RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: The Golden Cockerel
RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: The Tsar's Bride
DARGOMYZHSKY: The Stone Guest
BORODIN: Prince Igor
Two of the Rimsky-Korsakov operas are gems. His last opera, The Golden Cockerel, is sometimes identified by its French name Le Coq d'Or. The text by Vladimir Belsky is based on a poem by Pushkin, and the premiere was in Moscow in 1909. There is a delightful sense of fantasy about this opera. The satiric plot focuses on stupid King Dodon, who has two equally dim-witted sons. The King relies on advice from an Astrologer who gives him a magic Golden Cockerel that is supposed to protect him. The King plans to marry the beautiful Queen of Shemakha but the Astrologer wants her for himself, Dodon kills the Astrologer and the Cockerel kills the King. At the end, the Astrologer appears announcing what the audience has seen was "only an illusion" and that only he and the Queen were real mortals. Orchestral excerpts from this opera have long been favorite orchestral showpieces. Here we have a live performance from 1986 with soloists, chorus and ballet of Armenia's Yerevan Alexander Spendiaryan State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet directed by Aram Katanian. The cast is strong, with soprano Ellada Chakhoyan a quite voluptuous Queen of Shemakha. This is the only video currently available of this delightful opera; it seems that the superb TDK video recorded in Paris with Kent Nagano conducting (REVIEW) has been discontinued.
The Tsar's Bride, composed in 1898, was the composer's tenth opera, intended as a reaction against the ideas of Wagner. A dark opera, it takes place in 16th Century Moscow, and focuses on Marfa who is in love with the boyar Lykov, but lusted after by the bodyguard Gryaznov. He has a mistress, Lyubasha, who is jealous of Marfa. To further complicate the plot, Ivan the Terrible has chosen Marfa to be his bride. Two magic potions are involved, one to make one forget, the other to kill, and the two potions get mixed up. By the end of the opera most of the characters are dead or dying, and Marfa goes mad. Rimsky-Korsakov often incorporates music used by Mussorgsky in Boris Godonov and, unlike most other operas by the composer, there are no big orchestral showpieces that can be excerpted for concert use. This performance is splendid, although Lydia Kovaleva's Marfa cannot match the radiance and vocal beauty displayed by Anna Netrebko in her CD of music of the composer. If you are interested in this opera, you might wish to investigate the Philips audio recording with Mariinsky forces directed by Valery Gergiev. The VAI release is the only available video.
Another rarity is the coupling of Dargomyzhsky's The Stone Guest and Rimsky-Korsakov's Mozart and Salieri. The latter, written in 1897, is the composer's seventh opera, in two scenes with only the two characters. In scene two, Salieri poisons Mozart as they are dining and the opera ends as Salieri bids farewell to Mozart as we hear a snippet of the latter's Requiem. Feodor Chaliapin often sang the role of Salieri. Alexander Dargomyzhsky (1813-1869) was highly respected during his time but is remembered today primarily for his songs. The Stone Guest, his best known work, was incomplete when he died. Rimsky-Korsakov and Cesar Cui orchestrated it, and the premiere took place in 1872. The libretto was taken almost verbatim from Pushkin's play with the addition of two arias included in the scenario. Don Giovanni ,Mozart's treatment of the subject composed almost a century earlier, is a masterpiece of the opera world. Dargomyzhsky's opera is of considerably lesser interest, but an important relic; this is the only video of it. This is a performance at the Bolshoi in 1979; Mozart and Salieri was taped there in 1981. Both operas are given excellent performances, with Vladimir Atlantov a superb Don. Unfortunately both of these operas are substandard visually. Darkness prevails, images are blurred; mono audio is adequate—but these are the only videos of these seldom-presented operas.
Prince Igor is a live 1981 performance given in the Concert Hall of the Kremlin Palace, a production of the Bolshoi Theatre directed by Mark Ermler. It boasts an all-star cast headed by legendary Russian bass Evgeny Nesterenko (b. 1938) who during his long active career was in demand in most leading opera houses. The qualities that made him a leading Boris of his time are evident in his imposing performance of the title role in Borodin's opera. Admirers of this opera should not miss Valery Gergiev's 1998 Bolshoi production (REVIEW) which has the advantage of superb video and audio, but the Nesterenko version is of prime historic interest.
How indebted we are to VAI VIDEO INTERNATIONAL for giving us the opportunity to hear these authentic performances of Russian operas! Technically, some of these issues may disappoint, but the opportunity to hear and see this repertory as performed in Russia should not be missed.
R.E.B. (January 2010)