rimsky-korsakov christmas eve naxos

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
Naxos 8.660543-44 [2 CDs: 153]

This CD issue from Naxos stems from their previous release on DVD/Blu-ray from 2022. At that time I reviewed the Blu-ray version which I recommended and was later selected as a Recording of the Month for January 2023. In November it became my top choice for a ROTY; therefore, I have included many of my previous comments, in edited form, within this review of the current CDs.

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. The booklet notes that accompany these CDs helps to clarify the main reason for this opera’s continued neglect in that the Russian royals at the time of the 1895 premiere were incensed by the composer’s insistence on including a mezzo singing the onstage role of the Tsarina. This sort of thing had been forbidden in all performances since 1837 but as the Tsarina is quite important in Gogol’s original story, Rimsky stood firm. Without the support of the aristocracy, the opera was doomed to fail and any revivals became an unlikely possibility. There are signs that since this 2021 staging, the opera is being looked at with renewed interest, if a recent concert performance at the Berlin Philharmonie is anything to go by.

Shorn of the visual elements of Christof Loy’s production, Sebastien Weigle’s leadership of the excellent Frankfurt orchestra comes more into focus on these discs. His sensitive handling of Rimsky-Korsakov’s glittering score is virtually peerless. The orchestra plays immaculately for him, as they must when you consider the enormous spotlight that the much lauded acoustics of the Frankfurt Opera House shines on them. This set continues to add to the fine series of recordings that Weigle made in Frankfurt for the Oehms label. The prelude’s sparkling orchestration, representing the twinkling stars of the night sky, is finely etched under Weigle’s spellbinding direction, yet he does not neglect the expansive sound of the panoramic aspects that appear regularly throughout Rimsky-Korsakov’s score. The sound is nicely detailed, with the orchestra and the voices given good presence. Despite the immediacy there is plenty of ambient bloom around the voices, which delivers the vibrant impression of being in the opera house

Vocally the entire cast is a winner with not a weak link among the village inhabitants. Georgy Vasiliev is as handsome 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. 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.

There have only been two previous audio versions of Christmas Eve made 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, and is for history buffs only. 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 don’t measure up to this Frankfurt performance. As it has the field all to itself, hopefully it will stay in the catalogue for a very long time. The only serious competition comes from its own DVD and Blu-ray parents, in which one can see Loy’s thoroughly winning production.

Mike Parr

Previous reviews: Curtis Rogers (DVD, December 2022) ~ Mike Parr (Blu-ray, January 2023)  

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