A reassessment of Rimsky-Korsakov's operas in his centenary year


In the last act of The Snow Maiden (1881), the title character, Snegurotchka, returns to her mother, Spring (a personification of that season whose illicit liaison with Frost has produced a child), who weaves a spell of flowers to warm her frigid daughter, a child most desperate to discover the power of love; and thus is set in train a series of events culminating in her melting away. This potent example of musical and dramatic flower power is a bewitchingly sensuous mezzo-soprano aria with female chorus. Torpor, hypnotically evoked with just a four-note melody, featuring solo wind instruments in transparent, chamber-like instrumentation, is beguilingly decorated by harp and glockenspiel.


For those familiar with the intense louring historicity of Mussorgsky or the subjective internal world of Tchaikovsky - to name the two most exportable geniuses of the great nineteenth century Russian tradition, a very different and unusual sensibility is apparent here. A line from the libretto (deriving from a play by Ostrovsky, which boasted extensive incidental music by Tchaikovsky at its original production in 1873) may give us a clue: ‘All around is light and cold and there’s not a bit of warmth’. As Rimsky himself said--as reported by V.V. Yastrebtsev (1866-1934), the faithful banker who ‘Boswellized’ the composer and exhaustively chronicled his life and conversations from 1892 onwards in two weighty volumes, ‘Reminiscences of Rimsky-Korsakov’:

‘ “I can always picture how each of my heroes will feel...but when it comes to investing them with flesh and blood, I myself feel nothing. My works are skilful, but they have little spontaneity, little feeling. They’re all rather like Snegurotchki” - (Rimsky-Korsakov drinks milk with iodine; it lifts his spirits)’


On the surface, this music seemingly inhabits a late romantic language, albeit spiced with a distinctive harmonic piquancy and justly celebrated orchestral virtuosity; yet, there is a distance, an objectivity that has seemed to repel as many listeners and commentators as it has attracted. If one proceeds from the flower scene through to the end of The Snow Maiden, one's expectations of how a nineteenth century opera should behave are confounded. Snegurotchka’s suitor, Mizgir, appears, and a love duet follows, which, despite thrusting energy and ravishing melodic lines, fails to ignite. Mizgir insists on presenting Snegurotchka to the Tsar, thus prompting her to ignore her mother’s admonition to stay out of the sun. She then melts in full view of the assembled company, prompting Mizgir to throw himself in the lake. The Tsar, simply shrugging off the whole affair, comments that ‘now we know why the sun god was displeased and our summers cool'; and a hymn to the sun then concludes the opera. A procession, greeting the first day of summer is a riot of filigree harp, piano and wind figuration, which presages Stravinsky's early ballets. Snegurotchka’s death scene is raptly beautiful, yet there is no proto-Wagnerian transfiguration as she dies. Not becoming a woman, the alluring changeling melts away as passively as she had lived, with the sensuous beauty of sound an end in itself. The subsequent final chorus is one of the more extraordinary Russian choral moments, in a regular lop-sided rhythm derived from folk music (eleven beats) that threatens sunburn, so bedazzlingly is it scored. One cannot help but feel that Snegurotcka has been forgotten. We have spent three hours in her disarming company, yet her fantastic demise is casually bypassed by the overpowering indifference of nature.


We have here is twentieth century sensibility swathed in nineteenth century garments; and it is disorienting. While simply accepting such emotional distance as part of a more modern aesthetic – in a Stravinsky ballet or in the music of Ravel, a composer who was at one time similarly censured as cold and bloodless, we cannot accept it in the more convention-bound protracted format of nineteenth century opera. In fact, the 'street cred' of a nineteenth century opera composer disengaged from the human condition of the nineteenth century can actually be challenged; yet, such aloofness is applauded in the twentieth.


Despite the popularity of Rimsky's troika of middle-period orchestral blockbusters, composed swiftly in 1887-8--Capriccio Espagnole, Scheherazade and Russian Easter Festival, which are performed to the exclusion of most of his other music, his operas are the backbone of his output; yet, Gerald Abraham (1904-88) – still the most perceptive writer on this composer, though his writings date from the 1930’s and 40’s – opines that only two characters in his entire output are rendered of flesh and blood: Tsar Ivan the Terrible in Rimsky’s first opera, The Maid of Pskov (1873), and the mysterious child of nature, Fevronia, in his penultimate work and possibly his masterpiece, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (1907).


