PARIS: Snegurochka
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Opéra National de Paris

In Review Paris Snegurochka hdl 717
Dmitri Tcherniakov’s staging of Snegurochka at Paris Opera
© Elisa Haberer/Opéra National de Paris

PERHAPS THE MOST COMPLETE expression of Rimsky-Korsakov’s abiding passion for the Russian countryside was Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden), first heard at the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg in 1882. This pantheistic work is much admired by director Dmitri Tcherniakov, whose new production of Snegurochka was presented at the Bastille, conducted by Mikhail Tatarnikov (seen April 30).

Tcherniakov did not provide a picturesque fresco of mythical figures but looked instead for the allegorical truth of the work. The opening felt somewhat clumsy, with Spring Beauty and her husband, Father Frost—a sonorous performance from bass Vladimir Ognovenko—meeting in a school classroom to discuss the future of their daughter, the Snow Maiden. Prettily costumed pupils represented the natural world, and if Elena Manistina’s pungent mezzo outpouring was more autumnal than spring-like, she made amends with her compassionate appearance in the second half of the opera. 

The Snow Maiden is allowed to join the human world of the Berendeyans, who seem a happy band of New Age travelers, living in a mobile-home park in the middle of a luxuriant forest, where the fascinating Lel has engaged the Snow Maiden’s interest with his bucolic songs. The producer chose not to cast a mezzo as the musical Lel, opting for an androgynous countertenor, Yuriy Mynenko, whose long blond locks and slightly effeminate manner made him a favorite of the encampment girls. This provided an intriguing erotic ambivalence with the Snow Maiden, who is unable to feel or express physical passion. Aida Garifullina gave a remarkable performance as the Snow Maiden, combining vulnerable physical beauty with a perfectly controlled silvery soprano of total technical security.

Contrasted to the oddly matched Lel and the Snow Maiden is a newly betrothed couple, Kupava and Mizgir. Mizgir was under-projected by bass-baritone Thomas Johannes Mayer, but soprano Martina Serafin gave an exceptional performance of Kupava under Tcherniakov’s direction: her Kupava was a gushing, mature woman, overjoyed at finding her man and outraged at having her passion thwarted when Mizgir turns his attentions to the precious beauty of the Snow Maiden. The switch in Mizgir’s affection is not an easy moment to stage, as the character’s decision is immediate and unquestioning, with very little music to explain his reasons for abandoning poor Kupava. 

Act III opens with a scene of naturalistic charm: Tsar Berendey, a doddery figure, is confused by the domestic dispute laid before him but moved to compassion on seeing the Snow Maiden. Tenor Maxim Paster was vocally limited but moving in his pronouncements, setting a marital challenge to any man whose love the Snow Maiden embraces. To her overwhelming disappointment, Lel chooses the humiliated good-time girl Kupava, and the Snow Maiden is left to repulse the advances of Mizgir.

The final act is the most successful of the opera, which seemed slow-moving, despite Tatarnikov’s stylish conducting. Until this finale, Tcherniakov had rejected the supernatural, but at the last moment he provided a fairy-tale ending, in which the forest began to rotate and magically engulf mankind in the natural order. After Spring Beauty gives the Snow Maiden the power to love, she immediately professes her passion for Mizgir, but at this moment a ray of sun brings about her melting demise, and Mizgir commits suicide. The denouement was complicated by Tcherniakov, who had the Snow Maiden turn to Lel to express her final love. The over-the-top outrage from the frustrated Mizgir was not entirely convincing, as the chorus, who were well used dramatically, rang out in lusty praise of the eternal triumph of spring and light over winter’s darkness.  —Stephen J. Mudge 

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