Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Friday, 11 November 2022

RIMSKY-KORSKOV Christmas Eve Frankfurt Opera

Sebastian Weigle, cond
Georgy Vasiliev (Vakula)
Julia Muzychenko (Oksana)
Enkelejda Shkoza (Solokha)
Alexey Tikhomirov (Chub)
Andrei Popov (Devil)
Anthony Robin Schneider (Panas)
Sebastian Geyer (Mayor)
Ossip Nikiforovich Peter Marsh (Deacon)
Bianca Andrew (Tsarina)
Frankfurt Opera Chorus
Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchster
Naxos 0154 (Blu-ray: 153:00)

This video comes from a staging at Frankfurt Opera in December 21/January 22 of Rimsky-Korsakov’s fairy-tale opera with a Christmas theme. The libretto is based on a short story by Gogol, the same story that inspired Tchaikovsky’s Valuka the Smith. The Tchaikovsky opera was later updated as Cherevichki, which is marginally the more popular of the three, and from which several story elements here may be familiar. Gogol’s tale mixes a peasant love story, set in a provincial Ukrainian village, with magical elements—the Devil, a witch—obliging the director to decide on a folksy or a fantastical setting. Christof Loy goes for the latter, with scenery that suggests outer space and lots of trapeze work for the Devil’s flights. But the costumes are more down-to-earth, and the love story is presented with due intimacy. There are also several dance numbers and a ridiculous farce scene, so it all adds up to a well-rounded package of Christmas entertainment.

The basic set is a white box, mapped out on all sides by square grid lines and specked with stars. A huge moon initially fills the stage, and we meet the Devil (Andrei Popov) and the witch Solokha (Enkelejda Shkoza) as the two scheme to obscure its light. Their goal is to prevent Solokha’s son, Valuka (Georgy Vasiliev), finding his way to his love, Oksana (Julia Muzychenko). They also conjure a snowstorm to hinder him, and the visuals are suitably dramatic, with both the Devil and Solokha riding around on trapezes. In the story, Solokha is only suspected of witchcraft, but Loy is unambiguous and has her riding on a broom. Most of the principals in the cast are Russian, so we get good diction and idiomatic singing. However, the female singers outclass the male voices, as is demonstrated immediately by the superiority of Shkoza over the less stable or secure singing of Vasiliev.

In the second scene we meet Oksana. She praises her own beauty and generally monologues about how she is going to tease Valuka. When he arrives, she announces that she will only marry him if he brings her the Tsarina’s slippers. Both Oksana and Valuka have many monologues, their inner thoughts delivered directly to the audience, and Muzychenko is more dramatically convincing than Vasiliev, always finding some well-timed flirtation where he just stands and delivers. She has the superior voice, too. Vasiliev is lyrical, almost Italianate, but Rimsky demands more rigor, even of his romantic leads.

The second act opens with farce. The Devil visits Solokha, but is forced to hide in a sack when as a string of hopeful suitors visit—the Mayor (Sebastian Geyer), the Deacon (Peter Marsh), and the elderly Cossack Chub (Alexey Tikhomirov)—each also ending up in a sack as the next arrives. Russian bass Tikhomirov is the pick of these voices, a rich tone but agile enough for the comedy. Rimsky does not quite get the pace right here, and the successive appearances feel labored. Donizetti would have done a better job, and Ravel certainly did a few decades later. Valuka arrives and takes away all the sacks, unaware of their contents, and the four men emerge in his smithy to general embarrassment all round.

The third act is the most demanding in terms of magic and special effects. Valuka forces the Devil to fly him to St. Petersburg, and one whole scene is an orchestral interlude given over to the flight. Here, we get a ballerina dancing with a bear, for no obvious reason, but it is a fun interlude. The brief scene at the royal palace presents the chorus in regal costumes but no new sets. Mezzo Bianca Andrew is suitably regal as the Tsarina, but it is a tiny role.

In the final act, Valuka returns to the village, presents the slippers, and the couple are married. There is plenty of hearty choral writing in the finale, and while the Frankfurt chorus is strong, we begin to feel the lack of heavy Russian basses. Rimsky also includes an epilogue, a homage to Gogol. That would probably make more sense to Russian audiences, and here requires a portrait to be held aloft, to make clear what they are singing about.

The aesthetic is generally clear and straightforward, visually coherent, but not as homely as the folk story suggests. There is a lot of trapeze work, with the Devil, Solokha, and Valuka all singing from high wires, an impressive feat. The feel is modern, but nothing is gratuitous, and Loy makes no efforts to impose his own narrative. And the celestial theme is elegant and imaginative—suitably magical for a Christmas story.

Conductor Sebastian Weigle gives a vigorous and lively account of the score. Some of quieter music sometimes invite a more nuanced and atmospheric approach, but the music’s clean lines complement the similarly efficient visual themes. The sound quality is fantastic. Frankfurt Opera have their own in-house recording team. They used to collaborate with Oehms Classics, and the results were always excellent. Oehms has recently been bought up by Naxos, and that collaboration looks set to continue with the parent company. Rimsky’s orchestration is as colorful as his reputation would have us expect, and it is all captured with warmth and detail in this involving surround sound mix. Some of the instruments, the harp in particular, seem over-amplified, at least in comparison with live balances, but the spotlighting is always welcome. Subtitles are in English, French, Japanese, and Korean.

This is the first ever video release of the opera. Two audio versions precede it, a 1948 Moscow radio recording conducted by Nikolai Golovanov, and a Chant Du Monde release, also with Moscow forces and conducted by Michail Jurowski, from 1990. Both have been well received, with the 1948 version preferred for its superior cast. This new account is generally well sung, though it could do with stronger male leads, and is clearly first choice for audio. The production is fun too, and only requires a minimal tolerance for modern staging to get into the Christmas mood.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine, issue 46:4.