Neglected Russian Operas Spotlighted In Spate Of DVDs

Valery Gerghiev conducts Semyon Kotka, an opera celebrating the former Soviet regime and its 1918 war with Ukraine
Valery Gergiev conducts ‘Semyon Kotko,’ an opera celebrating the former Soviet regime and its 1918 war in Ukraine.

GLINKA: Ruslan and Lyudmila. Albina Shagimuratova (Lyudmila), Mikhail Petrenko (Ruslan), Yuri Minenko (Ratmir), Almas Svilpa (Farfal), Alexandrina Pendatchanska (Gorislava), Charles Workman (Finn/Bayan), Elena Zaremba (Naina), State Academic Bolshoi Theatre of Russia Orchestra and Chorus/Vladimir Jurowski. Dmitri Tcherniakov (stage direction and scenography). BelAir Classiques DVD BAC120. Total Time: 197:00.

PROKOFIEV: Semyon Kotko.Viktor Lutsyuk (Semyon Kotko), Olga Sergeeva (Lyubka), Evgeny Nikitin (Remeniuk), Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus/Valery Gergiev. Yuri Alexandrov (stage director). Mariinsky Blu-ray Disc & DVD MAR0592. Total Time: 148:00.

RACHMANINOV: Aleko. Kostas Smoriginas (Aleko), Anna Nechaeva (Zemfira). The Miserly Knight. Sergei Leiferkus (Baron), Dmitry Golovnin (Albert, his son). Francesca da Rimini. Dimitris Tiliakos (Lanceotto Malatesta), Anna Nechaeva (Francesca), Sergey Semishkur (Paolo). Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie, Brussels/Mikhail Tatarnikov. Kirsten Dehlholm (stage director). Maja Ziska (set design). Jesper Kongshaug (lighting). Manon Kündig (costumes). BelAir Classiques DVD BAC133. Total Time: 185:00.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW – Opera in Russia has a long history, reaching back to the early years of the 19th century, but little is known of that history. Russian operas, apart from a few, such as Eugene Onegin and Pique Dame by Tchaikovsky, and Borodin’s Prince Igor, are seldom performed in the West. That said, recordings of Russian operas have been readily available for some time, and with the advent of DVD technology we were finally able to see these works in first-class productions by the Bolshoi in Moscow and the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg, for example.

These latest DVD releases add greatly to our appreciation of a neglected Russian opera repertoire. In some cases, imaginative direction that transcends the opera’s national origins has even succeeded in giving it a broader appeal and perhaps even making the opera seem better than it actually is.

Glinka: Ruslan and Lyudmila

ruslan-and-LyudmilaMikhail Glinka’s (1804-1857) Ruslan and Lyudmila is known today in many countries only for its exuberant and tuneful overture. Based on a poem by Pushkin, the libretto by the composer and at least five other writers is uneven and confusing, to say the least. In this Bolshoi Theatre production, director Dmitri Tcherniakov radically modernizes this period piece and brings out the darker elements lurking beneath both text and music.

The opening scene of the opera, a wedding feast for Ruslan and Lyudmila, looks and sounds at the outset like “Old Russia.” But towards the end of the scene, modern elements in the form of roving cameramen and giant video screens begin to intrude.

At the height of the festivities, Lyudmila is kidnapped by men in suits, at which point we realize that we were watching partygoers in costumes rather than in period dress. In the last scene of the opera, “Old Russia” is re-created, but in between we are taken to a battlefield strewn with bodies, a brothel, and finally an insane asylum, with all manner of dissolute characters populating each of these venues. Are we witnessing a bad dream, a nightmare? Are drugs to blame? Perhaps, since it takes an injection to restore Lyudmila to consciousness at the end of the opera.

In an interview included on the DVD, director Tcherniakov readily admits that the plot of Ruslan and Lyudmila is “dramatically loose,” and states that his challenge as a director was to find a “theatrical solution.” Some might argue that he has gone beyond the bounds of good taste in this production – gratuitous nudity and violence come to mind – but on the whole he has succeeded in shaping a seriously muddled, folkloric opera into an absorbing artistic experience.

Stage director Dmitri Tcherniakov

Unfortunately, this BelAir DVD offers only a minimal plot summary of Ruslan and Lyudmila and no background whatsoever on either the opera or the artists. As a point of interest, Tcherniakov, who has worked in most of the world’s leading opera houses, directed a controversial production of Borodin’s Prince Igor at the Met in 2014.

In addition to the imaginative direction, there is some fine singing and acting in this production of Ruslan and Lyudmila. Baritone Mikhail Petrenko as Ruslan is superb and tenor Charles Workman doing double duty as both Bayan and Finn is nearly as good. Only soprano Albina Shagimuratova’s wide vibrato and shaky intonation are disappointing.

Vladimir Jurowski, who is perhaps best-known these days for his fine work as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic, also has a great deal of experience as an opera conductor. He gets excellent results from soloists, chorus and orchestra in this 2011 production that marked the reopening of the Bolshoi Theatre after six years of costly renovation.

