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A new box set from the Bolshoi Theatre brings together the complete operas of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov for the first time. Often dismissed for their nationalism and pageantry, is it time to reassess their viability on today’s international operatic stage?

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908) is considered a national treasure in Russia. His music, full of sinuous, alluring melodies, is redolent of the enchantment of the East. Political correctness today may frown on such orientalism, but that hasn’t stopped audiences from enjoying the many touches of exoticism in Mozart, Bizet, Puccini and Richard Strauss.

A stronger complaint about Rimsky is that his primary focus is on music, irking opera fans who prefer fiery dramatic action to stately pageants and tableaux. Indeed, the conductors who tend to be most persuasive with Rimsky’s music, at its richest and most varied in the orchestration of his operas, have usually been master colourists in sound such as Pierre Monteux and Leopold Stokowski.

A new 25-CD set of historical recordings of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas, on Profil Medien, implies that they have been unjustly cloistered from international appreciation. This prompts the question whether Rimsky’s 15 operas have a wider appeal that international opera houses might benefit from exploring. In fact, tentative toes have been dipped in the pool of Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas for over a century. Delectable recordings exist of the tenor aria ‘Song of the Indian Guest’ from the opera Sadko by Italy’s Beniamino Gigli and Tito Schipa, Hungary’s József Réti, France’s Georges Thill, and Sweden’s Jussi Björling.

Romanian-born Alma Gluck recorded the same aria in a version for soprano, as did Italy’s Amelita Galli-Curci (twice) and America’s Rosa Ponselle. Complementing these high-level imports of Rimsky’s music, the Profil set reminds us of Russian performance traditions, with many of the operas recorded circa 1947, in the immediate post-war years.

A sense of urgency is present, as well as cultural pride in survival, expressed in majestic conducting by opera maestros Nikolai Golovanov and Vassili Nebolsin, combining supple lyricism with fire. By 1957, other performances included here led by Evgeny Svetlanov have settled into a more stately and foursquare approach, with somewhat less poetic results. Singing is also a mixed bag throughout, with genuinely thrilling examples such as a Sadko from 1946 featuring the sonorous bass voices of a young Ivan Petrov as the King of the Sea and Mark Reizen as the Viking Guest. The latter role was a star-making part for the legendary Feodor Chaliapin who pops up in the Profil set with arias recorded in 1926-27 in London. Britain has always welcomed selected works by Rimsky, notably The Golden Cockerel. A BBC radio recording preserves a splendid 1954 Covent Garden production conducted by Igor Markevitch, with a cast including the Swiss tenor Hugues Cuénod and the African American coloratura soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs.

Closer to our own time, among other productions, in 1998 the Royal Opera presented a new staging of The Golden Cockerel at Sadler’s Wells Theatre conducted by Vladimir Jurowski with Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, Paata Burchuladze and Elena Kelessidi. More recent still was a spectacularly dystopic staging by Laurent Pelly at La Monnaie in Brussels in 2016.

Musicologists sometimes complain that The Golden Cockerel is the only one of Rimsky’s operas regularly seen internationally, apart from scattered productions presented by travelling Russian companies. This may be true now, but it was not always the case. In March 1936, the New York Times lamented that ‘only’ four of Rimsky’s operas were well- known in Manhattan: The Golden Cockerel, Snow Maiden, Sadko and The Tsar’s Bride, to which would soon be added a performance of The Invisible City of Kitezh.

In January 1942, Thomas Beecham conducted a French-language Cockerel at the New York Met in an unlikely double bill with Phoebus and Pan, a staged version of a secular cantata by J S Bach. Earlier, in 1922, when The Snow Maiden was sung in French at the Met, it starred the Spanish soprano Lucrezia Bori as the eponymous heroine. The New York Post underlined the snow maiden’s visual qualities: ‘Miss Bori made an enchanting picture, particularly in the prologue, where, muffl ed in softwhite furs, even to her dainty feet, she looked the very personifi cation of winter. Her Spanish grace of motion added much to her softwhite charm as she moved about the stage like a huge snowfl ake… such a dainty Snow Maid is a delightful novelty for one’s eyes.’

The scenic pageantry called for by Rimsky operas, especially Sadko’s underwater settings, should be another specific incentive for staging more of them world-wide. Rimsky worshipped nature as a pantheist, seeing God everywhere in the world, which is surely a viewpoint sympathetic to our era of increasing ecological awareness.

In November 1863, a teenaged Rimsky praised the grandeur of Niagara Falls in correspondence to his mentor Mily Balakirev, whom he camply addressed as ‘dear Auntie,’ signing off his missives: ‘your loving nephew kisses you on the lips’. Somewhat chauvinistically, Balakirev replied dismissively, preferring the Caucasus region between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea.

After early naval training, Rimsky studied music wholeheartedly. Still, in December 1894 London’s Daily Telegraph sniffed that he was a ‘sailor first and composer afterwards’.

But then, making the UK press appreciate Rimsky’s qualities was not an easy job. In 1878 The Musical World, the then-preeminent British music journal, had listed him as two different composers, Rimsky and Korsakov.

Once they no longer bisected his identity, English critics faulted him for over-editing operas by his contemporaries from Borodin to Mussorgsky in performance versions, although he modestly observed that with Mussorgsky, his editorial interventions were not permanent and might be revised or removed in future when no longer deemed useful, as indeed they eventually were.

Another up-to-date theme in Rimsky’s operas that might be exploited by present- day stage directors is poisonings, rife in The Tsar’s Bride, Mlada and Mozart and Salieri. Toxins may be common plot devices in 19th-century drama, but in our time of Russian use of nerve agents as chemical weapons, the theme acquires new currency.

During current global turmoil, Rimsky wins further points as a sane, if sometimes shy, dry and donnish presence amid the unruly behaviour of his opera world friends and colleagues. Some people close to him were prone to alcohol abuse, like his former roommate Mussorgsky and his pupil Anton Arensky.

Comic alcoholic characters in Rimsky’s operas, although standard in Russian drama of his day, may have had special resonance for him. Included in Rimsky- Korsakov and His World (Princeton University Press, 2018) is a November 1898 letter to the Ukrainian lyrical soprano Nadezhda Zabela-Vrubel: ‘Composers are like hopeless alcoholics: all you need to do is keep away from composition and you’ll be fine – but no, you can’t keep away from it.’ By apparent coincidence, Korsakov’s homonym Sergei Korsakoff, the Russian neuropsychiatrist, did landmark research on alcoholic psychosis, identifying the so-called Korsakoff’s syndrome, a chronic memory disorder, in the late 19th century.

As a sober recollection based on the Profil reissue, which Rimsky operas could be most successfully exported? Those based on fairy tales and legends such as The Snow Maiden, Sadko, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and The Golden Cockerel would surely continue to charm audiences, as should the lyricism of the folk operas May Night and Christmas Eve.

Historical dramas such as The Tsar’s Bride might be kept in reserve for further delights on the international scene, when staging Rimsky operas is no longer seen as quite so exotic.

Benjamin Ivry Read the full review on Agora Classica


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