The Komische Oper’s Colourful Portrayal of The Fair at Sorochintsy

04/04/2017

Mussorgsky, The Fair at Sorochintsy: Orchestra, Children’s Chorus (chorus mistress: Dagmar Fiebach) and Chorus of the Komische Oper, Berlin (chorus master: David Cavelius), Vocalconsort Berlin / Henrik Nánási (conductor). Komische Oper, Berlin, 2.4.2017. (MB)

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Mussorgsky’s The Fair at Sorochintsy (c) Monika Rittershaus

Cast:

Solopu Cherevik – Jens Larsen
Khivrya – Agnes Zwierko
Parasya –Mirka Wagner
Gritsko – Alexander Lewis
Afanasy Ivanovich – Ivan Turšić
Gypsy – Hans Gröning
Kum/Chernobog, Master of the Demons – Tom Erik Lie
Choral Solos – Friederike Meinke, Paula Rummel, Volker Herden, Matthias Spenke

Production:

Barrie Kosky (director)
Katrin Lea Tag (designs)
Ulrich Lenz (dramaturgy)
Franck Evin (lighting)

Who would not want to stage a third opera by Mussorgsky? Boris Godunov and Khovanschina are universally regarded as two of the greatest musico-dramatic works of the nineteenth century, even if neither, and the latter in particular, is performed nearly so often as it should be. Thanks are due, then, to the Komische Oper and Barrie Kosky simply for performing The Fair at Sorochintsy for the first time since 1948, in Walter Felsenstein’s first season, let alone for doing it so well. This new production is something of which all who have taken part can justly be proud.

There are problems, of course, but there always will be with this work (if indeed one can call it that). If one has to piece together something that cannot fail to be somewhat fragmentary, all the better for active listening and spectating. The theatre is not, or should not be, a place simply to sit back and ‘enjoy’. Richard Taruskin’s New Grove article lists four versions that have been staged. This is the fourth, now standard insofar as one can speak of ‘standard’ for such a rarity: the edition by Pavel Lamm, completed and orchestrated by Vissarion Shebalin, first performed in Moscow in 1932. (An earlier version of this version, as it were, similarly prepared by Shebalin, had been given in Leningrad the previous year.) Even without the textual difficulties – to put it mildly – the listener would most likely experience something of a shock, or at least a surprise, upon hearing the music that is unquestionably Mussorgsky’s. Very little stands in the radical line of Boris. The opera is not a tragedy, but a comedy of peasant life, after a story by Gogol, and the musical style is simpler, closer to a more ‘popular’ conception of what is Russian. Taruskin, having noted that it ‘is frankly a number opera,’ – impossible to dissent from that! – goes on to say that it is ‘possibly modelled to some degree on Gulak-Artemovsky’s popular “Little Russian” Singspiel Zaporozhets za Dunayem,’ and, ‘as traditionally befits a peasant comedy, even the dialogue scenes are modelled not on speech but on folktunes’. Indeed, there is one such recurring theme I half-wondered whether I recognised from The Rite of Spring, but suspect that it was similarity rather than identity. (I should happily be informed and/or corrected!)

Shebalin’s orchestration and composition likewise – to my ears, anyway – distance the music from what I have come to think of as authentically Mussorgskian. Brighter, more ‘conventional’ orchestral colouring, seemingly more characteristic of other nineteenth-century Russian composers, Tchaikovsky included, is accomplished, but does not necessarily sound quite ‘right’. Perhaps, though, that is my fault, in expecting this very different work to sound more like Mussorgsky’s other operas than it should. The interpolated music was as follows: before the first and after the third acts: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Hebrew Song, op.7 no.2; and, between the first and second acts, Mussorgsky’s own ‘Trepak’ from his Songs and Dances of Death; between the second and third, his ‘Cradle Song’, also from that celebrated cycle; in the third act, ‘The Field Marshal,’ likewise from that set.

A Gogol opera would almost seem made for Barrie Kosky, offering magic, sex, exoticism, and of course grotesquerie. He and his production team certainly do a fine job here. Katrin Lea Tag’s set designs are relatively spare, without being minimalist; they provide an excellent frame for Kosky’s always detailed, convincing Personenregie. There is no doubting the mastery of his craft here. Costumes are undogmatically suggestive of when and where one would expect: no fetishisation, but again a way into the drama. The Dream Vision ballet sequence is, unsurprisingly, an exception to any hint of spareness. The sudden appearance of St John’s Eve on Bald Mountain seems bizarre, even incongruous, but one comes to feel that is part of the point (which, in a sense, of course, it is). Kosky’s fantastical imagination here runs riot. One does not necessarily understand, although one may feel compelled to attempt interpretation nevertheless. It is spectacle in the best sense, though, mysteriously changing what we have seen and heard forever.

The lavish banquet for diabolical beings with pig heads (Chernobod, Master of the Demons, speaking to us with hellish amplification) has been clearly prefigured, moreover, in the second-act scene in which Khivyra has her assignation with the priest’s son, Afanasy Ivanovich. After some sexually inventive shenanigans with the contents of her larder, she must hide him quickly, her husband, the drunken peasant Cherevik and others returning. Stuffing him as far as he will go into a pig’s head is, rightly, both absurd and absurdist, and yet also preparing the way for what is to come. Jens Larsen and Agnes Zwierko both gave strong, characterful performances in those two roles, a fine sense of theatre contributing to their musical success. As their daughter and her suitor, Parasya and Gritsko, Mirka Wagner and Alexander Lewis also shone brightly, their lyrical moments beautiful indeed, stylish and on occasion even heart-rending. As so often in this house, there was a very fine sense of company, all contributing to something greater than the sum of its parts. (If only British houses still retained such a thing as a company in that emphatic sense.)

Henrik Nánási shaped the action well, in an account of the score that seemed to relish rather than to feel any hint of embarrassment towards the interpolations, revisions, orchestrations, and so on. It did not sound like Boris, for it could not. The orchestra was in any case on excellent form: precise and colourful, supportive and spectacular. So too were the magnificent choruses, their members’ acting as impressive as their command of the musical and verbal text. That goes for the children too. All choral singers had clearly benefited greatly from the preparation offered by David Cavelius (also the furnisher of arrangements of three of those four interpolated items, the ‘Cradle Song’ remaining, touchingly, in its original form) and Dagmar Fiebach. No wonder Nánási brought Cavelius forward. Olga Caspruk made an excellent impression as bandurist, returning us to a Ukraine that, imagined or otherwise, inevitably provoked complicated emotions in 2017. What to make of it all? That was as much up to us as the performers: in this problematical work, just as in many others, that will always, quite rightly, be the case.

(This first night performance may be viewed on The Opera Platform for the next six months.)

Mark Berry

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