The Snow Maiden
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov after Alexander Ostrovsky
Opera National de Paris
Welcome to the rites of spring. But this being Rimsky, not Stravinsky, it’s a gentler affair, all embroidered costumes, celebrations of the seasons and frolics in the forest.
But yes, the girl dies. Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden, daughter of Winter Frost and Spring Beauty, seeks love, but finding it, melts away in the rays of summer, while the simple peasantry joyfully embrace the season’s deliverance.
Director and set designer Dmitri Tcherniakov delivers a feast for the eyes in this lavish production that preserves the mythical sense of the opera while setting most of the action in a modern campsite of worshippers of Nature, including a few in the state the latter intended. Mercifully, the only living things that these naked revellers hug are the occasional trees.
After an awkward, disjunctive opening in a school hall, visited by a very suburban-looking woodsprite and children dressed as birds, the set dissolves wonderfully into a sylvan glade of chalets, where the Snow Maiden’s new adoptive parents, Bobyl and Bobylikha (the amiable Vasily Gorshkov and Carole Wilson), inhabit an economy-model caravan.
Another visual highlight comes in the final act, as the trees of the forest move in multiple revolves, creating a magical, dream-like effect that matches the Wagnerian soundscape. Then an avenue opens to an astonishing depth, for these New Age travellers, looking like garlanded Russian pre-Raphaelites, to enjoy their festivities.
The challenge, as in so many operas about a tragic ingenue, is to find a soprano both young and mature enough to be convincing from first to finale. In that regard, the waif-like Aida Garifullina is perfectly cast in the title role. Her voice has a glittering sparkle in her early appearances, gentle songs of maidenly charm such as the unusual, zig-zagging arietta "It hurts me so", but also carries a high octane reserve for the later dramatic scenes.
She is a decent actress too, carrying through the nervous reticence of the child in the Prologue to the last act, where she feels compelled to utter words of love to the hateful Mizguir, while her body language tells another story.
It is in the personality of Yuriy Mynenko’s Lel, the long-haired God of Love, who is the real subject of her infatuation, that Tcherniakov really stamps his mark on the opera. Singing three simple numbers, based on folk songs and over light instrumentation, the counter-tenor sounds ethereal and unnerving.
The director keeps him aloof, a preening figure indifferent to the consequences of his own spells. Contrary to the original libretto, for example, it is not Lel who intervenes to save Kupava from suicide, but a scream from her rival, the Snow Maiden. And in a poignant climax to the opera, Lel leads the rejoicing for the coming of summer while the Snow Maiden lies dead in front of him.
Kupava, abandoned by the wealthy Mizguir, toyed with by Lel, is powerfully played by Martina Serafin, her rich, forceful soprano contrasting with the lighter sound of Garifullina. Mezzo Elena Manistina sings with appropriate warmth as Spring Beauty, and Maxim Paster is a rather endearing portrait-painting Tsar, a grumpy troll transformed to merry monarch by a ray of sunshine.
Baritone Thomas Johannes Mayer sang impeccably as Mizguir, without quite reaching the depths of callousness required. Bass Vladimir Ognovenko’s Father Frost was sometimes submerged by the orchestra, as occasionally was the very Russian-sounding chorus, a consequence perhaps of the otherwise excellent staging.
As in most of Rimsky’s operas, the story rather lacks tension, with long passages, although glorious in themselves, which add little to the action, whereas the most intense moments in the plot, such as the Snow Maiden’s last meeting with Mizguir, seem the least inspired parts of the score.
Elsewhere, however, the music by this master of orchestration gives a large measure of compensation, abounding here in solos especially for woodwinds that are remarkably evocative of birdsong and the changing seasons. And from Tcherniakov, it receives the sympathetic and imaginative staging it deserves.
Reviewer: Colin Davison