By Rebecca Schmid
BERLIN – The Komische Oper has seen no shortage of rare, comic works under its Intendant and Chefregisseur Barrie Kosky. At the end of March, his 2013 staging of Paul Abrahamson’s operetta Ball in Savoy was revived with impeccable characterizations and a colorful 1920s aesthetic that transformed the former East Berlin house into an oasis of both nostalgia and life-affirming energy.
Kosky’s new production of Mussorgsky’s Fair at Sorochintsy, which opened on Apr. 2, ranks among his less successful undertakings. The composer’s last opera, which he left unfinished upon his death in 1881, has not been performed in Berlin since the days of Walter Felsenstein, the stage director who founded the Komische Oper in 1947. Kosky opts not for the orchestration by Nikolai Tcherepnin but a later version by Vissarion Shebalin — a student of Myaskovsky — and the musicologist Pavel Lamm. He also fleshes out the evening with choruses by Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.
The opera, based on a tale by Nikolai Gogol, explores young love, superstition, and alcoholism in the Ukrainian village of Sorochintsy (Gogol’s place of birth). According to a gypsy, the devil is on the prowl in search of his red jacket as the villagers buy and sell goods. The farmer boy Gritsko makes a deal with the gypsy over oxen in order to win the hand of Parasya, whose manipulative stepmother, Khivrya, is thwarting their happiness. Following apparitions of the devil in the form of a pig, Gritsko emerges victorious.
Mussorgsky’s score is based on folkloric melodies and Ukrainian dances such as the dumka and hopak, which ends the opera. If the music is delightfully simple on the surface, it includes sophisticated tonal harmonies and a considerable melancholy in slow numbers. Kosky, who ended the house tradition of performing operas exclusively in the German language when he took the reins in 2012, preserves an element of character by opting for the original Russian text. Authentic diction is not always in generous supply, however, with a cast that does not include a single native speaker.
The production takes an admirably understated approach, opening in darkness as the chorus sings the Hebrew Song (Op.7, No. 2) by Rimsky-Korsakov to the accompaniment of bandura, a Ukrainian zither-like instrument. But the bare-bones, sterile set by Katrin Lea Tag, consisting of nothing more than a bright, reflective floor in the first act, undermines the fairy-tale dimensions of the story. While the villagers of the opening fair wear traditional Russian costumes (also designed by Tag), there is not a single fruit or vegetable stand to evoke the atmosphere in which they eagerly sell their merchandise.
The second-act kitchen scene in which Khivrya seduces Afanassy Ivanovich, son of the village priest, features elaborate cooking ware but a mere countertop in terms of set design. Despite the mild comedy of watching them cover themselves in whipped cream, the action does not gather momentum until Khivrya hides her lover from her husband, Cherevik, and his drunken comrades by shoving his head into an oversized turkey.
The stage finally becomes animated in Gritsko’s dream, a scene which the Shebalin-Lamm score preserves in its entirety and places in the third act (Mussorgsky had planned it as an interlude between the first and second acts, according to program notes). A banquet populated by pig-headed humans rolls downstage to nightmarish lighting by Franck Evin. The creatures walk around on stilts before the scene ends with a religious chorus in praise of God. The final scenes in which Gritsko is united with Parasya unfolds in such rapid succession, however, that one can hardly enjoy the happy ending.
While the house chorus was a lively presence in dance numbers, they did not pull off the authentic charm which transports the listener to a 19th-century, eastern European revelry. The young tenor Alexander Lewis came closer as Gritsko, confessing his love to Parasya with an ardent timbre. Mirka Wagner, as the object of his affection, brought a silvery, expansive tone to her third-act solo song, a dumka, but lacked the same level of dramatic conviction and attention to word painting.
Mezzo-soprano Agnes Zwierko was a fiery Khivrya, with a timbre of just the right strident finish and excellent comic timing in the second act. Jens Larsen brought a powerful, polished bass and a convincing drunken swagger to the role of Cherevik. Hans Gröning was a sinister gypsy, Ivan Turšić a fine Ivanovich, Tom Erik Lie an energetic sidekick to Cherevik as the comrade.
The house orchestra gave a compelling performance under general music director Henrik Nánási, with incisive dance rhythms and nicely phrased wind solos. The volume at times competed with the most powerful singers, however, which was surely not helped by the lack of walls onstage to reflect back the sound. While the production’s modest aesthetic allowed the score to take center stage, the two-hour evening ultimately left the viewer wanting more.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide, and other publications.