Cher Public

Mist opportunity

The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya was completed in 1905, near the end of Rimsky-Korsakov’s life. The score is an impressive culmination of a composer who found himself traveling in many social circles and was constantly gleaning lessons from divergent sources. Despite his presence in The Five and importance in preserving the works of Mussorgsky, he also had a professional relationship with Tchaikovsky and the western-influenced school that emphasized symphonic form and contrapuntal writing. Then there was an influential trip to Bayreuth to hear the Ring. Kitezh opera is often compared to Parsifal in theme, and much of the vivid orchestral writing has echoes of Wagner with plenty of Russian bling.

The story is enough of a cipher to make any regie-bent director salivate. To be brief: a pretty girl named Fevroniya lives in the forest (she’s something of a Disney character, talking with the animals and trees) where she meets a handsome guy one day. They fall in love, and it turns out he’s a prince. In the second act, the town of Little Kitzeh prepares for their wedding, and petty jealousies, class differences, and general drunkenness threaten to incite the crowd into rioting at the instigation of Grishka, the town drunk. But fortunately everybody feels more like partying instead. Unfortunately, the Tatars decide to raid the town, killing lots of people and capturing Fevroniya. Grishka promises to show the Tatars to Larger Kitzeh, and Fevroniya prays for the city to become invisible.

In answer to her prayers, a fog settles over the lake, and the Tatars and Grishka can’t find the city, although there is a battle anyway, and the Prince is killed. In the morning, the city is still invisible, but can be seen in the reflection of the water, which terrifies the Tatars, and they run away. Fevroniya has a hallucinatory dream, in which a bird tells her that she must welcome death. So she dies and is reunited with her ghost prince and everybody rejoices. For sheer mystical incoherence, it certainly matches anything Wagner came up with.

It’s a work rarely performed outside Russia, and the recording catalogue has relatively few options to choose from so this CD from Naxos, based on a live performance from the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, is of particular interest. One has to wish that Naxos had included at least an online libretto to puzzle it all out, although a DVD of the same production is also available in their catalogue.

In the role of Fevroniya, Tatiana Monogarova is one of the most perfectly cast on record. Her dusky voice quickly finds focus, and negotiates the long, twisting phrases with precision. This is a particularly unforgiving role, constantly asking the singer to take over melodies that every instrument in the orchestra has already been given a crack at, with shifts in register rivaling anything found in the bel canto repertoire. She rises to the challenge superbly, creating an incredibly moving performance.

The cast surrounding her is more variable. Like the operas of Mussorgsky, this is a large ensemble piece, relying heavily on small contributions in roles ranging from townspeople to magical birds. Fevroniya’s Prince Vsevolod, Vitaly Panfilov, has an unfortunately reedy tone, but thankfully the part is small. As the drunkard Grishka, Mikhail Gubsky often ventures too far into leathery sounding character acting, but his mad scene is particularly affecting. Valery Gilmanov and Alexander Naumenko are appropriately threatening as Tatars. The chorus has a particularly large role, and they acquit themselves admirably.

What really keeps this recording from being the ideal recording of Kitezh comes down to Vedernikov’s conducting. While the Cagliari Orchestra sounds particularly well prepared, giving one of the cleanest performances on record, the reading often lacks spontaneity and mystery. The battle music tends toward the academic rather than the lethal; the sound of the thick fog hovering around the city lacks density and obscurity. The tempi show little change from one to the next, nor do the accelerando gather much speed; there is a sense of stasis and tableaux, certainly a great deal of lyricism and detail but at the cost of the drama. Kitezh’s score blends the sounds of nature with religious fervor, but the missing ingredient here is that umami waft of mysticism.

Still, the Naxos comes at a bargain price, and is not only complete, but in very good sound. Both Svetlanov and Nebolsin lead searing performances, but the sound quality is rather Soviet. A more recent performance from the Bregenzer Festival under Fedoseyev cuts away about an hour of music – not for the purists perhaps, but a beautiful reading by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.

The major competition then comes down to a live performance from the Kirov helmed by Gergiev, which features a rather uninvolved Gorchakova and doesn’t match the Naxos in sound quality (although a libretto is included). A few little bits and pieces are also worth exploring: Mravinsky’s vibrant recording of the suite, and Boris Christoff’s lovely reading of Prince Yuri’s aria. If the ideal recording hasn’t arrived yet, this release certainly provides an excellent introduction.

  • papopera

    KITEZH is one of the greatest scores of Rimsky-Korsakov. I know it and love it since it was performed in Montréal by the Bolshoi during the Expo ’67 Festival. Too bad it was never offered by the Met who have not been too friendly with Rimsky’s operas in the past seventy years.

    • Belfagor

      I saw it at the Met, given not by the Met, but by the Mariinsky in Cherniakov’s production -- in 2003, conducted not by Gergiev, but by one of his acolytes. I thought it was overwhelming -- even if it takes its time. I sat two seats away from Anna Moffo, and exchanged a few overwhelmed words……..A Russian lady sat in front and cried all the way through the last act…..!