Rimsky is also the most maligned of composers in critical thought, maybe because he is so totally frank about his view of his art being separate from life (the total obverse of his contemporary and competitor, Tchaikovsky). He makes it easy for his critics by outlining his own musical shortcomings in both his autobiography, ‘My Musical Life’, and Yabstretsev’s reminiscences. “I doubt if you would find anyone in the entire world more skeptical of everything supernatural, fantastic, phantasmal, or otherworldly than I,” he said in 1893. “And yet, as an artist, it is just these things that I love most. And ritual? What could be more intolerable than a ritual? I feel positively embarrassed, as though I were acting out a commedia when I attend them, and this goes even for funerals. Yet with what delight I’ve depicted rituals in my music! No – I firmly believe that art is essentially the most fascinating and intoxicating of lies!” This quote has been parroted endlessly, despite the fact that at this period, Rimsky had not written a note of music for over two years and was in a profound depression exacerbated by the deaths of two infant children. A much later letter (1907) to his pupil Glazunov is rarely mentioned: “Generally speaking, ‘there is no truth on earth’ – although that is itself untrue, for truth does exist on earth, but only in science and art”. Thus, Wilfrid Mellers in Man and his Music can refer to ‘spiritual nullity’ and concludes that Rimsky’s music ‘presages the slick fatuity of Hollywood’. He is portrayed as a dry-as-dust pedant, a meddler and despoiler of his infinitely more gifted contemporaries, Borodin and Mussorgsky, despite the fact he edited all of their major works for publication, dutifully interrupting his own schedule for much of the 1880’s. His most celebrated pupil, Stravinsky, dismissed him in phrases that were – no other way to put it – outright bitchy. Such is Stravinsky’s standing, still, as great modernist icon, that his writings have been taken as dogma. Thirty years on, with hindsight, thanks to the insights of writer Richard Taruskin and to the advocacy of Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky, we can hear more of Rimsky’s important works in stellar performances. It is no wonder that Stravinsky distanced himself from his teacher. He was as much a neo-Rimskyian as he was a neo-classicist; and much that he himself had claimed to be novel in his own early work could, in fact, be traced right back to the work of his teacher. It was his good fortune that most of Rimsky's work was unknown in the west; thus, until recently, the combination of Stravinsky's censorious pronouncements and our own ignorance prevented him from being rumbled.

Historically, with one exception, his operas initially missed their chance to establish themselves in the international repertoire. It was only in 1908 that Diaghilev raised awareness of the Russian tradition in the west, with his epoch making production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov in Paris, featuring Chaliapin; but, his attempts to capitalize on this sensation, with productions of Khovanshchina and Rimsky’s first opera, The Maid of Pskov – rechristened Ivan the Terrible for marketing purposes as well as a further historical/hysterical vehicle for Chaliapin--met with diminished success. Realizing that whole operas were just economically unviable, he shifted focus to dance, launching both Stravinsky and Prokofiev (Rimsky’s most celebrated pupils) in the west, and the rest is history. Thus most of the 19th century Russian nationalist repertoire appeared on the coat tails of the younger generation. To be fair to Diaghilev, he was most keen to launch Sadko, which he regarded as the best Russian fairy-tale opera, on the Parisians; but, it was Rimsky who could not countenance Diaghilev's proposed alterations despite having had his own hand in the editing of Boris. The composer pronounced that ‘If to the weakling French public (in dress coats, who ‘drop in’ to the theatre for a while, who give ear to the voice of the venal press and hired clappers) Sadko is heavy in its present form, then it ought not to be given.....’ How ironic that one of music’s most famous editors refused to be edited. Six years after Rimsky’s death, in 1914, Diaghilev mounted a sensational production of Rimsky’s final opera, The Golden Cockerel, as Le coq d'or, choreographed by Mikhail Fokine with designs by Natalia Gontcharova, sung from the pit and danced - revolutionary for its time; and though Diaghilev faced lawsuits and hostility from Rimsky’s widow and son for abridging the score (sensitively done by Nicolai Tcherepnin), this established the opera in the west. Several others were, in fact, produced-- notably in Paris, London and New York in the 1920’s and 30’s, but none really ever caught on. So powerful was the effect of this particular version of The Golden Cockerel that when the unadulterated opera was finally produced, it was observed that Rimsky’s puppet-like characters were best suited to the more ‘stylized’ world of dance.

