rimsky-Korsakov christmas NBD0154V

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)
Christmas Eve, opera in four acts (1895)
Libretto by the composer, based on a tale by Nicolai Gogol
Georgy Vasiliev, tenor–Vakula
Andrei Tikhomirov, bass – Chub
Julia Muzychenko, soprano – Oksana
Andrey Popov, tenor – Devil
Enkelejda Shkoza, mezzo-soprano – Solokha
Frankfurt Opernchor
Frankfurt Opern- und Museumsorchester/Sebastien Weigle
rec. live, 17 – 19 December, 2021; 08 January, 2022, Frankfurt Opera, Germany
Includes booklets with notes in English, German
Reviewed in PCM 2.0
NAXOS NBD0154V Blu-Ray [153]

Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve was the fifth opera that he composed, coming directly after his revision of the score for The Snow Maiden in 1895. The composer adapted Nicolai Gogol’s  short story of folk tales taken from Ukrainian village life for his 2-volume collection, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, first published in 1831 and 1832. Rimsky-Korsakov was very adept at creating his own librettos, especially when it came to his pantheistic fantasies like Snow Maiden, Mlada, and Sadko. The composer had a particular interest in restoring awareness of aspects of the old pagan cultural heritage and superstitions in his stage works. This is something that makes him unique among the group of composers who were known in Russia at the time as the “mighty five”. Rimsky-Korsakov was not the first composer to be inspired by the Gogol story of the blacksmith Valkula’s supernatural journey to St Petersburg to acquire the Tsarina’s golden slippers in order to satisfy his beloved Oksana’s capricious demands. Tchaikovsky had also been drawn to the story to create his opera Valkula the Smith in 1876. He revised it in 1885 to become the opera we know today as Cherevichki . In English it has been variously named The Slippers, The Golden Slippers, and Oxana’s Surprise. Rimsky-Korsakov chose to wait until Tchaikovsky died before attempting to compose his Christmas Eve opera. This was out of respect and because the sensitive Tchaikovsky had been deeply hurt by Rimsky-Korsakov’s decision to write an opera on the subject of The Snow Maiden in 1882, when Tchaikovsky had already provided a complete score of incidental music for performances of Alexander Ostrovky’s original play.  Both Cherevichki and Christmas Eve are very rarely heard, although recently the Tchaikovsky work has been seen in a few countries around Europe, including a fine production by Francesca Zambello at Covent Garden in 2009. For some unknown reason, performances of Christmas Eve remain extremely rare even in Russia and there have only been two past attempts to record the opera commercially.

It is really a cause for celebration that Naxos has chosen to sponsor this opera release for Blu-ray, and a sign of the company’s ongoing commitment to constantly expand the scope of its catalogue for classical viewers/ listeners. Well done, Naxos! The importance of this release, obviously the first, and possibly only version that will make it onto home video, is almost beyond having a critical viewpoint because of its value as a document of the opera.  What so easily could have become a hit-and-miss affair actually turns out to be a fairly splendid account of Rimsky-Korsakov’s sensuous and glittering score. Christof Loy’s production, while pared down to only the essentials in the visual department, is strikingly clear in its delineation of the various characters, and what they get up to during the course of the action. The action is played out in yet another version of the standard European style of white room backdrop that has become one of the more overdone features of opera productions on the continent. This one is essentially a whitened view of a starry night sky, seen as if in negative of a photograph. To this are added various simple props to indicate the changes of scenery, and small splashes of colour show up in the beautiful costumes by Usula Renzenbrink.  During the scene at the royal court of St Petersburg, suddenly the 18th century comes to call with brightly coloured period costumes representing the very different world which Valkula has ventured into. There are individual modernist directorial choices that I might question, such as substituting a girl scattering white feathers to represent a snowfall, when a traditional stage snowfall evokes a more theatrical and magical impression on an audience.  Mr Loy also fails to find a visual way to convey the point that Solokha and the Devil steal the stars and the moon from out of the night sky. This is an important plot point because all of the village’s troubles begin because of the immense blackness they have thrust the villagers into.

