Kashchey the Immortal

BBC Prom 68 – 5 September 2008


For the centenary of Rimsky-Korsakov’s death, one of his operas, albeit a short one, was finally performed complete at the Proms.  A shame it was the wrong one, and that compared to the anniversary tributes to Messiaen and Vaughan-Williams, Rimsky got short shrift this season. Kashchey the Immortal, a short, late work (1902), was instructively contrasted with the first masterpiece of Rimsky’s most celebrated pupil, Stravinsky’s The Firebird and was inevitably found wanting. Kashchey (a.k.a ‘old rattle-bones’) was the connection; the malign sorcerer dominates both works, and features in several Russian folk-tales collected by Victor Afanasyev (1826-71), a Russian Brother Grimm – and a source for many Russian musical works.


Richard Taruskin, in his monumental survey of Stravinsky’s Russian works has detailed how the harmonic processes of Rimsky’s self-avowed most modernist work were fundamental to those of the young Stravinsky. But the Albert Hall is a cavernous venue for a harmony lecture. Rimsky’s ‘autumnal fairy-tale’; an in-between work from an over-productive period, does not show its neglected creator in the best light. Its orchestral colouring is predominately muted, much of the lyrical writing is formulaic and the obsessive, calculated nature of the harmonic experiments, and the symmetry of phrase lengths and longer periods leave a short-winded and cloying impression.  Still, there were glimpses of magic: Kashchey’s powers enforced by a (literally) spell-binding array of accrued pedal notes scored in mahogany, a hypnotic chorus of snowflakes, and all of the music for the sorcerer’s Wagner-derived daughter, Kashcheyevna, with its piquant prickles of celesta and harp and genuinely ground-breaking chromaticism, is worth a hearing. And, the opening stretches aside, the work has pace and an appealing sense of filmic transition that dispatches the story efficiently. 


The London Philharmonic played with extreme allure, even if they did look comatose at the final bows. Vladimir Jurowski balanced textures exquisitely, if coolly, but kept the piece moving and shaped it sensitively. The singing was beguiling. Elena Manistina’s resinous mezzo Kashcheyevna - the only character not a cardboard archetype – coloured her low lying forays with hues of flint and honey, and her transfiguration that leads to Kashchey’s death being released in her tears and her transformation into a weeping willow was compelling. Tatiana Monogarova’s Princess, a timbre both slightly covered but focused, with the silkiest of legatos, really came into her own in the sinister enforced lullaby to Kashchey, in which she wishes him dead. Her deliverer, Prince Ivan, is a cipher, but Pavel Baransky’s rock-solid baritone imbued him with presence, and crowned his curiously conventional little romance with a stunning top Ab. Mikhail Petrenko blustered mightily as the Storm Knight. Only Vyacheslav Voynarovsky’s Kashchey disappointed – he seemed score bound and failed to put across the venom, fanaticism and caricature that this Slavic Mime would seem to demand. 


Unexpected counterpoint was provided by some well-timed downpours on the Albert Hall roof, eerily coinciding with the Storm Knight’s outbursts. But, given a chance, Rimsky could rattle the roof on his own, and it was a shame that the more extrovert vocalism and orchestral high-jinks of Mlada or Sadko were not exhumed to mark his centenary. 


© Julian Grant 2008  

The Tale of Tsar Saltan

Sadler’s Wells Theatre – 17 and 18 September 2008


Even rarer than encountering Rimsky’s centennial tribute to Pushkin, was the experience of witnessing an evening in this age of Regie-opera where music and production were symbiotically linked. Pushkin’s shaggy-dog story (Cinderella +  Shakespeare’s ‘A Winter’s Tale’ + a plethora of allusions to transformative Russian folklore), which many commentators regard as his purest essence, is a masterpiece of stylization: a knowing apotheosis of skaz (literally ‘tale-telling’), where the formulaic manner (or skeleton) of folk-tale narrative transcends its matter. Rimsky consciously matched this in his neo-nationalist score, with its device of a trumpet fanfare that commands attention at the start of each scene, its toy-like sonorities, symmetries and self-conscious folk allusions mixed with stock gestures from opera buffa that eschew psychology or emotional involvement. This is, in turn, perfectly complemented by the filigree art-nouveau style of illustrator Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942), whose 1905 picture book of Tsar Saltan is a classic, replete with folk-derived abstractions, symbols and emblems. Bilibin later designed productions of the opera in 1928 and 1937, and it is his later version that is recreated in Vladimir Firer’s designs and (often dazzling) costumes for this 2005 Mariinsky production. It is a throwback to an earlier age of theatrical illusion, with flimsy drop curtains and cut-out props, that do full justice to the operas extravagant scenic demands. The score’s most familiar music, the entr’actes or ‘musical pictures’:  The Tsar’s Departure (to battle), The Tsarina in a Barrel at Sea, the Flight of the Bumblebee and the Three Wonders were enhanced by computer-generated animation of Bilibin’s images: up-to-the-minute technology evoking an old-fashioned magic lantern show.  


