Rimsky-Korsakov: The Noblewoman Vera Sheloga

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COMPOSERS: Rimsky-Korsakov
LABELS: Capriccio
WORKS: The Noblewoman Vera Sheloga
PERFORMER: Stevka Evstatieva, Alexandrina Milcheva, Stevka Mineva, Peter Bakardzhiev, Dimiter StanchevBulgarian RSO/Stoyan Angelov
CATALOGUE NO: 10 762
The received view of Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas is that they are essentially for Russian consumption only, placed beyond the scope of a wider audience by complex questions of language, legend and arcane tradition. However, these four new recordings underline the fact that, on a musical level and in terms of dramatic impact, Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas reach beyond national boundaries, whether performed in Russian (as here) or not. On a purely geographical point, there is no reason why we should need a detailed knowledge of north-western Russia simply because the maid happens to come from Pskov, any more than we need a gazetteer of Spain to prepare for Il barbiere di Siviglia or, indeed, one of Merseyside for Emilia di Liverpool. The themes on which Rimsky-Korsakov touches in his stage works – love, loyalty, remorse, death and so on – are scarcely peculiar to Russia, but his art was to place them musically in an unmistakably Russian context and to create in his operas a rich tapestry of national colouring.

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That he devised diverse ways of doing so is demonstrated in these four scores spanning, as chance would have it, almost the whole of his creative life. The Maid of Pskov, Rimsky’s remarkable and dramatically astute first opera, has points of contact with Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. This is no mere accident, for both composers, sharing common creative ideals, were writing their operas at the same time, in the same flat and at the same desk. Both operas have a vivid backdrop of Russian history; each centres on a Russian Tsar, Boris in the Mussorgsky, Ivan the Terrible in the Rimsky. Neither Boris Godunov nor Ivan the Terrible had an exactly unblemished record in human rights, but both operas incorporate revelatory passages of soul-searching, which hint at a more humane side to their characters and at the same time establish in the operas’ developing plots a crucial moment of reflection.

In The Maid of Pskov, Ivan, although his first appearance in Act II triggers understandable apprehension, is dissuaded from ravaging rebellious Pskov when he realises that Princess Olga (the maid of the title and ward of the ruling Prince Yuri Tokmakov) is his own daughter from an earlier dalliance with one Vera Sheloga. At this juncture, The Noblewoman Vera Sheloga comes into play. Ever the self-critic, Rimsky-Korsakov made no fewer than three versions of The Maid of Pskov. The second one is preceded by a prologue, explaining how Olga came to be born. In the definitive, third edition (recorded here) Rimsky lets the information slip in gossip and overheard conversation: this is a much more subtle manoeuvre, posing, from the point of view of comprehension, no more problems than we have, say, in Il trovatore. The explanatory prologue was shorn off and made into the separate one-acter The Noblewoman Vera Sheloga.

Rimsky-Korsakov, like Mussorgsky in Boris Godunov, aimed to reflect in the music of The Maid of Pskov the natural contours and inflections of speech, its varieties of pace and, in a notable example in Act I, the cross-cutting and confusion of argument. In The Noblewoman Vera Sheloga, declamation is allied to a tender lyrical warmth. The ‘realism’ of the writing is both daring and powerful, but it was a trait that Rimsky was soon to temper with a more open, more obviously tuneful idiom, nourished, in May Night, by his recent study of harmony and by an orchestral brilliance gleaned from Glinka’s scores. May Night represents a fusion of Italianate lyricism, as interpreted by Glinka, with Russian colour in the form of folk music (round dances, a gopak, a Whitsuntide song and so on), such legendary emblems as benevolent water-nymphs and such earthy village characters as the Charcoal-burner and, most important, the Distiller.

All these recordings have the benefit of being performed, persuasively and with real dramatic purpose, by artists for whom this music is their very life-blood. The presentation, however, is variable. Best of all is The Maid of Pskov, which comes with notes, and a libretto in Russian, English, German and French. The Noblewoman Vera Sheloga and May Night have brief notes and only a slender synopsis (in German and English). The libretto accompanying The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh looks helpful until you try to follow it. The opera is performed with cuts; the printed libretto, however, leaves the unsung portions in, with no indication that sometimes as many as twenty pages of full score are omitted. Russian-speakers are no better equipped to cope with this than anybody else, for the libretto comes only in German, English and French.

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This is a pity, for The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, Rimsky-Korsakov’s penultimate opera, needs to be followed carefully if its visionary implications and its underlying theme of the power of love and virtue are to be appreciated in full. The synthesis of Christian, pagan and folk elements, coupled with Rimsky’s sophisticated orchestral palette and his intensity of dramatic organisation, support his own opinion that here his operatic music had achieved its highest peak.