RimskyKorsakov Christmas 2110738

Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)
Christmas Eve (1894-95) – Opera in four acts
Libretto by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (after the short story The Night Before Christmas by Nikolay Gogol)
Vakula – Georgy Vasiliev (tenor)
Oksana – Julia Muzychenko (soprano)
Solokha / Woman with a Violet Nose – Enkelejda Shkoza (mezzo-soprano)
Chub – Alexey Tikhomirov (bass)
Devil – Andrei Popov (tenor)
Chor der Opera Frankfurt
Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester/Sebastian Weigle
Christof Loy, stage director
rec. live, December 2021 and January 2022, Oper Frankfurt
Reviewed in stereo
NAXOS 2.110738 DVD [153]

Just in time for Christmas Eve comes this DVD of Rimsky-Korsakov’s eponymous opera. That release is doubly appropriate this year – even though recorded at the Frankfurt Opera back in December 2021 and January 2022 – as it adapts a story by Nikolai Gogol, born in the Ukrainian town of Sorochyntsi. The drama is also set in Ukraine – in the village Dikanka – and so in a sense it could be regarded as a Ukrainian opera, especially with the composer’s use of some folksong from that country. The story used here, The Night Before Christmas, incidentally also served as the basis of Tchaikovsky’s better-known, earlier opera, Cherevichki, which was his revision of Vakula the Smith.

As a writer who satirised many aspects of imperial Russia – opera goers may already know Shostakovich’s Gogol-based The Nose – the opera’s background generally, and the stage action in Christof Loy’s production in particular, will now undoubtedly resonate even more since the overbearing claims of that country have now issued in the invasion of sovereign Ukraine. It was certainly foresightful that in the metatheatrical epilogue – called ‘In memory of Gogol’ in the score – when Vakula states that he does not want to reveal how he was whisked away by the Devil to claim the Tsarina’s slippers for his beloved Oksana but instead hails a poet in the future who will write a story about it, he and the villagers reverentially hold up a portrait of Gogol for all to acknowledge.

The production is perhaps generally typical of Loy with its muted appearance and tones, at least in the opera’s main scenes where the same open space bounded by bare grey walls serves as the common set for the various earthly homes. The opening scene, featuring a dialogue between the Devil and the witch Solokha, provides a more suitably cosmic dimension with its backdrop of the Milky Way, used again in Act III Scene VI. Some sense of folkloric colour is intermittently provided in the occasional props and Christmas decorations that are used, but Loy tends to avoid clutter or realistic representation in favour of more surreal comedy, as when white feathers are thrown around in place of standard theatrical artificial snow, or when the ballerina who stands in for the mythical virginal figure Kolyada, looking for her springtime god, dances with a bear, apparently symbolic of the evil forces she has to contend with, until the figure within casts off his bear costume and dances with Kolyada. In the context of the stark background, the 18th century dress of Tsarina and her court also looks not so much historically accurate as ironically kitsch.

Far more colour is found within the warm and richly textured performance by Sebastian Weigle and the Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester. With the characteristically glowing woodwind and brass of a German orchestra, Rimsky-Korsakov’s elaborate score comes to sound impressively Wagnerian. That is so, not only in longer orchestral passages such as the interlude in Act III between Vakula’s journey on the Devil’s back and their arrival at the imperial court, or the flustered opening to Act II which somewhat recalls the similar Prelude to Act III of Siegfried. But many carefully honed instrumental details also bring to mind the complexity of a Wagner score such as the snide muted trumpets echoing Chub’s complaints about the harsh snowstorm in Act I, or the strings’ sparkling trills and tremolos in the opening to the whole opera, seemingly evoking the stars.

The vocal cast also turn in a distinguished account. Enkelejda Shkoza is a suitably forthright Solokha, and Andrei Popov musically vociferous and raw in tone, with hissing sibilants, aiding his more pantomimic than sinister demeanour as a slyly, sexually seductive Devil, with shirt open to his chest. After their terse dialogue in the opening scene, Georgy Vasiliev rightly registers as a more conventionally lyrical romantic tenor lead with his seamless Italianate vocal lines, and Julia Muzychenko as his beloved Oksana sings with steely force, especially in her Act I song, becoming friskier in its faster, cabaletta-like conclusion.

In the role of Oksana’s father, Chub, Alexey Tikhomirov is an effective, resonant bass, exuding paternal authority. As one of Solokha’s three other suitors, apart from the Devil, who appear at her house in sequence and are hidden in sacks, he (Chub), the Lord Mayor, and the Deacon are all well characterised, giving distinctive voice to each role, underlining the amusing course of the drama. Where Sebastian Geyer’s Mayor is effusive, Peter Marsh as the cleric is deliberately rough and whining of voice, as he sings his randy love song in Rimsky-Korsakov’s satirical setting as a solo like a church chant. The chorus of the Frankfurt Opera make resounding contributions in the scene at court, and in the epilogue, rounding off a marvellous realisation of this charming work.

Some may prefer a more visually lavish presentation of the drama on stage. But this first DVD version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s overlooked opera may help to bring more regard for it, especially among those who find the composer’s operatic writing less well characterised than Tchaikovsky’s for example. If nothing else the captivatingly high musical standards on offer her should prompt such a reappraisal, but the production overall will vindicate those who already admire Rimsky-Korsakov’s colourful and imaginative operatic output.

Curtis Rogers

Other cast & production staff
Panas – Anthony Robin Schneider (bass)
The Mayor – Sebastian Geyer (baritone)
Deacon Ossip Nikiforovich – Peter Marsh (tenor)
Tsarina – Bianca Andrew (mezzo-soprano)
Patsyuk – Thomas Faulkner (bass)
Woman with a Normal Nose – Barbara Zechmeister (soprano)
Kolyada, the Virgin Goddess – Ayelet Polne (dancer)
Ovsen, God of Spring – Gorka Culebras (dancer)
Bear – Pascu Ortí (dancer)
Odarka – Clara Cozzolino (dancer)
Sverbigus – Haizam Fathy (dancer)
Patsyuk’s Slave – Paola Ghidini (dancer)
Monsieur Flic-Flac – Guillaume Rabain (dancer)
Tsarina’s Valet – Nicky Van Cleef (dancer)
Portuguese Man – Mário Branco (dancer)
Johannes Leiacker, set designer
Ursula Renzenbrink, costume designer
Olaf Winter, lighting designer
Klevis Elmazaj, choreographer
Ran Arthur Braun, flight choreographer
Maximilian Enderle, dramaturge
Myrian Hoyer, film director

Video details
Picture format: 16:9; Sound format PCM Stereo/AC3 5.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Sing in Russian; Subtitles: English, German, French, Japanese, Korean

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