Having seen most of the productions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya that have followed since Valery Gergiev reintroduced this mystical masterpiece to a very wintry St Petersburg in February 1994, I have little doubt that Dmitry Tcherniakov’s new staging for the netherlands opera counts as the most fascinating. Not always as easy to understand as Harry Kupfer’s spectacular White-Russians-vs-Bolsheviks show at Bregenz in 1995, Tcherniakov’s vision of the piece is both alarmingly contemporary and utterly timeless, tapping deeply into the strange legend that inspired Rimsky in his penultimate opera to write what is not unfairly called the ‘Russian Parsifal’.
Tcherniakov, who has declared Kitezh to be his favourite opera, has lived with the work for some time. Indeed, he made his mainstream operatic debut directing it for the Maryinsky in 2001 (his only previous opera had been the premiere of Vladimir Kobekin’s Young David in Novosibirsk in 1998), when Gergiev hired him after the Maryinsky’s two previous productions had been quickly abandoned. A far cry from the flimsy wedding-cake decor seen in 1994, or even the picture-book 1995 version that toured to Edinburgh, Tcherniakov’s 2001 edition contained many of the elements that proved so striking again in Amsterdam—beginning in the first scene by introducing the strange Birds of Paradise who turn up in the final scene, but portraying them as two wizened Russian peasants, as if out of a symbolist painting, hanging around Fevroniya’s wooden shack. Though Tcherniakov’s ending feels more ambiguous than Rimsky’s, the strands finally come together as Fevroniya—a forest-dweller who has lived in harmony with nature and suffered the loss of her dashing Prince Vsevolod, killed by marauding Tatars before he could marry her—attains everlasting life joyfully surrounded by other departed souls, including those who had been close to her.
Tcherniakov’s spectacular production in his own sets—a different one for each of the four acts—and costumes, the latter designs shared with Elena Zaytseva, opens in what resembles the landscape of a post-nuclear apocalypse. In a naturalistic setting dominated by bare pine trunks, where water is steaming up through burnt reeds and even the grasses move in the breeze, Fevroniya wanders around in a daze. Svetlana Ignatovich’s soprano rode the orchestra here with ease, singing with an appealing Slavonic glint (but never edge) and warmth; even if the colours in her voice get paler near the top, at least this very moving singing-actress has the top notes required. The scene also introduced Maxim Aksenov’s keen tenor as Vsevolod (dressed in jeans and a duffel coat) and the baritone Alexey Markov as a strong Poyarok, Vsevolod’s huntsman.
Act 2 (Little Kitezh) is no less striking, but utterly different: a café—cue lots of chairs and tables, always a Tcherniakov trademark—in the grey concrete atrium of a city office block. Contemporary Russians carousing here were entertained by Gennady Bezzubenkov’s Bard (no longer a gusli-player but a guitarist) and interrupted by the dangerously demented Grishka of John Daszak, who performed virtuoso bar tricks and raised drunkenness to new levels of tenorial brilliance. When the Tatars arrived, they rather puzzlingly included a posse of Father Christmases, yet there was no mistaking the violence that ensued, which seemed to suggest shades of the Beslan tragedy. Indeed, Act 3’s Great Kitezh became a grim, makeshift hospital housed in a provincial theatre, and Prince Yury (Vladimir Vaneev, solid, but not the formidable bass ideally required) was portrayed as a modern Central Asian warlord. The mezzo Mayram Sokolova was effective here as the youth who warns Kitezh of the approaching Tatars. Tcherniakov’s production (which is to be shared with the Bastille, Liceu and La Scala) stopped short of showing us Kitezh’s fairy-tale disappearance, but these events are described by the chorus, which was especially excellent in Act 3’s unaccompanied prayer. Gleb Filshtinsky’s lighting turned icy blue for Act 4’s apotheosis, which brought us back to the surroundings of Fevroniya’s hut.
Marc Albrecht, the Netherlands Opera’s new music director, did a magnificent job at the final performance on March 1, stamping his mark on the long score and drawing warm playing from the very start, where melting wind solos spun their lines over a cushion of strings—forest murmurs that suggest Siegfried perhaps more than Parsifal. The orchestral playing was consistently brilliant, not least in the battle interlude. And in the final scene, where the grandiose diatonic chords that accompany Fevroniya’s spiritual transformation do call to mind Parsifal’s ‘Dresden Amen’, Rimsky’s score attains a fascinating mix of Wagnerian and Slavonic elements to be found nowhere else.