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|A CurtainUp Review
Ruslan and Lyudmila
By David Lipfert
The Kirov Opera's Ruslan and Lyudmila is a pure delight from start to finish. Based on Pushkin's poem of the same name, the story tells of the trials of bride-to-be Lyudmila who is variously abducted and bewitched. Finally through the aid of her fiancé Ruslan's bravery and the help of a good sorcerer, they can be happily married. Along the way are rivals who turn into friends, a very mobile bad witch and enchanting opera ballet and pageantry.
The sets and costumes, a co-production of the Kirov and San Francisco Opera, follow what is an undated but probably early twentieth-century staging given that the accompanying choreography is by Mikhail Fokine. Thiery Bosquet is responsible for this warm-blooded reconstruction that entirely suits the fantasy of the plot. People who have been fortunate to see this production both in San Francisco and here report that Ms. Bosquet has further elaborated its authenticity and enlivened it in the process.
All the sets are painted illusionistic drops, but from a rustic medieval hall opening scene to the walls of Baghdad to the enchanted garden where Lyudmila is kept prisoner, the effect is luxurious under Vladimir Lukasevich's carefully planned lighting. Mr. Lukasevich so skillfully enhances the illusion of depth that the effect is magical. Unlike the usual identical costumes for the chorus in modern productions, these exhibit the widest variety. In color and design, the dancers' outfits in the last act March and Dances seemed straight out of Persian miniatures. Superb makeup contributes to the overall success.
Freed of the shackles of late twentieth-century restraint as in the Prince Igor production, ( review), the singers use operatically broad gestures and move in a believable manner to match the mood of this work. Modern technology makes possible a strobe-lit battle between evil dwarf Chernomor and Ruslan (with doubles as stuntmen) while suspended above the stage and the flights in the sky by bad witch Nania (Irina Bogachova herself).
While Glinka's overture may be familiar, the remainder of Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842) has been virtually inaccessible until recent Kirov recordings. This is unfortunate, both because the score is so listenable and in Glinka's works lie the roots of most later Russian musical traditions. Mikhail Glinka was intimately familiar with contemporary developments in the West, and his music reflects influences of Mercadante and Von Weber. Donizetti's ballet music and Rossini's orchestration are readily seen; whole sections of Rossini's **La Donna del Lago form the basis for the contralto Ratmir's scene- here with ballet not chorus-and the opera's rondo finale. Unusual instruments include the piano and glockenspiel.
As Lyudmila, charming Anna Netrebko fulfills all the marvelous advance press reports. Hers is a coloratura soprano with Russian weight and ample volume. One would have to go back to the 1930s and 40s to find an Italian equivalent with such power and eloquence. Her Ruslan, Vladimir Vaneev, makes the best of a less than superb instrument. Lyudmila's two disappointed suitors Ratmir and Farlaf are sung respectively by an underpowered Zlata Bulychova (unfortunate because her character has some superb extended scenes) and an engaging Fedor Kuznetsov (effective in spite of applying his baritone to a low bass role). Valentina Tsidipova's constant movement distracted from strong if ragged vocal presence as Ruslan's admirer, Gorislava. Good sorcerer Finn's beautiful aria is well sung by Constantin Pluzhnikov. On the evil side, Mahamadali Tadzhiev is animated as Lyudmila's dwarf captor Chernomor, while Irina Bogachova stole the show with her mighty contralto and vivacious characterization whenever she was onstage.
Overall the Kirov chorus under Valery Borisov's direction was superb, especially during the breakneck finale. Conductor Alexander Titov's reading made the Glika score sparkle, but perhaps his tempi during the quieter moments were not up to the composer's intended pace.
The performance lasts about 4 hours and 15 minutes with two intermissions.
Links to other operas reviewed in this series:
Betrothal in a Monastery