Prokofiev: Semyon Kotko

Valery Gergiev, by far the most familiar of Russian-born conductors these days, is chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic, as well as the artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Gergiev and Russian President Vladimir Putin are old friends and it appears that Gergiev can get whatever he needs for his Mariinsky productions. A longtime advocate of Prokofiev’s 1939 opera Semyon Kotko, Gergiev recorded the work for CD (Philips 464 6052) in 1999 with his Mariinsky Orchestra and some of the same singers who also appear on this new DVD. He also featured the opera during a week-long Mariinsky residency at the Met in 2003.

semyon-kotkoI have difficulty appreciating Gergiev’s fascination with Semyon Kotko, an opera based on a novella (Son of the Working People) by Valentin Kataev, which  deals with the war in Ukraine (1918). A celebration of the glory of the Soviet regime and its triumphs over both domestic and foreign enemies, it is ostensibly Stalinist propaganda.

This 2015 production of Semyon Kotko is directed by Yuri Alexandrov, who does what he can to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear by visualizing the opera as a foray into black humor rather than as a glorification of Soviet righteousness. Costumes for the various Russian warring groups and the German invaders are intentionally comical, and their various comings and goings are made to appear absurd. But it is difficult to see anything funny about hanging people from trees or incinerating whole villages. Prokofiev’s music doesn’t help much either. Pretty much off the shelf, it doesn’t compare with some of his best music from the same period – e.g., the cantata Alexander Nevsky. Tenor Viktor Lutsyuk as Semyon Kotko and soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya as his beloved Sofya head a solid cast.

Rachmaninov: Aleko; The Miserly Knight; Francesca da Rimini

de-munt-mjkxotuynjc0naSergei Rachmaninov, who was not known for operas, wrote three between 1893 and 1904. Each of them received its premiere at the Bolshoi and then was pretty much forgotten. Several years ago someone – probably the stage director Kirsten Dehlholm – thought of combining these three short works into a “troika” for performance on a single evening. It turned out to be a brilliant idea.

In truly inspired and well-executed presentations of all three operas, Dehlholm’s work has surely met and exceeded all expectations. These stunning productions bring Rachmaninov’s operatic music to life; they will long live in my memory.

Dehlholm’s basic concept was to stage all three works in an opera house, La Monnaie in Brussels in 2015, putting the orchestra onstage instead of in the pit. Behind the orchestra is a set of risers or steps ascending high into the air. All the “action” in Aleko and Francesca da Rimini takes place on these steps. In fact, there is virtually no action; rather, there are tableaux, in which the singers rarely interact with each other.

While Francesca da Rimini, an episode in Dante’s Inferno, is clearly set in hell, director Dehlholm took an unusual but very effective liberty: “The whole of the Rachmaninov troika takes place in hell. Everyone is dead.”

Having put the principal singers and chorus on risers, Dehlholm then uses costumes, lighting and projections on scrims to change moods and advance the story. Quite often, through abstract but revelatory direction, lighting changes mirror and support not only the music but also the movements of the orchestral players.

Stage Director Kirsten Denholm
Stage Director Kirsten Denholm

Listening to these operas in the past, I always wondered how they could be staged effectively. The dramatic material is pretty thin – more like a series of short stories than grand opera – with some scenes too long and others too short, and undistinguished libretti. At long last, I have an answer. Dehlholm’s approach, with its masterful use of what the modern opera house has at its disposal in the way of technical resources, gives Rachmaninov’s beautiful music the theatrical partnership it needs to really come to life.

Aleko is particularly memorable for its brilliantly colored costumes and face-painting in a manner suggestive of Kabuki theatre, with music that often resembles Rachmaninov’s haunting Russian liturgical works. The Miserly Knight is played in front of a scrim between the singers and the orchestra with the miser’s dreary counting-room shown with projections. The son, who wastes his father’s money and is always asking for more, is costumed in a fat suit aptly reflecting his lack of self-control.

The most gripping of the three operas in this troika was Francesca da Rimini. The music, foreshadowing Rachmaninov’s gloomy Isle of the Dead, is consistently powerful. The steps on the risers represent the various levels of hell as depicted in Dante’s Inferno. Dante and Virgil appear as giant figures on stilts while the chorus members huddle together, “shadows in the wind” as Dehlholm calls them, their clothes rustling every so often as suggested in the music.

Conductor Mikhail Tatarnikov and his orchestra more than held their own in this fabulous ensemble effort from La Monnaie. Among the singers, baritone Kostas Smoriginas was wonderful as Aleko, the veteran Sergei Leiferkus was commanding as the miserly Baron and Dimitris Tiliakos was fearsome as Lanceotto Malatesta.

This production of the Rachmaninov troika would have been a triumph in any opera house in the world. Thanks to BelAir for making it available on DVD in a film version by Christian Leblé that captures the music, the staging, the lighting and the projections in the spirit of Kirsten Dehlholm’s magnificent production.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for, and, as well as for his own site,