeous, exotic things (bringing to my mind Persian carpets, mosque tiles and silks), advancing quite often to its own stately rhythm, than a true dramatic work – though perhaps this was also due to the conductor’s relatively placid approach. I think he was more interested in sheer beauty of line and sound than in seizing opportunities (which there are) to ratchet up the drama. Lasting over three hours, not counting any intervals, Snegurochka stretches the flimsy fairy-tale plot beyond the normal time limit, but the sheer gorgeousness compensates for the sore bum.

We had some very fine singing from the women in the cast. Elena Manistina sang quite a bit in Paris early in her career, much to my satisfaction at the time, but I hadn’t seen her for eight years. Her voice today is brighter and less chesty than I expected, firm, forthright and clear. After the recent Lohengrin in Paris, I wrote that Martina Serafin “was far better employed here, vocally and dramatically, than in Tosca,” and as Kupava she was better-employed still, singing magnificently and sounding idiomatic and proving that, with a good director, she can really act. Compared to that Tosca, she had come alive. Her darker, grainier, mature voice made for an excellent contrast with that of Aida Garifullina, silvery, but not as metallic or searing as some Russian sopranos in these high roles, warmer and with a plaintive vibrato that suited the part. Though now 30 years old, I believe, she played a convincing teenage waif.

The male principals, while not bad, suffered in contrast and came across as less radiant or, in the case of Mizgir, more rough-edged, with one intriguing exception: in this production, Lel was sung, with lovely phrasing, by Yuriy Mynenko, without any doubt the most convincing countertenor I have heard recently, by far, and one of the most convincing ever. There was no perceptible imbalance between him and the “natural” voices of the women. In the huge Bastille hall, this was a tour de force.

The secondary male roles do, however, deserve a mention: the two heralds, singing through old-fashioned loud-hailers, and above all Vasily Efimov as the wood sprite, were noticeably strongly cast. The chorus, often with its back to us, sometimes seemed to lack the impact you'd expect, perhaps for that reason.

This Snow Maiden was already on-line before the end of the run. Perhaps it will appear on video, in which case, though the production isn’t always convincing, it will be worth buying for sheer beauty of music, singing and images. In the meantime, I can definitely feel a Rimsky binge coming on…

Comments

  1. Thank you for your fine review of this opera. I came to Paris from the US (Apr. 25-May 5) expressly to see this work which I had previously only experienced live in concert version, albeit by the Mariinsky at Carnegie Hall about tn years ago. I love this work and agree that it is filled with gorgeous music. I can fully appreciate why Rimsky considered it his favorite among his fifteen operas. I will be seeing Le Coq d'Or later this month in Madrid. I am an Eastern European opera addict and now have the time (since I retired three years ago) and sufficient resources to indulge my passion.

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