Though Alexander Petrov’s production was literal, some crucial expository storytelling fell by the wayside. We didn’t quite see the Tsar overhearing the wishes of the three sisters at the very beginning, and the comings and goings in the dramaturgically faulty first act were further confused by unnecessary extras, obscuring Babarikha’s interception of the Tsar’s message (and messenger); the catalyst for all future events.  Four white-clad bearers delivered props to principals, and formed a feathery entourage for the Swan-Bird; her transformation into a Princess was cute, more Folies-Bergère than folklore, leading to the thought that Prince Guidon may end up with Danny La Rue.  Much more production detail was in evidence the second night - a casualty of touring, no doubt, though chorus blocking was ill-disciplined and occasionally soloists looked stranded.


The singing was not as consistent as one might expect from the Mariinsky. Daniil Shtoda’s soft-centred timbre seemed underpowered for Prince Guidon (Oct 17), and he seemed uninvolved; Sergey Semishkur (18th) was livelier, but lacked tonal beauty. Tenor honours were stolen by Vassily Gorshkov in the bit-part of the Old Grandpa, with a firmly projected, resinous timbre and effortless charisma.


The wicked sisters Natalia Evstafieva and Tatiana Kravtsova were strong, and the Matchmaker Babarikha,  - the real villain of the piece - Nadezha Vasilieva -  hammed things up splendidly, without convincing that her intermittently fruity contralto was functioning quite correctly. Both Militrissas (Victoria Yastrebova and Ekaterina Solovieva) were efficient, but the score’s soprano plums go the Swan Princess. Lyudmila Dudinova (Oct 17) revealed an impressively projected opulent voice-in-progress, but she tended to sing flat. Olga Trifonova’s (Oct 18) bright, focused tone provided the frissons that Rimsky intended. Alexey Tannovsky’s Tsar Saltan was resplendent, noticeably more so on the second night – in fact many of the basses in bit parts were world-class, notably Edward Tsanga’s Jester and Mikhail Kolelishvili’s Third Shipmaster.  


The orchestra played with gusto, with virtuoso trumpet, woodwind and solo string turns, many military, marine and tintinnabulatory textures registering joyously. Tugan Sokhiev led a speedy and incisive account that was deficient in nuance and rather too loud, often drowning the excellent chorus. Rimsky’s Achilles’ heel is his rhythm: he tends to write obsessively symmetrical sequences, and this rhythmic predictability was exacerbated by such a band-masterly approach. The ravishing harmonies and textures of the Swan Princess and the unusually (for Rimsky) warm-hearted love music needed more rapture and rubato


The reconciliations in the final scene were indeed joyous, Rimsky manages to cap all previous splendours with a chorus that is astonishingly prophetic of the opening of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, the masterly tone-painting revealing the magic island’s three wonders, concluding with an epilogue, a Hoedown (or Hopak) in which cast announces the end of the story by finally singing the fanfare that has dominated the evening: a nice touch. The sight of happily reunited couples, dressed head-to-toe in sparkling gold and silver against a backdrop of the magic city Ledenetz, the glitzy mini-monument housing the silver magic squirrel and thirty-three silver warriors lit in turquoise light, not to mention the riot of other costumes of richer hue, was a hymn to bling-bling not seen outside a Russian oligarch’s Chelsea front room, where doubtless, the present day Three Wonders will be found. In fact, a well-known progressive opera director was sighted at the premiere; rumour has it he fled at the interval, doubtless to submit a Regie production proposal to ENO showing us just that. 


