The relationship of Rimsky-Korsakov and Dmitri Tcherniakov is a fine one. Tcherniakov is never less than controversial, but always stimulating and everything comes from a deep knowledge of the musical score: his rethinking of The Tale of Tsar Saltan with the Uzbek Wunderkind Aziz Shokhakimov at Strasbourg last year was a case in point (my review of that appeared in Opera Now, November 2023).
Both productions mix the modern day with pre-historical legend, the Tsar via modern tech, Snow Maiden via a travellers' community where the participants indulge in folk dress (and yet there is a modern caravan there). Here, with Snow Maiden, the contemporary of the long Prologue cedes to the legend of the major acts. And yet costumes intermingle, In the Prologue, Father Frost and Spring Beaut are parents of the teenage Snow Maiden, our heroine. In the Prologue, Spring Beauty is a schoolmistress. A claustrophobic, austere classroom is the setting for Grandfather Frost's announcement therefore that he will go to the North. It acts as superb contrast to the pastel colours and fairy-tale (hippie?) costumes (courtesy of Elena Zaytseva) of the commune. The transformations o scenes,, an opening out - literally - into Rimsky's pantheistic, pagan space, is beautifully effective.
There are tweaks: the God of Love is a counter-tenor, and as in Saltan, there are darker elements imported. There, it was mental illness; here, it is abuse. It works, as so often with Tcherniakov, magnificently. It certainly worked for Sadko, (whose cast also included the magnificent soprano Aida Garifullina; see Classical Explorer's post), not to mention his dark Bayreuth Wagner Tannhäuser (again, see our post). In each he creates a world congruent with the original and yet one which poses questions. Here, prime among them appears to be our relationship with myth, as this treatment makes it all suddenly relevant.
Garifullina is superb here, her voice clean, clear and expressive. She herself is the very embodiment of youth, of the promise of Spring. Here's the trailer for the production:
Rimsky's Snow Maiden is based on a tale by Alexander Nikoleyevich Ostrovsky, and was premiered in St Petersburg in February, 1882. It was the Empress Catherine teh Great who had expressed a penchant for fairytale opera. As a child of the wintry Grandfather Frost and the Goddess of Spring, the Snow Maiden is caught between an inability to love and a want to love. Rimsky wrote about his embracing of pantheism in this opera. At one point, the Snow Maiden begs Spring Beauty to be able to love is heart-wrenching.
Only in the fourth act does the Snow Maiden achieve outward expressions of love for Mizgir. The camp leader is seen here as a cult leader (Tsar Berendey), sometimes benevolent, sometimes menacing, and more multilayered than Ostrovsky's previous community (village) leaders in his works. Rimsky had been working on a folk music collection, and the influence of that can certainly be heard (May Night, of 1879, continues this idea); it was perfect, them, that Ostrovsky headworker several folksongs into the fabric of his play. Interstingly, as his own librettist, Rimsky acted more as editor than reviser of Ostrovsky, keeping the passages he used pretty much intact.
Rimsky surprises by casting the leader/Tsar as a tenor, not as a dignified, wise Russian bass: and here, Maxim Paster is superb. Again, contra-expectations from a Western perspective, the male lover is here a baritone (Johannes Meyer as Mizgir).
Conductor Mikhail Taternikov realises the colourful nature of Rinsky's score to perfection, the Paris Opéra orchestra's concentration not dropping one iota throughout the 194-minute span.
Here's the complete opera on a YouTube video, but believe me, its better on Blu-ray!:
The performance in the Hänssler Profil 25-CD box of complete operas and fragments by Rimsky 8isconducted by Svetlanov and is from the Bolshoi (sadly, Amazon lists this set as currently unavailable). This is a 1957 performance with Galina Vishnevskaya, Ivan Kozlovsky and Vera Firsova in teh cast (Firsova is the Snow Maiden). It is a brilliant performance, and complements this Paris performance beautifully, reminding us of the Russian tradition in no uncertain terms, the chorus muscular, the orchestral sound full-on. While the Hänssler box provides a stalwart reference, It is trimmed, however, as Rimsky's score often was at that time, at 157 minutes. But Tcherniakov's staging is required viewing and listening, and Garifullina confirms herself as a major star.