Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko conducted by Valery Gergiev

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Prokofiev
LABELS: Mariinsky
ALBUM TITLE: Prokofiev
WORKS: Semyon Kotko
PERFORMER: Viktor Lutsyuk, Tatiana Pavlovskaya, Gennady Bezzubenkov, Varvara Solovyova, Evgeny Nikitin; Mariinsky Chorus & Orchestra/Valery Gergiev; dir. Yuri Alexandrov (St Petersburg, 2014)
CATALOGUE NO: MAR 0592 (DVD & Blu-ray)

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This is the first opera Prokofiev wrote after his return to the Soviet Union, and it must be said it’s hardly his finest. The plot may not have inspired him; it’s the kind of crude melodrama with cardboard characters familiar from Stalin-era novels and films. In 1918 Ukraine, a heroic young revolutionary rescues his fiancée, abducted by fiendish Germans in league with devious Ukrainian nationalists, including her villainous kulak father, which gives it a certain contemporary resonance; indeed, during the Nazi-Soviet Pact all the villains were hastily rewritten as Ukrainian or Austrian.

It doesn’t seem to have caught Prokofiev’s imagination as Alexander Nevsky did; and his chosen producer, the celebrated Vsevolod Meyerhold, was arrested (eventually executed) while he was finishing the score. The music is characteristic enough, warmly melodic, sometimes folk-flavoured (officially required) with touches of pawky humour, but disappointingly short on the great sweeping melodies of Nevsky, War and Peace or the no less propagandist Story of a Real Man

Kotko has survived chiefly in Russia, at the Kirov-Mariinsky especially, where Gergiev made a 1999 CD recording. Its veteran stars, heroic tenor Vitkor Lutsyuk and craggy bass Gennady Bezzubenkov, also lead this 2014 version to good effect, and Tatiana Pavlovskaya makes a bright-voiced heroine, among a strong supporting cast. The staging, on a single set depicting a war-ravaged industrial landscape, is effective enough and well recorded, and as before, despite small cuts, it gains from Gergiev’s crisp direction. Nevertheless, newcomers may prefer to sample the Suite, well recorded by Neeme Järvi (Chandos) and Michail Jurowski (CPO).

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Michael Scott Rohan