      • Sempre liberal

        I loved the performance by the Mariinsky in 2003. Not the most forward-propelling of operas, but some absolutely gorgeous sounds. In those respects it reminded me (don’t shoot me) of Parsifal. I too sat near several Russians, and it was the only opera where I’ve ever seen Russian audience members at the MET remain completely silent. (OK, now you can shoot me.)

      • Camille

        Well, Belfagor, this is one Russian opera I did NOT miss.

        It didn’t entirely live up to its hype, or the 2003 Met production live up to the hype fostered by the Mariinsky visit to BAM in the late 80’s, at least, but I would like to give it a chance again and to really listen to it at length and assimilate parts other than the battle scene and the ascension of the maiden Fevronia, music that has come to mean a great deal to me.

        It’s a real shame that Rimsky’s operas do not get performed more in the occidental world. I’d have rather had Netrebko as his Snow Maiden, than Adina, e. g. Stravinsky spoke of him with such great respect.

        Speaking of Anna Moffo, my husband wound up sitting right next to her and could not bring himself to speak to her. She looked so sad. I think it was very late. He felt badly for her.

        • grimoaldo

          “I’d have rather had Netrebko as his Snow Maiden, than Adina”

          Yep.
          Me too.

        • MontyNostry

          She’s Russian. Of course she looked sad.

        • Belfagor

          Ola Camille -- we may have been within three seats of each other, or your husband, in 2003!!

          Didn’t Netrebko say somewhere that she wasn’t interested in playing Russian peasant girls onstage…..? Bit like Gorchakova, who sang ‘Kitezh’ everywhere with Gergiev in the 90’s, and said it was ‘boring’!…..

          The most loving performance I ever heard of ‘Kitezh’ was a BBC broadcast from 1985 c. Edward Downes, with Kathryn Harries as Fevronia, a singer whose timbre I’ve always found very haunting (heard her do a rather beautiful Berlioz ‘Dido’ years back). It was maybe a little too loved, as it was very, very leisurely, but I wish the Beeb would reissue it……..

  • m. croche

    This is a pretty thorough review.

    There is one thing that strikes me as not quite right, though:

    “Despite his presence in The Five and importance in preserving the works of Mussorgsky, he also had a professional relationship with Tchaikovsky and the western-influenced school that emphasized symphonic form and contrapuntal writing.”

    Balakirev wrote two symphonies, two concertos and some overtures. Borodin has 2.5 symphonies, 2 notable quartets. Rimsky’s 3 symphonies were written before his contact with Chaikovsky. These guys knew their Schumann symphonies and Beethoven quartets. Chaikovsky, too, benefited from his exposure to Balakirev’s work. Even Taneiev, Chaikovsky’s disciple who at times was even more outspokenly conservative than his teacher, came to admire Borodin’s music.

    As for counterpoint: you’ll seldom find fugues in Balakirev, Borodin or Musorgsky, but then you’ll seldom find them in Chopin either and nobody thinks of him as un-Western. What you will find in Balakirev (as you will in Glinka’s orchestral music) is an interest in combining themes symphonically. And, as mentioned before, Borodin even wrote fine quartets -- a contrapuntal form if ever there was one.

    I think the bigger distinction between the early ideals of the “Five” and Chaikovsky is less stylistic than sociological -- the difference between dilettantism and professionalism, intuition and diligence. Chaikovsky kept a regular routine for composing, starting each morning at the same early hour (“The muse has learned to be on time,” he said.) Balakirev, Borodin and Musorgsky composed haphazardly all their lives -- as we can see from their blasted oeuvres of incomplete compositions and belatedly-publish pieces.

    Rimsky (who exhibited more personal decency than one usually finds among 19th-century composers) could move in both circles -- his professorship at the St. Petersburg conservatory pushed him to imbibe some of Chaikovsky’s ethos as well as his counterpoint. By the late-1870s, and until his death, Rimsky composed as calmly and professionally as old Anton Rubinstein ever did.

    • Belfagor

      If I may add a little to that M.Croche, if you read the memoirs, R-K really did not ‘compose as calmly and professionally as old Anton Rubinstein ever did’ from the late 1870’s on. He had several bouts of terrible depression, and suffered from a realisation that his talent was not of the same order of his dear friends Mussorgsky and Borodin, and if you look at the tally of original works, there are several real crises where he dried up -- in fact some of the most recent scholars (rather persuasively) argue that he came to despise the so-called ‘Russian style’, which he felt he was the curator of, and tried to escape it. Marina Frolova-Walker’s book ‘Russian Music from Glinka to Stalin’ is rather fascinating on him, and this.

      His crash course in counterpoint dates from the mid-1870’s, during which his personal style almost disappeared, only to re-emerge, with great lyrical freshness in ‘May Night’ and ‘Snow Maiden’ -- then there is a real drought of new work from 1882-7, mostly taken up with editing Mussorgsky, later ‘Prince Igor’ and his early, precocious works from the 1860’s -- then the three famous orchestral pieces in 1887-8 (Russian Easter, Spanish Caprice, Scheherazade) followed by the exposure to Wagner in 1889, and the mad ‘Mlada’, that he felt was ‘cold as ice’. Then a real crisis with no original work until Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893 seemed to wake him up. Then he started to churn out music at a great rate -- but much of this late period is really uneven, and beset with difficulties -- not least his casting around to write something ‘non-Russian’ -- so there are the rather anonymous operas ‘Tsar’s Bride’ (the best of these hybrids, but as Gerald Abraham says ‘a mournful decline after ‘Sadko’) ‘Servilia’ and ‘Pan Voevoda’, and many manufactured songs, chamber and choral pieces.

