Snow Maiden Revival

4 Mar

It was cheering that there was a pretty full house at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal for its performance of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Snow Maiden on 3rd March.  It was even better that the performance was hugely rewarding.  This must have been the first Rimsky work performed outside London since Scottish Opera’s Golden Cockerel in the late 1970s.  It was also my first chance to see this one staged (I caught the Mariinsky concert at the ROH 17 years ago).

It’s a strange piece.  The story feels very much in the tradition of Dvorak’s Rusalka and explores a distinction between an immortal/natural world and that of human beings.  You probably have to be far more steeped in Russian culture to really get it, but there are surely things in this piece that we can relate to: a desire for the unattainable, an outsider at the mercy of others.  It’s a rather horrible story of a maiden who will die if she falls in love – and she makes all the men fall in love with her and causes havoc in the land.  She does fall in love and dies.

I thought John Fulljames’s production made a really good stab at the piece.  The humans work in a sewing factory creating clothes that are suitable for the season.  He aptly shows the chaos that the Snow Maiden causes when she arrives.  He deftly associates the arrival of spring with sex and, for the final chorus after Snow Maiden’s death, the factory starts producing children’s outfits.  It’s rather touching.

His direction of the characters is great: he gets clear, believable acting from his cast.  Giles Cadle’s set does well enough and there are some lovely projected effects.  Maybe there was a bit much clutter on the stage – cardboard boxes, ladders, sewing machines.  I would have liked bit less of this.  But the story was clearly and touchingly told.  There were some lovely, witty touches and I had the sense of someone engaging affectionately with this rather lovely piece. You actually empathised with the characters and their dilemmas.  Alistair Middleton’s clear, sensible translation helped a lot here.

I’d not remembered how glorious Rimsky’s music is, particularly as the piece goes on.  The sheer variety of the textures and rhythmic changes are gorgeous.  The orchestra, conducted by Leo McFall, was on very good form indeed – not quite Gergiev and the Marii.  The horns were rich, the percussion glittered and the woodwind was sinuous and warm.  It worked well with the production.

The cast was very young but really good.  I very much enjoyed Aiofe Miskelly’s clear, pure voice in the title role and she made a very sympathetic figure.  I wonder if there’s a coldness here that she hasn’t quite found (or wasn’t encouraged to find): this is a figure who is, at best, ambivalent. Elin Prichard contrasted nicely with her as Kupava, the human love interest and seized the lively, vigorous aspects of it.  The point where she’s jilted by Mizgir was funny and angry – just right.

As Lel, the boyish singer,Heather Lowe displayed a really lovely mezzo.  She’ll be a lovely Cherubino and, in time, Charlotte.  She sang strongly, intensely, fervently and acted confidently.  I hope that all three of these young singers come back.  They’re hugely promising.

Philip Rhodes as Mizgir has the least grateful role (and had to spend an awful lot of the time bound and gagged) and I’m not sure that his grainy baritone is completely suited to the role, but he sang intensely.  I rather look forward to hearing him as Anckarstrom next season.

Of the more experienced members, Yvonne Howard was a touching, clear Spring who did her Act IV aria very well, James Creswell was reliable as Winter and Bonaventura Bottone was rather fatuous, Prince Charles-ish Tsar.

The reviews have been a bit dim for this opera.  Maybe the show’s coalesced a bit as the run has gone on, but I thought this was a lovely, thoughtful, musically strong production of an opera that deserves to be seen more.

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