Ekaterina Shimanovitch (Fata Morgana), Sophie Tellier (Linetta), Julia Smorodina (Ninetta), Nadezhda Serdjuk (Princess Clarissa), Natalia Yevstafieva (Nicoletta), Ekaterina Tsenter (Smeraldina), Andrey Ilyushnikov (Prince), Kirill Dushechkin (Trouffaldino), Juan Noval (Master of Ceremonies), Eduard Tsanga (Leandro), Vladislas Sulimsky (Pantalone), Alexander Gerasimov (Farfarello), Wojciek Tsenter (Herald), Alexey Tanovitsky (King of Clubs), Pavel Schmulevich (Chelio the magician), Yuriy Vorobiev (The Cook), The Diva (Michel Fau) 

Europa Chorakademie, Mahler Chamber Orchestrac. Tugan Sokhiev, p. Philippe Calvario, d. Jean Marc Stehlé (sets) Aurore Popineau (costumes), video director Don Kent, Festival d'Aix-en-Provence 2004. 


Bel Air Classiques BAC024 (112 minutes)  


Amidst frequent pronouncements of  'classical' music's demise in the marketplace (as Mark Twain has it: "reports of my death are greatly exaggerated") I note that this recording is the fourth DVD version of Prokofiev's opera now available - granted, it does have the cachet of being the only one in Russian; but, such duplication does seem excessive, even for the most devoted opera trainspotter--particularly when there is a queue from the Russian repertoire that lacks any DVD representation at all (Kitezh, The Nose, Cherevichky......please, add your favourites). 


This production, from the courtyard at Aix, looks like it must have been diverting when seen live. If ever there was evidence of the strength of Russian operatic talent at the moment, it is here - the cast is almost uniformly strong, young, attractive and mostly in command of the stage. Gergiev protegé and now considerable maestro in his own right, Tugan Sokhiev, leads a virtuoso account from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra which is well captured in sound; and the balance between stage and pit, often problematic in this exuberant score, seems natural and clear. In an engaging interview in the accompanying booklet, director Philippe Calvario evokes Shakespeare, Marivaux, Russian melancholia and the nature of quests; and these very concerns manifest themselves in a dramatic viewpoint, darkly nihilistic in places, which prove a far cry from the panto belly laughs typical of some productions, though stopping short of the frisson of real terror combined with Marx Brother lunacy that proved so compelling in Richard Jones' Opera North/ENO production in the '90's (not available on DVD). The open air theatre space is used fluently, if at times fussily, and the plethora of visual ideas can seem inconsistent, actually undermining the telling of the story. The function of the Eccentrics that galvanize the theatrical factions (the choric groups representing Farce, Comedy, Tragedy and Romance) is not made clear at the start, the devil Farfarello with his bellows who is supposed to blow the Prince on his quest does not appear, even though Prokofiev give him a vivid build up, yet his appearance in the next scene is unexplained; the giant cook, suspended in a chrysalis evening gown is an arresting image, but is neither scary nor funny enough - in fact he/she is rather too cute. The release of the princesses from the oranges is magical and it helps that they are comely, indeed. But, it is the costumes which almost steal the show. Fata Morgana's rubber-fetish clad devils are a neat idea and the initial skirmish with Celio's good angels, in panto gear with wings, is clear and to the point. Truffaldino, resembling a night-club bouncer in sexually ambivalent court jester gear, promises much; but, Kirill Dushechkin's performance is too hangdog and leeches the energy from the proceedings. The show he engineers to make the Prince laugh consists of a solo drag diva act which pre-empts Fata Morgana's tumble, eliciting laughter from the Prince, leaving us wondering why did he not laugh before. The Prince is cunningly portrayed with dead-pan passion and stentorian tone by Andrey Ilyushnikov. Best are the baddies, though: Eduard Tsanga's prime minister (I'd kill for his jacket), Nadezhda Serdjuk as Clarissa and Ekaterina Tsenter as a steely Smeraldina. Incidentally the subtitles come a cropper with Smeraldina who, though dressed as a nurse, is referred to as a 'negress' (in this day and age! - and in any case, she isn't!). There are other non-PC elements from the libretto which are blithely and offensively translated. 


What undermines the whole endeavour is the video direction. The camera work is too close, too cut up, too edited - every so often we are transported to the very top of the set for a bird's eye view where the lighting state changes for no reason. Is this nothing more than a stopgap to a continuity problem? There must be a better way! If I didn't know this opera, I would be lost in several crucial scenes. The theatrical illusion is repeatedly destroyed and the magic compromised, which is a shame. A memento of an enjoyable night of open-air opera perhaps, but too disorientating for a newcomer to this work. 


© Julian Grant 2007