RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: May Night
Infatuated by American soprano Sybil Sanderson, Massenet wrote two operas for her, Esclarmonde in 1889, and Thaïs in 1894. He called the latter a "lyric comedy" which it hardly is—there's nothing amusing about the story of a courtesan who gives up her wild life for redemption in a convent, and a priest who saves her from her lurid past and then realizes he is desperately in love with her. The redeemed Thaïs dies in the arms of the despairing Athanel. At the Paris premiere, Anderson, either on purpose or by accident, exposed more of her body than was intended, thus creating a sensation. Since that time, some other sopranos have followed the exposure routine. Barbara Frittoli almost joins the group; however her bosom defies the laws of gravity and she doesn't quite make it. Thaïs has attracted many leading sopranos. Geraldine Farrar sang the premiere at the Met, followed by Maria Jeritza, Beverly Sills and, more recently, Renée Fleming. This new Turin production by Stefano Poda provides more nudity than most would wish to see. The chorus and dancers, on stage much of time, wear only G-strings, and Poda's direction keeps them in almost constant meaningless motion. In this production, Thaïs wears a pin-wheel costume at the beginning of the opera, wisely only for the opening scene; after that, her costume is less flamboyant. None of this would matter very much if Frittoli sang well, but she is miscast and sometimes off-pitch. The two principal men are better vocally, but if you don't have a sympathetic heroine, there's little point in presenting this opera. This ill-fated production has been captured in ultra-clear HD video, and well recorded. The Blu-Ray version offers HD Masteraudio 7.1, reasonably effective although hardly the sonic blockbuster of the Valencia Ring recently mentioned on this site. Massenet's opera today remains best-known for the exquisite Meditation from Act II, which is not played very played here. Skip this one,
May Night was Rimsky-Korsakov's second completed opera, a story of rural life based on a folk tale by Nikolai Gogol. In this comic opera two young lovers and the villagers must deal with some drowned spectral maidens who haunt the area. There are many colorful comic characters, the mayor, his sister-in-law, a distiller and the town drunk. An amateur look pervades this Moscow Academic Music Theatre production, with minimal sets. During the overture (best-known part of the opera) we see a video black and white film montage of varied rustic farm scenes, harvesting, barnyard animals and happy workers doing their thing. Singers are more enthusiastic than assured vocally, but everyone seems to be having a great time. Considering this is a live performance from March 9, 2008, it is remarkable that video and audio quality disappoint. Audio is mono, and video is not clear. However, this is the only available video of a seldom seen opera by Rimsky-Korsakov, so it is important.
Iolanta, Tchaikovsky's tenth and last opera, is based on the Danish play King René's Daughter, with a libretto by Modest, the composer's brother. It's a relatively short opera (92 minutes in this performance), and when it received its premiere in December 1892 in St. Petersburg it was coupled with The Nutcracker. King René's beautiful daughter is blind and has been shielded from this fact all her life. A visiting Count falls in love with her and describes to her the delights of visual beauty. A Moorish physician summoned to cure the girl states that in order for her to see she must want to see. Her love for the Count is so great she agrees to the treatment (a brief procedure which takes place off-stage). After her miraculous recovery, Iolanta has a joyous ending in which everyone praises light and beauty. As he composed this opera, Tchaikovsky was concerned he had lost his creative inspiration, but he surely was wrong. Iolanta contains some of the composer's most radiant music, and all major figures have substantial arias. VAI's video is a live performance from 1982, a splendid presentation by the Bolshoi Opera. The entire cast is first-rate, particularly Galina Kalinina in the title role. The mono sound is adequate as is video quality, which is often fuzzy—but when it is clear, it is very clear. However the quality is good enough for us to be able to enjoy this beautiful but neglected Tchaikovsky masterpiece. Unfortunately, both of these VAI issues are full-price issues and inadequately documented, providing only production and track listings, but no timings, synopsis or other information.
R.E.B. (February 2010)