United Kingdom Rimsky-Korsakov, The Snow Maiden: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Royal Northern College of Music / Matthew Kofi Waldren (conductor). RNCM, Manchester, 13.12.2023. (MC)
For its December production, the Royal Northern College of Music has looked to Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snow Maiden in four acts with prologue. With staged productions themed for the season of Winter and Christmas time it is Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel and Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker that have the lion’s share of the attention. Other lesser-known examples include Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve, Tchaikovsky’s Vakula the Smith revised as Cherevichki and his incidental music to the play The Snow Maiden, Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors and Adams El Niño.
Perennially popular in Russia, The Snow Maiden has never aroused a similar level of attention elsewhere. I checked and it has been performed far less in the UK than I had supposed. Opera North did stage The Snow Maiden in 2016 however it was its first professional performance in the UK for sixty years. Inspired by Russian legends and folklore Rimsky-Korsakov based his fairytale opera The Snow Maiden on the Alexander Ostrovsky 1873 play of the same name.
In the UK it is thanks to music colleges and conservatories that so many unfamiliar operas are staged, and this RNCM production of The Snow Maiden certainly fitted the bill. This production by stage director Jack Furness and music director Matthew Kofi Waldren used an English version translated by Christopher Cowell complete with English surtitles. As seems usual with RNCM productions this was dual cast and was a red cast performance that I attended.
There was nothing esoteric here to worry about as Jack Furness focused his production of The Snow Maiden on the changing seasons as winter transforms to spring. Marked is the incongruity between the fairy-tale, ice-cold kingdom of the Snow Maiden and her parents Mother Spring and Father Frost when compared to the human world of the Tsar and his Berendeyans notably Lyel, Kupava and Mizgir. Curious to live amongst humans, the Snow Maiden had her wish granted. Her heart of ice eventually succumbed to mortal love and when a shaft of light appeared she began to melt away. Heartbroken, Mizgir entered the pool of water and drowned.
The primary focus of designer Georgia de Grey’s set was a cuneus design, as in a Roman theatre, a wedge-shaped seating section, split down the middle, constructed here with six or so terraces. In front of the seating was a circular empty pool in the stage, a couple of feet deep, which could be lit in different colours and filled with water. In the prologue the terraces and depression were covered with white polyethylene sheeting that represented snow. De Grey dressed the characters from the fairy-tale world in fur robes and cloaks with extravagant headdresses while the mortals mainly wore a mix of everyday outfits from various eras. Lighting designer Ben Ormerod illuminated the set satisfactorily, my only grumble was that the falling snow was barely visible, certainly from my seat. Overall, I am surprised that there wasn’t more emphasis on video projections.
For The Snow Maiden the RNCM had assembled another first-rate student cast who had clearly been well prepared. I soon noticed that the depth and strength of the cast went further than the leading characters.
As Mother Spring soprano Olivia Swain was beautifully dressed in a long, white gown with floral design and high headdress of flowers. The opening aria of the prologue was attractively sung by the elegant Swain providing clarity and expression. Baritone Adam Jarman had the role of Father Frost complete with a headdress of twigs and feathers. Creating a splendid impression Jarman provided the Song of King Frost with a steady tone and was able to exhibit a fearsome element to his voice when needed.
Excelling in the title role was award winning soprano Jessica Hopkins who entered the stage in a long coat and fur Cossack hat, both in white. Such an accomplished singer, in the Snow Maiden’s entrance aria To go berry picking with friends Hopkins gave an engaging performance. High on confidence Hopkins displayed her warm voice that projected so well through the hall to real advantage. With her natural stage presence Hopkins was able to maintain her high standard throughout the opera.
Our Tsar had long fair hair and beard and was decked out in maroon jacket and red headband. Giving a delightfully adept charactisation Henry Strutt was a benevolent Tsar who proclaimed that he wished all the couples to marry as an honour to God. A most attractive tenor, with a sweetness to his tone, Strutt traversed his broad range to splendid effect. Shepherd boy Lyel’s clothes proved to be a noticeable blast from the seventies with black leather jacket and loon trousers. Loved by the Snow Maiden the trouser role of Lyel was taken by talented mezzo-soprano Sophie Clarke who sang her heart out. A village girl Kupava was to marry Mizgir but falls in love with Lyel.
Conspicuous in her plain lilac dress and fair hair, in the role of Kupava, soprano Charlotte Baker sang with strength and real enthusiasm. In her arietta I noted how effectively Baker achieved her high notes. Matthew Secombe had the part of Mizgir, a merchant who was to marry Kupava but fell in love with the Snow Maiden having pursued her hard. Dark haired and wearing a parka, Secombe’s low baritone had clarity yet maintaining pitch presented some difficulties.
The Orchestra of RNCM flourished under Matthew Kofi Waldren’s conducting that felt secure and with sensible tempi. Expertly played were the solo contributions from the section principals with the flute and clarinet standing out. Coached by Kevin Thraves the RNCM chorus, often divided between male and female voices, sounded in outstanding form and made a significant impression.
Delightful and convincing this RNCM opera production of the Snow Maiden was cheered to the rafters by the enthusiastic audience, which said it all.
Stage director – Jack Furness
Designer – Georgia de Grey
Lighting designer – Ben Ormerod
Choreography – Bethan Rhys Wiliam
Chorus master – Kevin Thraves
Mother Spring – Olivia Swain
Father Frost – Adam Jarman
Snow Maiden (Snyegurochka) – Jessica Hopkins
Bobyl – Yihui Wang
Bobylikha – Leah McCabe
Tsar Berendey – Henry Strutt
Byermyata – Alexander Gibb
Lyel – Sophie Clarke
Kupava – Charlotte Baker
Mizgir – Matthew Secombe
Boggart – Nicholas Collins
Maslyenitsa – William Jowett
First Herald – Dominic Morgan
Second Herald – Patrick Osborne
Page – Daisy Mitchell