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Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Rimsky-Korsakoff and His World

WHY DID MARFA SOBAKINA SICKEN AND DIE immediately after her wedding to Ivan the Terrible?  Scholars speculate that it was the result of a fertility potion gone awry, which sparked the 19th-century Russian dramatist Lev Mey to concoct a version where in a jealous rival substitutes poison for the love potion her beloved intends to slip the woman. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff had already set some of Mey’s other plays, so it was a natural progression to turn “The Tsar’s Bride” into an opera.

Andrey Valentiy, Efim Zavalny, Gerard Schneider,
and Lyubov Petrova. Photo courtesy Bard Summerscape
What was different was Rimsky-Korsakoff’s break from a style he and his fellow-composers had evolved that turned from the traditional compote of arias and ensembles into a more integrated presentation. With “The Tsar’s Bride,” the composer embraced everything he’d cast aside, probably because he was lovesick for the soprano who would sing the title role.

Soprano Lyubov Petrova sang the title role in the semi-staged production that climaxed the Bard Summerscape festival “Rimsky-Korsakoff and His World,” and I suspect that she, too, would have captivated the composer. Marfa is a character of exquisite goodness, two-dimensionally so, leaving it up to the singer to inform her with anything more interesting. This Petrova did with gusto, informing Marfa with appealing eagerness as she anticipates her marriage to Ivan Lykov (the excellent tenor Gerard Schneider) and texturing her descent into madness at the end with great vulnerability. And we got Petrova fresh from acclaimed appearances at the Met!

Of course, it’s the bad ones who tend to steal the show, and chief among them in this piece is Lyubasha, mistress of the also-pretty-rotten Grigori Gryaznoy. Sung by mezzo Nadezhda Babintseva and baritone Efim Zavalny, they handled the passionate, quarrelsome material the composer provides with brilliant commitment – approaching the top-end of plausibility, but never quite going over it. And they were matched by tenor Joel Sorensen’s nasty physician Bomelius, the nerd who probably was picked on in class but is devious enough to win revenge.

The production was directed and designed by Doug Fitch, placed on the Sosnoff Theater’s stage with a bunch of benches across the playing area and minimal props (like short pieces of 4-by-4 as drinking mugs). Legs and an upstage curtain were used to define locations and receive projections, which also played against the back wall, and which remained abstract enough to suggest time and place without becoming distracting. The cast was in modern dress, by Moe Schell, which also was neutral enough to play quite well.

The Orchestra NOW, which is Bard’s house band, was placed in an improvised pit, and conducted by music director (and festival director) Leon Botstein, whose affinity for Russian music was made quite clear by the terrific job by all concerned. “The Tsar’s Bride” is a long, slow-moving piece (at least to contemporary ears), but this production gave it the needed power – and talent – to keep it gripping throughout.

Bard’s annual summer festival includes two weeks of intense examination of a particular composer, including panel discussions, vocal and instrumental concerts, and even films where appropriate. Choral director James Bagwell welcomed the audience to his morning concert by terming us the very special “Ten o’clock club,” noting the horribly early hour at which we convened – but the house was filled because of the promise of superior-quality goods, a promise easily fulfilled by the program of Russian choral music, annotated by Bagwell’s incisive commentary. His a cappella ensemble easily produced the low bass sound characteristic of this music, in a program going back to early 19th-century composer Dimitri Bortniansky, himself a link to traditions of the century before, but concentrated on Rimsky-Korsakoff and his contemporaries, who were working at a time before liturgical music was banned in Russia. As Bagwell explained, the works were chordal, with static harmonies intended to highlight the texts, although as we headed into the later works by Rachmaninoff and Maximilian Steinberg, melodies grew more melismatic and the harmonies took on movement. And it was those later works, particularly the excerpts from Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers,” that were the most gorgeously compelling.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff (1898), by Valentin Serov
This series has a tradition of presenting chamber works in the afternoon, and the program titled “The Spectacular Legacy of Rimsky-Korsakoff” lived up to its title with an impressive variety of pieces performed by a similar variety of accomplished artists, issuing from the wings like ballplayers summoned from the dugout. Sophie A. Lewis’s booklet notes rationalized the oddball programming: Respighi took a few composition lessons with Rimsky-Korsakoff, hence the Berceuse and Humoresque from his Five Pieces for violin and piano (played with unsurprising excellence by Min-Young Kim and Brian Zeger); Debussy’s connection was even more tangential, speculating on the works he heard while serving as accompanist to Nadezhda von Meck, patron of Tchaikovsky. But it meant that we got to hear Debussy’s piano-four-hands “Symphony in B Minor,” a rarely played delight that fell nicely under the nimble fingers of Fei-Fei and Piers Lane.

Among the other highlights was music by Stravinsky, whom Rimsky-Korsakoff taught for many years, and whose “Firebird” certainly extended some of the older composer’s nationalist aims, even if it did so unconventionally. Andrey Gugnin ripped loose a trio of movements from Guido Agosti’s virtuoso piano transcription of the work with hands that blurred frequently from the required speed. Another student, Mikhail Gnesin, wrote a Requiem for piano quintet based on an mournful five-note motif expertly woven throughout a work in the Tchaikovsky-Arensky school, and played by pianist Zeger with violinists Min-Young Kim and Karen Kim, violist Jessica Thompson, and cellist Thomas Kraines. And the concert finished with the splendid Cello Sonata No. 2 by Nikolai Myaskovsky, a lifelong friend of Prokofiev whose own struggles with Russian cultural control may have contributed to his comparative neglect. The three-movement sonata is filled with melodic inventiveness, capped with a wicked moto perpetuo finale, a triumph for cellist Nicholas Canellakis and pianist Lane.

It’s always a treat to hear Bard professor Richard Wilson introduce a concert; he did so for the chamber-music program with dry wit and easygoing scholarship, describing the variety of scale systems we’d be hearing in the works, including octatonic and whole-tone scales, illustrated with musical examples.

And then it was a quick trip to the Fisher Center’s Sosnoff Theater for Marina Frolova-Walker’s pre-concert visit to “The Tsar’s Bride.” Frolova-Walker was scholar-in-residence at this year’s festival and edited the festival’s book of essays, a book that leads off with selections from the correspondence between Rimsky-Korsakoff and soprano Nadezhda Zabela, annotated by Frolova-Walker and a delightful look into the thoughts of a composer who otherwise remained enigmatic.

But if a composer’s personality can be explored through the works he created – and those created by those he influenced – the festival did its usual excellent job of revealing him. The festival explored the life and music of Prokofiev a decade ago, with an attendant look at post-Revolution Russia; with Rimsky-Korsakoff at its center, we gained at valuable look at the traditions (and turmoil) that would lead to the rebellion, helping complete the picture. It’s amazing how many years’ worth of insight can be packed into a single day.

Rimsky-Korsakoff and His World

Bard Summerscape
Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY
Olin Hall, Sosnoff Theater
August 19, 2018

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