Irina Churilova sings a magnificent Fevronia at the Mariinsky in Rimsky-Korsakov’s late opera

Russian FederationRussian Federation Rimsky-Korsakov, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia: Singers, Chorus and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre / Pavel Smelkov (conductor). Mariinsky II, St Petersburg, 30.11.2021. (GT)

Mariinsky Theatre’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia

Director and Set designer – Dmitri Tcherniakov
Costume designers – Olga Lukina, Dmitri Tcherniakov
Lighting designer: Gleb Filshtinsky
Lighting adaptation for the Mariinsky II – Kamil Kutyev
Chorus Masters – Konstantin Rylov, Nikita Gribanov

Prince Yuri Vsevolodovich – Stanislav Trofimov
Prince Vsevolod – Oleg Videman
Fevronia – Irina Churilova
Grishka Kuterma – Nikolay Gassiev
Fedor Poyak – Edem Umerov
The Page – Mariam Sokolova
Good people – Viktor Vikrov, Vitaly Yankovsky
Guslyar – Yury Vorobyov
Medvedchik – Victor Dudkin
Poorman – Grigory Karasyev
Burunday – Vladimir Feliuaer
Bedya – Mikhail Petrenko
Heavenly birds – Olga Trofimova, Lyubov Sokolova
Zhuravl – Gleb Stalinsky
Bear – Valentin Kreisman
Tur – Zinaida Alekseyevna

This fairy-tale opera was premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre on 20 February 1907 and has never been long absent from the company’s repertoire throughout the last century. This new production by the controversial Dmitri Tcherniakov dates from 20 January 2001. Owing a great deal to the complexity of the themes raised by the libretto the opera is rarely performed outside of Russia; the first time it was heard in the UK was in 1926 in a concert performance under Albert Coates and then only in 1995 at the Barbican by the Kirov Opera under Valery Gergiev, and later that year, at the Edinburgh International Festival.

The St Petersburg musicologist Vladimir Rannev writes: ‘The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia was Rimsky-Korsakov’s last grand epic opera. Its lengthy title in itself is a reference to bylina legends and their unhurried and poetically imagistic syllables. It is believed that the most important words in the title are “invisible” and “maiden”. In the closing years of his life, […], the composer gave a great deal of thought to the dramatic destiny of his homeland and already foresaw the new trials it would have to endure. He wrote of the “stuffy and anxious conditions” that perturbed him and had daydreams of the “invisible”, meaning the spectrally idealistic, lost in the bylina fairy-tale past of a “virginal and sacred Russia”. In the philosophy of this opera (and it should be regarded specifically as a philosophical work) there are many allusions and subtexts. The plot itself is mythological and in its essence resembles parables in the Bible: it is the story of the strength of human nature spiritualized through faith. The kind of strength that overcomes the devilish “undead” (Rimsky-Korsakov’s own words) through sincerity and earnestness of faith. It is not by chance, therefore, that half of the opera’s plot is taken up with prayer, collective or mysteriously confessional. And the entire intonational structure of Kitezh is as if looking deep into the primordial and sacral principals of “the Russian soul”. In this later period of his life, Rimsky-Korsakov was at the peak of his creative maturity but was constantly updating his musical language. He wrote “I feel that I am entering some new period and that I have mastered a technique which hitherto seemed to me to be something of chance…” Here he was speaking of a special manner of vocal composition, closely resembling ancient Christian chants, free of the pressures of Western European classical harmony. It is in Kitezh that the results of these endeavours were to be fully embodied, in both the large chorus scenes and in the soloists’ monologues. Stage director Dmitri Tcherniakov used several elements of the designs from the first production, for example the picturesque curtains by Korovin and Vasnetsov. But the innovative spirit inherent in him also came through in this piece. Already at the outset of the plot, the sets of the forest clearing where Fevronia lives captivate the audience with the video sequence of surprising and fairy-tale-like beauty. They are so bizarre that they immediately transport the audience to other times and places, to the idealistic world of the Russian epos. The image of Little Kitezh is depicted differently – as a receptacle of worldly vanities. It brings to mind a certain station buffet with its typical poverty and restlessness. Ultimately, in the finale, the stage director brilliantly visualizes the metaphor for the transformation of the human spirit – the path of the redemption of sin and the ascension from worldly decay into the kingdom of heavenly light. Dmitri Tcherniakov sees the enemy from without as the enemy from within, implanted into weak souls, helpless before the temptations of vice. Unfortunately, Rimsky-Korsakov’s anxious presentiments may well be seen in today’s Russia. That is why the composer’s grandiose spiritual work that forms the score of Kitezh even today remains current and even topical.’

