Rimsky's Kitezh on DVD and CD

The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronya on CD/DVD

OperaMetro highly recommends the OpusArte Blu ray DVD of Dimitri Tcherniakov’s production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh.

  Svetlana Ignatovich as Fevroniya in Act I of  Kitezh

Svetlana Ignatovich as Fevroniya in Act I of Kitezh

Count this one very high on my list of “Woefully Neglected Operas!” But the good news is that Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronya seems to be making a showing in the opera sphere of late, and while it shall probably never supplant the more established Russian masterpieces in the standard repertory, surely it deserves a production now and then. For that matter, also on my list of WNO, my desires surfacing in print here, the same can be said for many of the infrequently heard Rimsky operas, especially Sadko and Snowmaiden. I’d go so far as looking forward to Christmas Eve, The Tale of Tsar SaltanThe Tsar’s Bride, and even again to the somewhat more popular Golden Cockerel, which, as they say, has been around the block: I’ve seen it a few times locally in the past half century. But I digress.

Kitezh, which premiered in St. Petersburg in 1907, has been called ‘the Russian Parsifal.’ Lovers of the latter won’t find it satisfying in the same way Wagner’s mesmerizing epic impacts body, mind and soul. Not even remotely close. Yes, there is sufficient orchestral atmosphere in Kitezh to make the comparison hold here and there, but it's a Rimsky opera with a lot of Russian folksy and repetitive digressions. No way is it like the sustained musically dramatic progression that evolves thematically as does Wagner’s ultimate magnificent oeuvre. No way.

All right, granted, Fevronya is sort of a pure fool like Parsifal. But much more like die Gänsemagd in Humperdinck’s Königskinder Fevronya leaves the simple life of the forest with her newly beloved the young Prince Vsevolod Yuryevich, ventures into the degenerate world of Lower Kitezh, gets thrown around a lot by invading Tartars, honor and life threatened and all that, then she ends up abandoned, sadder, wiser, and ultimately dead, poor dear. But this, happily, leads to her assumption into an afterlife free from sorrow and pain where she is reunited with the faithful of Upper Kitezh, still invisible like heaven, and especially with her husband Prince Vsevolod, who, killed in battle, awaits her there. The steadfast Fevronya demonstrates unshakable compassion, love, meekness, tidy living, and faith in spite of the spate of slings and arrows in her path. So the legend goes, because of her clean moral slate, her prayers render the upper city of Kitezh invisible so the Tartars cannot slaughter everyone else and level it to smoldering rubble. There are lots of Christian references, even big choral scenes, ceremony, celebrations, bells, and all that good stuff.

For sure there are Wagnerian touches in the orchestra: the opera’s opening evokes both the mystery of the deep forest around Montsalvat (the location of the Temple of the Holy Grail in Parsifal) and the Murmurs of the deep Forest from Siegfried, though the cuckoos apparently flew in from Hänsel und Gretel. The invasion of the heathen Tartars gets rolling to the Storm music of Die Walküre, Act I; there are orchestral touches of the Magic Fire Scene from Walküre Act III (but no fire) toward the conclusion of Kitezh, along with some big Temple of the Holy Grail type horns. Rimsky’s encounters with Wagner’s Ring and Parsifal were a life-altering events, as they were for Humperdinck, who assisted Wagner at Bayreuth..

The sound picture of Kitezh is worth exploring. Try, as an appetizer, Neeme Järvi’s 3 CD set of orchestral suites from the Rimsky-Korsakov operas (released on Chandos). The Kitezh suite was my introduction to the opera many years ago, followed by the purchase of the complete Melodiya set on monaural LPs. If you know those albums, you’ll remember the unique smell they had.

But for the whole meal, soup to nuts, seek the complete opera on DVD. The winner here, as leaked above, is director Dmitri Tcherniakov’s near masterpiece production of Kitezh for the Nederlandse Opera in 2012, released on Blu ray by Opus Arte. Tcherniakov directed and designed last season’s excellent Prince Igor at the Met. He lavishes the same attention to drama, mood, detail, and spits of philosophy here as well.

Tcherniakov updates the tale to sometime either side of today: love child-like, Fevronya wears sneakers, but thankfully is sans the beads, tie dyes and peace signs. The hard drinking low life locals in Lower Kitezh slug down Jack from the bottle; the Tartar invaders carry assault weapons. Some of the scenic effects described in the libretto are passed over for more mundane solutions, yet it all is within the spirit of the opera and the production and it all works. It works, incidentally, much more so than Tcherniakov’s earlier essay on Kitezh, which was brought to the Met with by forces of the Mariinsky Theatre in July of 2003: sitting upstairs, I remember a lot of bare stage, spare sets and bright lights. Great music of course, but hardly magical to look at.