The problem is that The Golden Cockerel, this most widely known of Rimsky’s operas, reinforces the view that he is a fabricator of artificial orientalism, a symmetrical pattern maker. While having the virtue of concision, it lacks the variety, breadth and lyricism of his more sprawling, epic scores. It may be that their supposed length (though, in fact, as Edward Downes has pointed out, none are longer than Don Giovanni) and extravagance puts producers off, common enough excuses for relegation; and even when a Rimsky opera has appeared, it seems to have been staged for the wrong reasons. In 1988, ENO mounted Christmas Eve (1895), a version of one of Gogol’s early faux-folk Ukrainian romps, (so despised by Nabokov and also set by Tchaikovsky as Vakula the Smith (1874), revised as Cherevichky (1886)) in a delightful production by David Pountney; but, one cannot help thinking that the reason this opera was exhumed was that the title was easy to market as a Christmas show. It contains some delicious music, but is decidedly inferior to the much more dramatically cogent and lyrically inspired The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1900), commissioned for the Pushkin centennial, based on a masterpiece of Russian literature. It not only inhabits a delightful and fresh child-like folk world, but also contains one of the most famous pieces of music ever written, The Flight of the Bumblebee. Maybe the title is just too obscure. After all, when it was premiered in the US in 1937, it was disguised as The Bumblebee Prince. The Rimsky opera that is receiving the most stagings at the moment is the historical melodrama The Tsar’s Bride (1899). Rimsky, having completed what many regard as his operatic masterpiece, Sadko (1896), felt he had temporarily exhausted his mythic Russian folklore vein, and tried on other operatic hats for size – with not too much success, it must be said. He even expunged the Russian flavour from his musical language for his Romans-versus-Christians epic Servilia (1901) and Polish country melodrama Pan Voyevoda (1903) – his weakest works, though the surfacing of an aria from Servilia on a recent recital by Renee Fleming is a total surprise: a harbinger of the late music of Richard Strauss.


The Tsar’s Bride is the best of these uncharacteristic diversions, but Rimsky is the wrong composer to breathe life into such formulaic mortal characters. Is it the proximity of its subject matter to more familiar Russian operas the reason for it being favoured? Despite three ravishing arias, it is like watching an ingenious facsimile of a Tchaikovsky, or even a Verdi opera, without their pace or involvement. When Lyubasha, the spurned lover of one of Ivan the Terrible’s henchmen, Griaznoi, vows vengeance at the end of Act 1, ones ear marvels at the ingenious orchestral doublings Rimsky contrives that imitate the tolling of matins bells, it is evident that this was of more interest to him than his distressed character’s plight.