The opera contains some of the composer’s most colourful and attractive music embellished with a richly scored orchestration. The opening woodland scene was graced with sweetly stringed harps and violins creating a delightful image, with birdsong evocations from oboe, flute and bassoon, and in particular a cuckoo! In the settings of the first act there was clearly reflected the symbolism prevalent in Russia of the 1900s with giant teapots, cups, etc. The young girl Fevronia sings to the birds and animals of the forest and sharing her breakfast with them. Lost from his hunting trip, Prince Vsevolod arrives and attracted to Fevronia’s devotions to the natural world, he sings to nature – in musical passages here comparable to scenes from Siegfried – as now struck by her beauty Vsevolod declares his love for Fevronia. Darkness falls and we hear a chorus in the background in a passage reflecting Russian chant for the vespers service. In Act II the scene is in Little Kitezh, accompanied by dramatically stirring music, a group of townspeople are gathered listening to Grishka Kuterma’s prologue predicting disaster from foreign forces, while anticipating the betrothal of the prince. The women’s chorus sing a bright joyful leitmotif of Fevronia; however, the city walls break down and Tatars invade killing the people, torturing many and taking Fevronia into captivity. Grishka has betrayed them by telling of how to capture Great Kitezh, Fevronia sings a wonderful aria of her love for the homeland.

Act III is a crowd scene at the city of Great Kitezh with singing from the All-Night Vigil. Mariam Sokolova’s Page was outstanding, and her singing and stage presence were highlights of the evening. Prince Yuri offers a long monologue and the women’s chorus pray for victory over the Tatars. However, after the lost battle in which Vsevolod is killed, the Tatars parade Kuterma and Fevronia, and in a magical moment with gorgeous orchestral (writing hinting at Wagner’s influence), the city disappears into the mist and as a result allows it to be saved from the Tatars. In Act IV, Kuterma and Fevronia are lost in the deep forest, and eventually she succumbs to her wounds, whilst he escapes. In the scene portraying the miracle of the transformation of Kitezh, Fevronia meets Vsevolod in heaven and they share communion bread together with the animals and – after a beautifully lyrical interlude (‘Walking in the Invisible City’) – we hear the wordless birds of paradise and enter the brightly lit Kitezh – as if in heaven – with the gathered people, Prince Yuri, the Page, singing of the motherland and of nature whilst citing passages from Matthew and Luke in recreating the Vespers from the liturgical service.

Mariinsky Theatre’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia

Regardless of many scenes of great beauty in this staging, for me, Tcherniakov’s production does not realise Rimsky-Korsakov’s aspirations for this opera; several scenes are weakly constructed with little connection with the fundamental religious significance of the whole work. Scenes are also crudely drawn with elements simply there to shock the audience, rather than attempting to draw attention to the meaning and musical content. All four acts are inspired by the Russian liturgical service, and Tcherniakov only partially observes this in his staging embracing rather basic means; in Act II, the scene could be from any town in late-twentieth century Russia, while the Act IV scene with the little hut (supposedly in heaven) has a lady bizarrely lighting up a cigarette! Elsewhere ladders are set up in Act II – seemingly for no reason – and there were three mime actors playing oddly vulgar animals. There are other aspects in this production which are uncertain and come out as grotesque.

Overall, in musical terms, the most outstanding singing was that of Irina Churilova as Fevronia, (she got better and better during the evening), and of the other female singing parts, the Page of Mariam Sokolova, as I wrote earlier, was stunning in her bright characterisation – in voice and acting – while the tenor of Oleg Videman as Vsevolod was excellent both vocally and in his portrayal, whilst the dusky bass of Stanislav Trofimov as Prince Yuri was impressive. The role of Grishka Kuterma is a special character who embraces a wide range of emotions – first a prophet, later a traitor, and finally a saviour. In the characterisation by Nikolay Gassiev we heard a magnificent display of both acting and singing following in the great lineage of outstanding Russian tenors who have taken this role. Of special mention must be the magnificent chorus, and the terrific musicians of the Mariinsky orchestra conducted on this evening by Pavel Smelkov. This young talented conductor has regularly toured with the company, and has conducted at the Metropolitan Opera since 2010, and is currently the Chief Conductor of the Mariinsky’s Primorsky Opera Theatre in Vladivostok. He is also a gifted composer and has numerous orchestrated versions of operas to his credit. This production is sponsored by the Mariinsky Theatre Trust (UK).

Gregor Tassie

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