Vocally the entire cast is a winner with not a weak link among the village inhabitants. Georgy Vasiliev is as handsome looking and sounding a Valkula as one could ever wish for, and his characterization of the role is impeccable. Once or twice his clean, sonorant timbre acquires a slight glare to the topmost register, but this the exception rather than the rule. In the finale he begins to sound just a bit tired, but considering all the time he spends manoeuvring his body in the high flying apparatus, this is not a surprise and would similarly affect any singer.  Julia Muzychenko is a real find as Oksana. She is a thoroughly vibrant lyric soprano whose voice expands in amplitude as she ascends above the staff with a gloriously rich tone; she sings her two arias magnificently. Added to this, her beautiful looks and assured stage presence make her an ideal Oksana, about whom Gogol relates that the young men of the village would follow her everywhere trying to attract her attention. In an impressive portrayal, Andrei Popov is the wiliest of devils. He uses his svelte timbre to execute vocal calisthenics which are roughly equivalent to the physical workout the director challenges him with.  This comic devil cavorts around both on the ground and in mid air; Popov’s stamina for it all evokes one’s admiration. Enkelejda Shkoza, a very experienced artist, hits the sensuality jackpot as the witch Solokha.  That she is also Valkula’s mother is beside the point, as this is one lustful witch. Shkoza’s earthy, vibrant mezzo has never sounded better in a part that suits this mezzo down to her toes. In some of the smaller roles, the excellent Peter Marsh galvanizes the stage as a particularly unctuous deacon, and Bianca Andrew, a stunning, willowy mezzo, gives a star turn as the Tsarina. Perhaps this is a prelude for greater things from this artist in the future.

Sebastien Weigle leads the excellent Frankfurt orchestra and chorus in a spellbinding account of Rimsky-Korsakov’s score. The prelude’s glittering orchestration, representing the twinkling of the night sky, is finely etched under Weigle’s lithe direction, yet he does not neglect the expansive sound of the panoramic aspects that appear regularly throughout Rimsky-Korsakov’s score. As usual with Naxos, the picture quality of the Blu-Ray is superb. The soft, white hues of the sets could be a challenge for one’s television monitor to deal with, and the camera work copes with it all excellently. The sound is nicely detailed, with the orchestra and the voices given good presence but there is enough of a spatial depth around everything that nothing sounds claustrophobic.

There have only been two audio-only versions of Christmas Eve available on CD. A 1947 Moscow radio broadcast on the defunct Arlecchino label, conducted by Nicolai Golovanov, features the un-lovely sounds of Natalia Shpiller as Oksanna.  In 1990 a studio version was released by the equally defunct Le Chant du Monde label, in decent stereo sound, and featured a reliable cast under Conductor Mikhail Yurovski. Both of these are next to impossible to locate now and, in any case, they are inferior to this Frankfurt performance.  

While I might regret the fact that this opera’s first chance on video is not presented in a more traditional fairy tale world, Mr Loy’s incredibly clear and focused production has won me over once again, as it did when I reviewed his deeply impressive production of Weber’s Euryanthe from Vienna (review). I would advise grabbing this one while it stays in the catalogue. Possibly this will be not as long a time as it deserves. For those who might resist the spare, modern look of Loy’s production, this is still worth acquiring for its soundtrack as it is generally the best audio version of the three Christmas Eve recordings thus far.

Mike Parr

Previous review: Curtis Rogers

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Additional cast
Anthony Robin Schneider, bass – Panas
Sebastian Geyer, baritone – Mayor
Peter Marsh, tenor – Deacon Ossip Nikiforovich
Bianca Andrew, mezzo-soprano – Tsarina
Thomas Faulkner,Bass – Patsyuk
Enkelejda Shkoza, mezzo-soprano – Woman with a Violet Nose
Barbara Zechmeister, Soprano – Woman with a Normal Nose
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)
Production staff
Stage Director – Christof Loy
Set Designer – Johannes Leiacker
Costume Designer – Ursula Renzenbrink
Lighting Designer – Olaf Winter
Choreographer – Kelvis Almazaj
Fight Choreographer – Ran Arthur Braun
Chorus Master – Tilman Michael
Dramaturge – Maximilian Enderle
Film director – Myriam Hoyer

Video details
Region code: A,B,C
Picture Format: 16:9
Sound Formats: PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 HD Master Audio
Sung in Russian (original language)
Subtitles: English, French, German, Japanese, Korean