The opera, known to most Western listeners primarily through its showpiece overture, is one of the most brilliant creations of 19th-century Russian music. In five acts with a prolog, it is enormous and difficult, requiring high virtuosity from both singers and instrumentalists; the score also presents a host of problems for stage directors as it defies all attempts at realistic staging. Meanwhile, conductors face numerous textological conundrums caused by the divergences in the existing sources and the lack of an authorial manuscript, believed to have perished in a fire.
A new Bolshoi Theater recording of the opera, made live in 2003 and recently released by PentaTone Classics, may help to solve some mysteries of Glinka’s masterpiece. Conductor Alexander Vedernikov claims that his production represents “the original version” of the work recreated from the newly found authoritative copies of the lost manuscript. Fans of the opera should not expect major revelations, however: while there are several discrepancies in pitch and rhythm throughout the score, the sequence and content of the material is essentially intact. Indeed, if some music on this recording proves unrecognizable, it is the unfortunate consequence of the performance quality of the new production.
To start with the singers, the ladies generally did better than the men. Alexandra Durseneva’s voice is a deep, rich contralto, a little heavy for my taste, but just sexy enough for the Middle-Eastern exotica of her character, prince Ratmir. Maria Gavrilova is a lovely Gorislava; she is by far the best singer in the lineup, which makes one wish that the composer had given her more than a cameo role. Ekaterina Morozova as Lyudmila is more disappointing: her coloratura is clean and precise, but is suitable more for the Queen of the Night (her signature part) than for a warm-blooded Russian princess; this is particularly noticeable in her Act 4 aria. Still more disappointing is Lyudmila’s beloved, Ruslan; the voice of Taras Shtonda, particularly in the barely perceptible low register, is thoroughly uninspiring. Valery Gilmanov appears to have given up on the whirlwind tempi of Farlaf’s buffo part: the Vivace assai of the famously Rossini-esque Act 2 rondo barely qualifies as a Moderato, completely destroying the hilarious effects of the scene. Maxim Paster’s ringing tenor with steady yet sweet upper register is perfect for Bayan; Vitaly Panfilov’s Finn, however, while technically flawless, is painfully devoid of color. Indeed, several singers on the recording seem to have sacrificed both richness of timbre and richness of interpretation to the goal of precisely rendering the notes of the carefully restored score. One wonders if such an approach would win any converts to Glinka’s genius.
It is difficult to overestimate the tremendous importance of the chorus in Glinka’s epic. According to Vedernikov, the emphasis placed in his production on the chorus as an ever-present commentator led him to abandon the realistic costume drama for an oratorio-like “mystery” (the one with a more contemporary look, as evident from the CD cover art). Unfortunately, as I have already commented in an earlier review for this site, the Bolshoi Theater’s chorus is weak, and has trouble keeping both the pitch and the beat. The introduction and finale – scenes that require more volume than precision – are less affected by this, but the quality is disastrous, for instance, in the Act 2 scene of Ruslan with the giant Head – the character represented by the unison male choir that must be perfectly in sync to achieve the desired effect.
Last but not least, Glinka’s opera lives and dies by its orchestration: as Vedernikov points out, apart from the complex, delicate accompaniment, there are more than 40 minutes of purely instrumental music in Ruslan. The fiendishly difficult score presents an evidently insurmountable challenge to the Bolshoi orchestra, the weakest spot of that theater’s productions over the past few years. As a result, Glinka’s sparkling orchestra comes across as dull, colorless, heavy, and more than occasionally out of tune. The tempo of the brilliant overture is sluggish at best, and even in that tempo the musicians are struggling.
Overall, the new Ruslan and Lyudmila recording is of value for a performer in need of consulting an authoritative version of Glinka’s score without visiting the notoriously mysterious Moscow archives. The rest of us may be better off staying faithful to the Mariinsky recording, or even the vintage 1978 Bolshoi production with Nesterenko, which Melodiya recently re-released on CD. After all, as the conductor tells us, this work is first and foremost a musical masterpiece; it should be approached as such.
University of Missouri—Columbia