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The Snow Maiden

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (music and libretto); Alasdair Middleton (translation)
Opera North
The Lyric Theatre at The Lowry

It’s Russia. Spring Beauty and Father Frost have had an ill-advised tumble, resulting in the birth of a daughter, the Snow Maiden (or, in this version, Snow Princess). Regrettably, Father Frost has hidden his daughter away and refuses to head north, thus leaving Russia in the grip of an inteminable winter. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, Spring Beauty and Father Frost agree to allow their daughter to be adopted by Bobyl Bakula and his wife (like you do).

Cut to a clothes factory (producing wedding dresses), where the Snow Princess now works away (relatively happily) at a sewing machine, listening adoringly (like all the other women) to the songs of village heartthrob, Lel (played as a cocky, charming Justin Bieber-alike by Heather Lowe).

The only girl at the factory who doesn’t seem swept away by Lel’s assets is Kupava, who is engaged to the rather wealthy Mizgir. Sadky for Kupava, when Mizgir arrives for the wedding, he is soon smitten by the sight of the shy and innocent Snow Princess. He immediately dumps Kupava, cruelly telling her that he knew from her ‘smouldering eyes’ that she puts it about a bit. Enraged as well as heartbroken, Kupava kidnaps Mizgir and drives him across country to seek justice from Tsar Berendey.

The Tsar (played as the cuddly father of all Russia by Bonaventura Bottone) initially responds to Kupava’s tale of woe by electing to banish Mizgir to the forest. However, at that moment, the beautiful Snow Princess arrives. Finally having a sense of what all the fuss is about, the Tsar asks the Snow Princess who she loves. On hearing that she loves no one, the kindly Tsar sets up a competition—a challenge to find the man who can win this young girl’s heart. The villagers nominate the irresitible Lel, while Mizgir puts himself forward. Game on.

Obviously not a man determined to win at all costs, given the opportunity to choose a ‘maiden’, Lel passes over the Snow Princess and kisses Kupava. For a girl incapable of love, it has to be said, the poor Princess seems quite downcast about this. After rejecting Mizgir once again (in an episode where he briefly threatens to rape her, but then backs off), the Snow Princess, observing the happiness of Lel and Kupava, decides that she absolutely has to try this love thing for herself.

She invokes her mother, a now elderly and infirm Spring Beauty, and asks to be allowed to feel love. Her mother grants this wish and leaves with a parting warning to her child to avoid the sunlight. Clearly sunlight and Snow Princesses are not meant to mix.

As the Snow Princess is about to head to safety in the forest, Mizgir arrives. The Snow Princess now realises she loves him and before long the couple are happily proclaiming their love to the villagers and the Tsar himself.

Sadly, the sun chooses this moment to arrive and spoil everything. The Snow Princess melts in Mizgir’s arms. The bereft lover decides to “join” her (in this production, choosing stabbing rather than the traditional drowning as his means of self-termination).

As the curtain comes down, the villagers mournfully pronounce that, "this is love."

Happily, the fatherly Tsar is on hand to point out that, on the bright side, the melting of the Snow Princess’s heart has brought an end to fifteen solid years of winter. Cue a rousing tribute to Yarilo, the sun god, belted out by ON’s consistently admirable chorus. Back in the factory, this return of fecundity is signalled by pregnant seamstresses and a production-line bedecked with little girls’ dresses. (Giles Cadle’s set here working in tandem with Christina Cunningham’s costume design to witty effect.)

Will Duke’s video design offers front projection on gauze (featuring some lovely evocations of frost and other aspects of the natural world), and back projection (including a fun, cartoonish depiction of Kupava’s cross-country drive). These add visual delight to the production.

Director John Fulljames does his best to liven a rather lengthy first two acts. Lel (played with “boyish” brashness by Heather Lowe) brings many a smile, as does Kupava’s (Elin Pritchard) binding and boxing of the errant Mizgir (Phillip Rhodes).

Happily, post-interval, acts three and four fly along and Aoife Miskelly’s Snow Maiden (or Snow Princess—please yourselves) delivers the emotional awakening of her character most persuasively. Miskelly’s singing is also the pick of a very solid cast (just surpassing Rhodes and Lowe).

There are more children in tonight’s audience than I recall seeing at an Opera North production. No doubt their parents made the same mistake I did—equating "fairy tale" with "children’s show". Be aware: this is a fairy tale very much aimed at the grown-ups.

All credit to Opera North for having the courage to strike out, away from the safe and familiar repertoire. I foresee more Spring Beauty than Frosty Father for this company.

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson