Terrific Mariinsky performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s bizarre and surreally fantastical Christmas Eve

Russian FederationRussian Federation Rimsky-Korsakov, Christmas Eve: Soloists, Mariinsky Opera Chorus (and Ensemble of soloists of the Mariinsky Academy of Young Opera Singers) and Orchestra / Gurgen Petrosyan (conductor). Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, 30.9.2021. (GT)

Mariinsky Theatre’s Christmas Eve (c) Natasha Razina

Director of the new stage version and Choreographer – Ilya Zhivoy
Stage director – Olga Malikova
Scenery director – Xenia Pantina
Costume designer – Varvara Yevchuk
Lighting designer – Gleb Filshtinsky
Video designer – Viktoria Zlotnikova
Chorus Masters – Pavel Teplov and Konstantin Rylov

Chub – Vladimir Vaneyev
Oxana – Yekaterina Sannikova
Golova – Alexander Nikitin
Solokha – Olga Savova
Vakula – Alexander Mikhailov
Panas – Alexander Gerasimov
Deacon – Denis Zakirov
Patzuk – Gleb Peryazev
Devil – Andrey Zorin
Empress – Irina Vaneyeva
Granny with a purple nose – Olga Legkova
Granny with a normal nose – Tatyana Kravtsova

Rimsky-Korsakov completed sixteen operas and left another three incomplete yet except for The Golden Cockrel, they are almost totally unknown outside of Russia. This is pity as the overtures, excerpts, and suites from the most successful stage works have delighted listeners for many years. Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonies (of which there are three) are never performed nor are his concertos for clarinet, piano and trombone and his string quartets, sacred music, romances and other pieces. In addition to his teaching of a school of Russian composition and orchestration, his reputation rests almost entirely on Scheherazade, Capriccio Espagnol and the Russian Easter Festival Overture.

This opera has been produced by English National Opera in 1988 but has not appeared elsewhere since. This is much to our loss as it contains some of his finest music. Nikolay Gogol’s cycle of stories ‘Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka’ that includes the story ‘Christmas Eve’ inspired Tchaikovsky to write his opera Cherevichki (The Slippers) and Vakula the Smith some years before Rimsky-Korsakov chose this fairy tale in 1894. Gogol’s stories were often fantastically surreal with elements of the grotesque combined with parodies such as ‘The Overcoat’ and ‘The Nose’ which inspired Shostakovich’s first opera. Others who were influenced by Gogol included Alfred Schnittke, Dostoevsky, Flannery O’Connor and Franz Kafka. The work contains some of Rimsky-Korsakov’s most brilliant orchestral music, much of it from Ukrainian and Russian folk song and orchestrated brilliantly throughout. The opera was premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre on 28 November 1895 with the soprano Yevgeniya Mravina (aunt of the conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky) starring in the leading role of Oxana. This staging has been revised from the 2008 Mariinsky production and was first seen on 7 January 2021 (Christmas Eve according to the Orthodox calendar).

This spectacular fairy tale of fantastic adventures opened with a wintry village scene of little snowy huts and clouds above looking like a rather surreal scene of flying saucers with shining, coloured lights. Emerging with smoke from a chimney the witch Solokha (Olga Savova) climbs onto the roof of her hut singing a carol while the Devil (Andrey Zorin) appears on another hut. He plots to steal the moon and avenge Vakula her son (Alexander Mikhailov), Solokha however is ready to help the Devil and invokes a wintry storm, so the moon disappears, and darkness descends on the village. The Cossack Chub (Vladimir Vaneyev) doesn’t want Vakula to marry his daughter Oxana (Yekaterina Sannikova) and plots to hinder the marriage, yet in a comic passage in the darkness Vakula knocks down Chub and runs away. The following scene of celebrating villagers looking forward to the festive holiday was marvellously accompanied by Rimsky-Korsakov’s colourfully attractive music.

In the second tableau, Oxana sings looking into her three mirrors with each changing her mood as the music expresses her changing emotions until her suitor Vakula appears singing to her of his love. However, Oxana pledges she will marry him only if he gives her the Tsarina’s slippers. The village girls arrive and make fun of him and perform a round-dance to brilliant orchestral accompaniment.

Act II opens at night with thunder and lightning with the Devil and Solokha conspiring to spoil the holiday, and in a comic scene interrupted by Vakula, the plot is ruined as the Devil hides and the Deacon arrives to escort Solokha, he hides as Chub – unknowingly of the plotting – arrives and plays on the balalaika and dances, while after capturing the villager Golova, Vakula mischievously leads away the four plotters.

The sorcerer Patzuk’s home is the fantastic scene for Act III in which Vakula asks the Devil and Patzuk (Gleb Peryazev) for help in getting the Tsarina’s slippers – rejected by them – he shows the cross and captures the Devil, after which lightning strikes, forcing the Devil to fly him to St Petersburg. Tableau six is a colourful orchestral interlude featuring the Games and Dances of the Stars, followed by a delightful Mazurka, the Procession of the Comets, a Round-Dance, a Czardas and the Shower of Shooting Stars magically conjured up by Rimsky-Korsakov’s gorgeous orchestration.

A brilliant polonaise accompanies Vakula’s arrival in the capital St Petersburg in Tableau seven, and the Tsaritsa (Irina Vaneyeva) appears followed by the Dance in the Air, after which, suitably impressed by Vakula’s efforts to win Oxana’s hand in marriage, she gifts her slippers to Vakula.

For Act IV’s Tableau nine we are back in Dikanka, we hear a comic scene featuring a duet between the woman with a purple nose and another with an ordinary nose. Unaware of her beau’s imminent return, Oxana sings a plaintive aria, and then in a trio of singing by Vakula, Chub and Oxana, Vakula presents the slippers to a delighted Oxana, and following the festive celebrations, the opera closes with Vakula leading in a final celebratory chorus celebrating Nikolay Gogol.

Mariinsky Theatre’s Christmas Eve (c) Natasha Razina

It is surprising that this fairy tale opera is not well known in the West, albeit there are some fine recordings of the suite arranged from it – certainly it is a bizarre and a surreally fantastical tale – but no more than the ballets by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev which enchant both children and adults during the festive period. The secondary characters taken by Vladimir Vaneyev as Chub and the Golova of Alexander Nikitin were exceptional both vocally and in their characterisation. In the leading roles, the soprano of Yekaterina Sannikova was gorgeous in voice and spirit as Oxana, while the tenor Alexander Mikhailov was first class in the role of Vakula, and the Devil of Andrey Zorin and especially the Solokha of Olga Savova were stunning in their portrayals. Mention must be made too of the conductor Gurgen Petrosyan who produced a terrific performance from the Mariinsky Orchestra and welded together a memorable evening.

Perhaps to gain popularity Christmas Eve needs to be presented by the Mariinsky Opera during one of their future foreign tours.

Gregor Tassie

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