The whole thing pretty much rises or falls with Fevronya, here sung, but more importantly acted by soprano Svetlana Ignatovich. Her face and voice speak volumes. Fevronya is threatened with all sorts of violation, pain, and death, but she never loses her goodness or her faith. Even the disagreeable drunkard Grishka Kuterma, who harshly insults Fevronya just before the fall of Lower Kitezh to the invading Tartars, cannot crumble her good nature. In the end, he abandons her to die; in the afterlife she insists on his forgiveness. An intriguing touch: Fevronya seems to lie down for a nap at the opera’s opening, and then again assumes a similar position at the opera’s close. Could it all be a dream?

John Daszak’s Grishka is a bold wastrel. Maxim Aksenov is the handsome young wounded Prince Vsevolod Yuryevich who is tended by Fevronya in her forest and who brings her to Kitezh. His father Prince Yuri Vsevolodovich, sung by Vladimir Vaneey, intones solumn praise and hope for his city. Bedyay, sung by Ante Jerkunica, and Burunday, sung by Kirov veteran Vladimir Ognovienko, are the enemy Tartars who threaten Fevronya’s virtue. Marc Albrecht conducts. Running time is about three hours.

But a second DVD release on the Naxos label is competitive, primarily through the efforts of Tatiana Monogarova, whose Fevronya is strong, less vulnerable, a little less youthful, but no less ‘good.’ This is the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari’s production from 2006, under the musical direction of Alexander Vedernikov, staged by Eimuntas Nekrosiu. More of a fairy tale, with lots of children, this is a stylized setting of largely wooden shapes that are assembled and disassembled for scene changes. Sometimes they are put in place by chorus members, sometimes rotated on turntables, sometimes changed during intermissions. Mikhail Gubsky’s Grishka is more of a slovenly teddy bear, less threatening, even comic at times; the violence of the Tartars is stylized, as are the ceremonies. The rest of the cast acquit themselves respectably. This, too, is about three hours running time.

A problem with both productions on DVD, one faced by any staging of an opera with characters that are animals, is that Fevronya’s forest friends can be distractingly silly. Not so much in Tcherniakov’s staging: the animals (a crane, a bear cub, and a large elk) are referred to as such but they are clearly humans, albeit on the strange side. Are they innocent societal outcasts, now homeless and tended by Fevronya’s kindness? Has she actually lost her wits before the story starts and thinks these folks are animals? In the Cagliari production the animal types are suggested by parts of the costume, like horns, for instance, with no real attempt to disguise the fact that actors are carrying them.

The animal-on-stage issue is irrelevant with a sound-only recording. There are three caught in the radar here.

The complete opera on Philips CDs from the Kirov in 1999, under the masterful baton of Valery Gergiev, is highly respectable, as are most of the recordings from that series. It stars a soulful Galina Gorchakova as Fevronya and a wild Vladimir Galuzin as Grishka. Nicolai Ohotnikov is the Prince Yuri Vsevolodovich, Yuri Marusin is Vsevolod Yuryevich, the Tartars leaders Burunday and Bedyay are sung by Vladimir Ognovienko and Bulat Mijilkiev, respectively. The stereo sound gives a rich picture of Rimsky’s score. Here is the wish that Philips had completed the Rimsky cycle!

Kitezh is not a long opera, certainly not as long as many others in the Russian repertory go. For the time-pressed (who isn’t these days?), check out the 2 ORF CD set, distributed by Koch/Schwann, of a reduced version, Kitezh lite, from the 1995 Breganz Festspiele Production. The largely Russian cast is directed by Harry Kupfer, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Fedoseyev, who both agreed to trim about an hour’s worth from the score. The essence is retained and the performances are quite good, particularly the Fevronya of Elena Prokina and the Grishka of Vladimir Galusin, who ramps up the desperation of his character to a new level.

Or, if you’re game (and you can find it), that old Melodiya pressing from 1956 is available on Preiser CDs. The great Ivan Petrov is Prince Yuri Vsevolodovich, Natalia Rozhdestvenskaya is Fevronya, and Dimitri Tarkhov is Grishka. This one has its own magic.

Enjoy! Kitezh is worth the journey.