If the texts of Mikhail Glinka's opera Ruslan and Ludmila sometimes seemed a bit obscured by the swift tempi taken by Music Director Valery Gergiev in the Kirov production at the Met, that's because theywere. The New York Times critic (who should have checked the score) was even led by his ears to believe the famous 5/4 chorus of Act I was in 5/8!
This is a huge opera, rarely done outside Russia, consisting mostly of set pieces and little drama, but held together formally in a convincing musical arc, so long as the concentration is maintained. "Dramatically," writes Glinka biographer David Brown, "Ruslan and Ludmila is a disaster." There is even a story that the czar's brother, Grand Duke Mikhail, suggested sending officers to see it in lieu of punishment in the guardhouse.
The premiere on November 27, 1842 was marred by the illness of the second soprano lead, who had to be replaced by her understudy-- exactly what happened at the performance seen here, as the indisposed Galina Gorchakova was replaced by the earnest, adequate Valentina Tsidipova in the role of Gorislava.
Bass-baritone Yevgeny Nikitin and soprano Olga Trifonova were fine in the title roles, as was tenor Constantin Pluzhnikov in the fatherly role of Finn. (In many ways the three roles dramaturgically echo those of Pamina, Tamino, and Sarastro in The Magic Flute ; except the Russian hero is a bass; the father figure a tenor.) The soprano's fioritura at the end neatly and clearly recalled in diminution the long-breathed theme of the baritone's aria which forms the lyric theme of the famous Overture. The breath-taking tempo of the latter set the pace for the whole work, especially the recapitulatory Finale, which was cleverly staged to effect three pairings: the two lovers of the title; trouser-role suitor Ratmir (mezzo Larissa Diadkova) with harem-maiden Gorislava; and comic suitor Farlaf (buffo bass Gennady Bezzubenkov) with the de-bearded (and thereby de-fanged) dwarf Chernomor (mime Mahamadali Tadzhiev).
Despite some titters at the Met titles near the end of Act III Scene 1, and a gigantic head on the opposite side of the stage from where the men's chorus supposed to be representing it emanated, this was a technically delightful production, with flying swordfights and somersaults, gorgeous fairy-tale sets of read and blue, and an effective though modest rather than erotic series of ballets. The latter, with its clatter of shoes over the quiet music, occasionally made one almost wonder if one were watching Zar und Zimmermann with Peter the Great in Holland rather than ancient Russia.
Ruslan is the second of Glinka's two operas, the first being A Life for the Czar, which in Soviet times became the czarless Ivan Sussanin--named for the peasant who led the Polish invaders astray to save the czar's life, and now saves a group of militiamen instead. The Bel Canto Opera Company produced the first staged version of it in English in New York in 1979--with the czar restored. One wonders what version post-Soviet Russia will now come up with....
Glinka's music, which was so influential on Tchaikovsky, Musorgski, and Stravinsky (Parasha's aria in his Mavra quotes and re-quotes a phrase from Ludmila's aria), merits more attention in the West. Tchaikovsky particularly valued his incidental music to Prince Kholmsky, and "Hebrew Song," on words by Pavel Vasilievch Kukolnik, which Glinka interrupted the composition of Ruslan to write: Jewish music, inspired by an affair with a young Jewish woman from Berlin, where he died in 1857 at the age of 53.
There were 9 singers onstage at the end of "A Rorem Retrospective" presented by "Joy in Singing" at the Kaye Playhouse, the latest celebration of the great art-song composer Ned Rorem's 75th birthday. Tenor Paul Sperry, Music Director of the organization, joined surprise celebrity page-turner soprano Marni Nixon, piano accompanist Colette Valentine, the professional vocal quartet, and two others from the audience, in singing Rorem's beloved 1958 setting of Robert Hillyer's "Early in the Morning," accompanied by the composer.
It was a fitting ending to the first event of its kind in the history of "Joy in Singing": an evening in a large public space devoted to the works of one composer, ranging from 1947 to 1989.
Soprano Karen Holvik sparkled in the 1966 setting of Kenneth Koch's "Let's Take A Walk" and especially the 1953 setting of Robert Browning's Song from "Pippa Passes," with its high D near the end. Tenor Carl Halvorson had the most gratifying group, mid-way through the first half, including two songs in French, settings from 1947 and 1957 of Paul Goodman's "The Lordly Hudson" and "Such Beauty as Hurts to Behold," the latter dedicated to Marc Blitzstein, and a jubilant Alleluia from 1946.
Baritone Andre Solomon-Glover opened the second half with the moving "War Scenes," next to the Langston Hughes-Elie Siegmeister "Face of War" perhaps the most powerful Vietnam Era cycle we have, based on writings of Walt Whitman from the American Civil War. Solomon-Glover's vocal delivery was internalized, sometimes almost too self-effacing, as if to convey the message of the last song: "The Real War Will Never Get Into The Books."
Mezzo-soprano Linn Maxwell Keller's contribution included,
among other songs, the 1963 "I Am Rose," which anticipates by a decade
David Diamond's similar setting of the same Gertrude Stein poem.
The entire quartet opened the program with Four Madrigals of 1947 based
on Sappho, sung a cappella, and closed it with unison singing of the
1989 setting of Whitman's "Full of Life Now." Colette Valentine's
accompaniments at the fully-opened grand piano never obscured any
of the well-set texts.
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