Rare Tchaikovsky Opera Displays Charms Before Killing The Characters

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Asmik Grigorian as Nastasya in Oper Frankurt’s 2022 staging of Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Enchantress’ (Photos by Barbara Aumüller)

Tchaikovsky: The Enchantress. Asmik Grigorian (soprano), Iain MacNeil (baritone), Claudia Mahnke (mezzo-soprano), Alexander Mikhailov (tenor), Frederic Jost (bass), Zanda Švēde (mezzo-soprano), Vasily Barkhatov (stage director), Chor der Oper Frankfurt, Frantkfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester, Valentin Uryupin (conductor). Naxos 2.110768-69.

DIGITAL REVIEW — Oper Frankfurt, consistently one of Europe’s finest theaters, has issued a refreshing novelty in Tchaikovsky’s Charodjeka (The Enchantress). An ambitious if uneven staging by the acclaimed youngish director Vasily Barkhatov displays the considerable dramatic talents and musical acumen of his wife, soprano Asmik Grigorian, who indeed weaves a spell in the title role. Here, in a way not fully evident in her recent Metropolitan Opera debut as Butterfly — despite some reviews seemingly culled from Received Industry Wisdom about this gifted Lithuanian-Armenian artist — Grigorian shines in a staging created around her strengths.

Her popularity among looks-conscious directors from the theater and cinema should not surprise: She’s a youthful, riveting actress who maximizes an interesting but not exceptionally beautiful or plush voice. Plus, almost alone among Oper Frankfurt’s strong 2022 cast, she understands and transmits the writing idiomatically.

In my student years, the market for video offerings of Russian titles pretty much consisted of old, heavily cut, politically massaged Soviet films, doggedly literal as to historical settings — if hardly to historical truth or the dictates of the libretti. Some of these studio films preserve wonderful individual performances, such as Mark Reizen’s epochal Dosifei in Khovanshchina and Galina Vishnevskaya’s unsurpassable take on the title role of Katerina Ismailova. When I began to teach Slavic opera at the college level a quarter century ago, one could also draw from the signal achievement of Valery Gergiev’s career: a series of Philips laser discs (and later DVDs) of generally high orchestral quality in well-engineered sound.

If too much crony casting prevailed, some superb interpretations by international class artists at their peak (Olga Borodina, Sergei Leiferkus, Vladimir Galouzine, Larissa Diadkova, Anna Netrebko) offer viewers many riches. Plus, Gergiev sagely brought to the fore largely neglected operas by Rimsky-Korsakov and Prokofiev.

History has taken another turn, and no one would look either musically or interpretively to the current Gergiev empire for noteworthy operatic documents. However, Russia has engendered many iconoclastic directors, some of them now of necessity (or artistic or political choice) practicing their craft in Western Europe. This has tended to produce paradoxical results: brilliant, or at any rate highly imaginative, contemporary re-interpretations of works unknown to Western audiences in their original form.

Throughout a career that began in his 20s, Barkhatov (born in Moscow in 1983) has juggled plays, musicals, and operas. In recent years, German and Austrian theaters have hosted much of his operatic work; he frequently collaborates with Grigorian, with Norma coming in spring of 2025 at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien.

Henry James’ infamous description of (other writers’) 19th-century novels as “loose, baggy monsters” has some pertinence to that century’s Russian operatic tradition, prompted in part by Mikhail Glinka’s miraculously tuneful but sprawling, generically mixed 1842 Ruslan and Lyudmila. Those composers working in the tradition Glinka founded with Ruslan and the earlier historical opera A Life for the Tsar (1836) often created unwieldy dramatic structures, crammed with folkloric as well as melodramatic elements. Witness Khovanshchina, Rimsky’s The Maid of Pskov, and Tchaikovsky’s own The Golden Slippers.

The Enchantress dates from 1887, after some of the composer’s more familiar operas — The Maid of Orleans, Eugene Onegin, and Mazeppa but before The Queen of Spades and Iolanta. Its unwieldy libretto by playwright Ippolit Shpazhinsky creates problems in length and swings of tone that perhaps no conductor or director could solve. If the capable, knowing conductor Valentin Uryupin made any cuts, I didn’t notice them in the course of 3 hours and 20 minutes; this is one Tchaikovsky score where, despite much melody and orchestral color, cuts wouldn’t come amiss.

Barkhatov’s staging, though striking, sometimes leaves one puzzled at dramatic loose ends. The original plot transpires in 15th-century Nizhny Novgorod: a highly factionalized princely society, with struggles between the established powers and more liberal (and louche) elements, including the titular character, the charismatic innkeeper Nastasya. The libretto portrays flagrant abuse of power, misinformation, double crossings, religious hypocrisy (a particular focus of the director, whose scenario combines two separate characters, the odious local bishop Mamirov and the magician Kudma, into one sinister baritone part strongly taken by Frederic Jost), and poisonings.

Re-reading that description, one might see clearly how Barkhatov came to transpose The Enchantress to today’s Russia, with Nastasya and her circle figuring as free-thinking artists. Add on the Oedipal elements (the reigning Prince Nikita and his mother-dominated son Prince Yuri compete for the heroine’s love) and a Hamlet-like final act that kills off nearly all the leading characters, and you’ve got a heady brew.

In Vasily Barkhatov’s imaginative production of Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Enchantress,’ Claudia Mahnke (Princess) poisons her rival Asmik Grigorian (Nastasya).

The leading Mariinsky Theater singers who created The Enchantress in 1887 also took part in several other Tchaikovsky premieres. Mezzo-soprano Mariya Slavina, who later created Queen of Spades’ sinister Countess, originated the vengeful Princess. Ivan Melnikov — one of the most important singers in Russian history, the first Boris Godunov, Demon, Prince Igor, and Tomsky — sang Nikita, and tenor Mikhail Vasilyev sang Yuri). Omnipresent character bass Fyodor Stravinsky (father of Igor) played Mamirov. Tchaikovsky much admired the singing and acting abilities of soprano Emiliya Pavlovskaya and had her create Mariya in 1884’s Mazeppa. But as Nastasya three years later, her artistry could not compensate for a failing instrument, one reason the opera foundered.

Grigorian certainly does it justice, with well-drawn lines, a compelling intensity, and, when apt, soulfulness. As at the Met, sustained forte high notes lose a bit of timbral quality. Her only match in Russian diction is Alexander Mikhailov as Yuri, but even though it’s a passive part, his tenor might be less nasal. The royal couple — Iain MacNeil as Nikita and Claudia Mahnke (the Met’s excellent Magdalene in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger in 2021) as Yevpraksiya — prove vocally incisive and highly stagewise in complex parts.

From the company ensemble’s deep international bench comes notable work by fine lyric mezzo-soprano Zanda Švēde, rising soprano Nombulelo Yende, and vigorous bass-baritone Božidar Smiljanić. Design elements out of Regietheater 101 include cell phones, prodigious beer cans, neon light panels, cross-dressed choristers, gratuitous animalic masks, substance abuse, English-language T-shirts, and traditional Russian kitsch. It’s certainly lively, and the subtitles keep the viewer on course with the plot’s twists and turns. One especially hopeful takeaway for American audiences: the excellent Frankfurt chorus here reflects high credit on Tilman Michael, set to shoulder Donald Palumbo’s old job at the Met starting this Fall.