The peaks of Rimsky’s operatic output are The Snow Maiden, Sadko and The Invisible City of Kitezh. Mlada (1889) is entitled to honourable mention, as a bizarre reaction to Wagner’s Ring, an opera-ballet of such musical originality that it single-handedly ushers in the music of Russia’s ‘Silver Age'. Of these, only The Snow Maiden has been recently staged in a student production at the London Guildhall School of Music and Drama. This opera is maybe the trickiest to pull off, as it is a rustic folk tale of protracted length, with the drama moving slowly. It breaks no operatic conventions, in fact Fauré commented on how retro the set piece structure was. It is, however, the most lyrical and freshest of Rimsky’s scores, almost Schubertian in its melodic largesse and the most transparent and beguiling in instrumentation. Noteworthy, indeed, is the fact that it is the only one of the ‘big three’ composed before Rimsky’s exposure to Wagner, when the Ring was premiered in Russia in 1889, which was for him, a watershed. Sadko is a pageant, a vital portrait of a mythical Russian past. Like Borodin’s Prince Igor, it has its own pace and dramatic illogic; but, the DVD of the Mariinsky production shows that the vitality and invention of its best music carries the day, and its hero, a self-made man who challenges the orthodoxy of his own society, could surely appeal to a zeitgeist-conscious director. Appropriately enough, when Sadko was rejected by the Imperial theatre (at the behest of the Tsar who asked for something less ‘dreary’) it was taken up by a railway tycoon, Savva Mamontov, and its success led to a lengthy and mutually beneficial relationship between composer and entrepreneur. Of the three, Kitezh has been the most reinstated on stage, with highly acclaimed productions at the Maggio Musicale, Florence and by Harry Kupfer, no less, even if his did butcher the music in an unacceptable manner. Dmitri Cherniakov’s ground breaking 2001 production, the third in quick succession of this opera at the Mariinsky, reveals this epic as a profound – yes, profound – meditation on time and faith, and solves many of the seemingly insurmountable scenic demands with great sleight of hand – DVD issue please! The score itself is not one of Rimsky’s easiest to grasp. This penultimate work was the first of his operas not to have divisions within the acts, overtly echoing Wagner and Mussorgsky--no surprise, considering Rimsky's complex love-hate relationship with Wagner, (not so different from Debussy’s), and the fact that it was written concurrently with Rimsky preparation of his second Boris Godunov edition. These circumstances have prompted Simon Morrison, in his ‘Russian Opera and the Symbolist Movement’ (2001) to comment that ‘the sheer volume of musical and verbal quotations in the score compels one to speculate that Rimsky-Korsakov did not compose his opera so much as compile it’. It is the last of the big nineteenth century Russian epics and it has the nature of not only summing up Rimsky’s creative life, but those of his colleagues, as well. The fact that Rimsky went on to write the acerbic and satirical Golden Cockerel, has been an extreme inconvenience for Russian commentators. Kitezh’s mixture of the epic and psychological within in a Christian miracle play was uncharted territory for Rimsky, with the challenge stretching him beyond his limits, at times. The turbulent political and social divides in Russia at the time are mirrored in this juxtaposition of a utopia (the invisible city, Greater Kitezh) with the base world of Lesser Kitezh on the ground, and is telling personified in the characters of Fevroniya, a child of nature, and the broken alcoholic, Grishka Kuterma, a vivid character without precedent in Rimsky’s oeuvre and a candidate for inclusion on Gerald Abraham’s shortlist of flesh and blood characters. Certain habits of musical thought, such as his tendency to write symmetrical sequences, were so entrenched by now, that some of the biggest moments do not take wing as expected; and the final, static scene in Paradise, couched in music of extreme austerity and simplicity, does not perhaps achieve the culmination that such an experience would demand; but, this is a work with an unique viewpoint that is filled with ravishing music.


Surely, after a century of unsettled and variable experimentation in opera and theatre, we are now best placed to appreciate Rimsky’s unique aesthetic. We should not expect all opera to be well-made realism a la Tosca. After all, in recent years we have seen Handel’s long thought undramatic opere serie triumphantly reclaim the stage; and there is a huge alternative audience for the elliptical pageants of Philip Glass, whose redefinition of what is acceptable in terms of musical and dramatic repetition could lead directly to a reappraisal of what have traditionally been thought of as musical and dramatic longueurs in Rimsky’s operas. Musically, too, we accept the very narrowly prescribed emotional limits of Stravinsky, Knussen, Ligeti and Boulez for what they are, not for what they are not. Mlada and Sadko might gain from the hieratic, depersonalized approach of a Robert Wilson. What about Complicite or Pina Bausch? More mainstream opera directors have in print expressed a desire to work on a Rimsky opera, notably Richard Jones, David Fielding and Francesca Zambello. Give them their wish in one of our big houses!

The bottom line is that these scores have a particular logic, delving into deeper realms for which this maligned composer deserves credit, harnessing something in folklore that is formulaic, comforting, mysterious, harking back to a time when narrative was not a tzing- boom white knuckle ride antidote to compulsive distraction. but a way to keep out the dark on long winter evenings. A treasure trove of directorial concept and designer imagery could be brought to bear on these strangely fascinating works, there should be no excuse for their veritable absence from our stages. 



© Julian Grant 2008. This article first appeared in the January 2008 edition of OPERA Magazine