By the way, a black mark to the management for selling a programme (for £4) that did not contain one iota of information about this rare piece.


© Julian Grant 2008

The Golden Cockerel  


Elena Ustinova (The Queen of Shemaka), Olga Shalaeva (The Golden Cockerel), Raisa Kotova (Amelia), Boris Tarkhov (Astrologer), Viacheslav Voinarovsky (Tsarevitch Guidon), Alexei Mochalov (General Polkan), Vladimir Svistov (Tsarevitch Afron), Yevgeny Nesterenko (Tsar Dodon)

All-Union Radio and Television Academic Grand Choir, Academic Symphony Orchestra of Moscow State Philharmonic c. Dmitri Kitaenko

Melodiya MEL CD 10 01398 (2 discs 123 minutes)



For such a well-known piece, The Golden Cockerel has an extremely patchy recording history, and there never has been a recommendable version. The 2002 DVD, on TDK, with Kent Nagano from the Châtelet, is the best bet. 


There is much to enjoy in this version, but be warned: unless you are a fan and know the piece, you will be lost. Revamped Melodiya packaging is compact and delightfully arrayed with the inevitable Bilibin images, but notes are skimpy and badly translated. There is no libretto, an inadequate synopsis, and no date or provenance for this recording, which I estimate to be around 1987, when Kitaenko was nearing the end of his tenure with the Moscow State Philharmonic (1976-90). It seems to have been released in the West, on black disc, for a very short time about then.


It is the playing and conducting that is striking. Kitaenko has a way with the idiom, and while relishing the impressionist textures, and delivering nuanced allure in spades, brings a lightness of touch to the lumbering humour of the asinine Tsar Dodon and points the laboured and intentionally mechanical sequences of his idiot court with humour and satire. The piece sounds like an opera-buffa with a sinister undertow, and benefits from the pace and lightness. Moments of acute instrumental characterization abound, such as the scene with the Tsar and his parrot: the cor-anglais phrasing is a humorous delight. There are a couple of strange accidents early on in the long scene with the Queen in Act Two, which one would have thought justified a retake. The recording quality is occasionally bizarre, and this seems to be intentional: there is an incipient echo effect that ‘enhances’ the sinuous chromatic Queen of Shemaka music – it’s not too annoying, but is surely over-egging the pudding. Otherwise the balance (for a Russian recording of this period) is clear, occasionally too spot-lit, but not boomy or congested, and the instrumental invention, essential to this work, registers well.


Nesterenko had a distinguished recording career, both in Russia and in the West, but he was never a histrionic interpreter in the Chaliapin/Christoff mould – his major asset was a honeyed plush velvet timbre. Here he is past his prime and his voice sounds dry. This does not seem a natural role for him and his attempts at characterization sometimes play havoc with intonation. The impossible tessitura of the Astrologer, written for a tenor-altino is manipulated cleverly by Boris Tarkhov; he gets all the notes, sometimes by resorting to a falsetto recorded in close-up, but his is not the right timbre for the role – phrasing is choppy and effortful, and the rueful lyricism essential to this role does not emerge. Best by far, is Elena Ustinova as the Queen of Shemaka: her soft-edged timbre and musical phrasing provide exactly the frissons required in this exacting music, and her intonation in the tricky oriental-scale roulades is pretty accurate – an occasional high D or E is uneasy, but not too disturbing, and she characterizes well, turning like a snake when required. The lesser roles are all very well sung.


Alternative CD recordings are hard to find. The only one currently available is live from the 1971 New York City Opera production (in English) with Norman Treigle and Beverly Sills. It’s a fun showbiz turn, but the opera is not a burlesque panto, and the cuts and awful sound are a trial. An older Melodiya recording from the early 1960’s comes and goes from the catalogue; it has better interpreters of Dodon and the Astrologer – Alexei Korolev and Gennadi Pishchayev - but an acidulous Queen, credits two conductors (?) and has a characteristic blaring Soviet-era mono recording. A 1961 RAI version from Rome, very hard to find, boasts Boris Christoff and a gorgeous Gianna d’Angelo, but the conductor seems to think it’s Parsifal and the experience is leaden. A mediocre 1985 CD from Sofia, recently available on Capriccio completes a dodgy bunch. Kitaenko’s is the best for the time being, but a new version is surely way overdue.


© Julian Grant 2009