Golden Crown

Borys Lyatoshynsky, libretto by Yakiv Mamontiv

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Boris Layatoshynsky

Boris Layatoshynsky (1895–1968) was a key figure in modern Ukrainian music. The Golden Crown, written in 1929, premièred in three Ukrainian cities in 1930. It was banned by the Russians in 1936 because it did not conform to the authorities’ ideas of what music should sound like and was not revived until after his death in 1970.

The opera has not been seen outside of Ukraine. This patriotic and worthy recording, initiated and directed by Ella Marchment to raise money for Ukraine and its artists, was released online on 25 October 2022 to mark World Opera Day. The production is a joint collaboration between seven cities: Helsinki, Warsaw, San Francisco, Lviv, London, Rome and Washington DC.

Each city performs an extract from the opera, an epic story of love and betrayal in 13th century war-torn Ukraine when Ukrainians were fighting to the last man and gladly dying for the Homeland. (Plus ça change.) The hero is Maxim Berkut, a peasant, who wants to marry Myroslava, the daughter of Tugar Vovk, a boyar, who is not keen on the idea.

Scene 1. Three singers from Finnish National Opera stand awkwardly behind their musical stands and sing, uncertain what to do and looking as if they expected to be shot at any minute.

Scene 2. Polish National Opera is much more rewarding to watch. The scene is properly directed and lit, filmed and edited. Adrian Domarecki (a very boyish, bare-footed Maxim) Justyna Khil (Myroslava) and Adrian Janus (Vovk) sing and act.

Scene 3. San Francisco Opera. Stefan Egerstrom as Maxim’s father sings standing by the piano. He delivers a concert performance account of an old legend which tells of a lake flooding and a giant being turned into a stone by an evil god.

Scene 4. Lviv National Opera. Taras Berezhanskyi as Maxim’s father prays to God for victory and liberty. He is backed by the Ukrainian male chorus who, disappointingly, hardly do any singing but their sheer static presence in large numbers makes a formidable, defiant political statement in itself.

Scene 5. Royal College of Music, London. Maxim, captured and in prison in chains, wants to be rescued so he can fight for his country. Michael Gibson (Maxim) and James Woollard (Vovk) make an attempt to be dramatic. They wear battle fatigues and Gibson has dirtied his face.

Scene 6. Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. The scene is filmed in a room and two of the singers carry their script as if they are still in the rehearsal stage. There is no attempt at drama. Maxim, wounded in battle, dies standing up and then walks out of the frame. Maxim’s father (Arturo Espinosa) has the production’s final propaganda message: “Children, do not cry over him! What a happy fate to lay down your life in the battle of the Homeland.”

The singers are accompanied only by a pianist. The performance, sung in Ukrainian with English subtitles and lasting just under 50 minutes, is narrated in English by Ukrainian artists at Shenandoah University, which is near Washington DC. The narration should have been simplified much more to make it more instantly accessible.

The Golden Crown can be viewed free online on the OperaVision channel. Viewers are invited to donate to a fund to support Ukrainian opera careers.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch

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