      The ‘Russian’ pieces post ‘Sadko’ (the opera, often regarded as his chef d’oeuvre) which has much of its musical material taken from a very early symphonic poem, (which tells you something) are increasingly toy-like and stylized (Tsar Saltan and Kashchey), -- Kitezh is an anomaly, where Wagner and the Russian style mix uneasily at times (Frolova Walker regards this as a ‘crisis’ work) and the Golden Cockerel is a sort of acidic send-up of the whole tradition, which aesthetically is where Stravinsky takes over.

      So I think he had pre-occupations of style that make him seem like a composer of a much later generation (in fact similar to his pupil Stravinsky, though without his self-publicity and composerly aplomb. But I don’t think he ever really composed easily without looking over his shoulder, as did so many of the minor over-productive 19th century guys who occasionally wrote a real jewel (Saint-Saens, Rubinstein, Bruch etc etc). I think he was very original and very flawed -- and very fascinating because of all that.

      • m. croche

        Hiya Belfagor,

        What a fine description of Rimsky’s career. I admit I was being a bit mischievous in comparing Rimsky with Rubinstein, but I’d still argue that -- creative crises notwithstanding -- Rimsky’s self-perception, his ideals about what he should become, changed in the mid-70s. Perhaps it wasn’t until the early 90s that he literally became as fluent as Rubinstein (to be mischievous once more), but it seems to me by 1880 he had Balakirev’s, Musorgsky’s and (soon) Borodin’s careers before his eyes as warning examples.

        I have to admit I like the stylization in Saltan, Khashchei and Cockerel. To my mind, their “air-quote” qualities have something in common with Chaikovsky’s pieces in 18th-century manner. And as you point out, the two composers’ appreciation for the artificial would find a powerful advocate in Stravinsky. (I also like Tsar’s Bride and Mozart v. Salieri, but I think that’s a minority opinion on this site and elsewhere…)

        • guy pacifica

          Thank you, Belfagor and m. croche, for including us in your fascinating and ear-opening discussion. There seems to be much to learn and enjoy in the sideroads of Russian opera.

        • Belfagor

          Dear M.Croche -- I like the stylization too, and Rimsky’s habits of thought (technicolour scoring, obsessively symmetrical phrases, sequences repeated to the point of exhaustion) suit those works….but I do find ‘Tsar’s Bride’ fatally lacking in oomph (a few highlights excepted) , and so many of those later songs go in one ear and out the other. But I think you are right, he was so scared of his friends chaotic creative lives that he did try, to the best of his abilities, to be like Rubinstein, and just write something every day.

  • cosmodimontevergine

    I was impressed by the production in Amsterdam -evocative, intellectually stimulating and owing much to the great film-maker Tarkovsky. Presumably Tcherniakov’s production was the one that came to the Met? Monogarova was the excellent Fevroniya in Amsterdam. Oh, and don’t read the dumb English blogs such as Classical Iconoclast or Opera Today -they are a waste of time as the writers are so intent on being clever they usually miss the point of the piece. I am constantly impressed with the absence of egotistical hot-air in reviews on Parterre Box.

  • Buster

    Amsterdam had the premiere of the new Tcherniakov Kitezh earlier this year, with the stunning Svetlana Ignatovich. It was the highlight of the season for me (with the Minkowski Gluck double) -- a very disturbing work, with a lot of violence in it, and an unforgettable third act. This one will travel to Paris, Milan, and Barcelona:

  • Just noting that there’s an older Soviet recording of Kitezh, and if I look around long enough I may even find my copy. No, wait -- there are two, one from 1956 and one from 1983. I think I have the ’56.

    • papopera

      The old 1956 Soviet mono recording is very primitive in sound. I finally disposed of it in the garbage when a better recording became available.

  • I fell in love with this piece when someone gave me a recording from the 1995 Bregenz Festival conducted by Vladimir Fedoseyev. It is worth it for Fedoseyev’s contribution even if it is heavily cut. He has been a champion of Rimsky’s operas and recorded several. Its been a while since I listen to it but Manrico’s excellent review had me searching for it. I recall finding the Gergiev a bit stodgy by comparison but I’ll have to give both a listen again. Again thanks Manrico.

    • Belfagor

      The problem with the Bregenz version is that one third of the whole opera is cut, well -- butchered -- including almost the whole final scene, and most of the ravishing transformation music in the last act. A real shame, as what remained as a performance had some merit, but really, if Kupfer felt the opera could only be made by doing that to it, he should have commissioned a new score.

  • Clita del Toro

    This Rita Gorr Liebestod reminds me of Flagstad: