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Scene from Semyon Kotko [Photo courtesy of Mariinsky Theatre]
24 Apr 2009

Prokofiev’s Semën Kotko Lands in Sardinia

The Teatro Lirico di Cagliari is a sparkling comparatively new building in what used to be a blighted area near to the city center.

Sergey Prokofiev: Semën Kotko [Semyon Kotko]

Semyon Kotko: Viktor Lutsiuk; Semyon’s mother: Ludmilla Filatova; Frosya: Olga Savov; Remeniuk: Viktor Chernomortsev; Chivrja: Ekaterina Solovieva; Sofya: Lyudmlla Kasianenko; Lyubka: Tatiana Pavlovskaya; Mikola: Vladimir Zhivopistsev. Teatro Lirico Orchestra and Chorus. Alexander Vedernikov, conductor. Yuri Alexandrov, director. Semyon Pastukh, set designs.

Above: Scene from Semyon Kotko

All photos courtesy of Mariinsky Theatre


It is the only proper opera house of Sardinia. Inaugurated slightly more than ten years ago, it has met the challenge of giving new life to the Sardinian capital’s musical life. Near to the theatre are a glittering modern hotel, a Church, a well-tended park and middle-class and upper middle-class housing developments. Opera is a wide, wild world that easily coexists with the “miracles” of urban planning and zoning regulations.

It is difficult to attract interest to an albeit elegant theatre in remote Sardinia. For the last ten years, the Cagliari Teatro Lirico has had a simple recipe: standard repertory (viz. Rigoletto, Bohème, Lucia) for most of the season but breaking news for the inauguration: an opera never previously performed in Italy (better still if seldom seen in the rest of the world) for a major opening to be scheduled in the Spring — not in December or January like in other Italian Opera Houses. The season’s inauguration coincides with the “Sant’Efision celebrations”, a local event that is nearly a national holiday (April 25th “Liberation Day” after the collapse of Nazism in Northern Italy). Thus, opera lovers flying to Cagliari can enjoy a little vacation and the late April sun on the lovely white sand beaches surrounding the town.

This year Semën Kotko [Semyon Kotko] by Sergey Prokofiev was chosen for the 2009 April event in a joint production with St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre. Until the mid-70s, Semën was little performed even in Russia. The opera was composed when Prokofiev, having returned to the Soviet Union after 17 years abroad, made an earnest attempt to develop a good relationship if not with Stalin himself, at least with his top bureaucracy. The plot is based on the then successful novel by Valentin Katayev — the star of popular Soviet writers. It deals with a brave young Bolshevik fighting in post-World War I Ukraine with horrid reactionary, stupid but sadistic Germans; the happy end is the arrival of the Red Army when all our “good folks” are about to be executed. Whilst the score was being composed, the brilliant stage director who had commissioned it, Vsevolod Meyerhold, fell out of Stalin’s favors and subsequently executed by firing squad. During rehearsal, the Russians and the Germans entered into the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact (the Treaty of Non-aggression between Germany and the USSR), which led to the partition of Poland. Thus, the libretto had to be changed: the cruel Germans were replaced by the Czarist White Army. A few weeks later, Nazi troops invaded the USSR. Thus, a new change — to go back to the original libretto. In spite of all these efforts, and of successful première at the Moscow Stanislavsky Opera Theatre, the officialdom’s reaction was icy: the opera (and its author) were accused of “formalism”. Thus the patriotic music drama was withdrawn and was not staged until 1958 — not in the USSR or in any major western opera house, but in little Brno, Czechoslovakia. It appeared at the Bolshoi only in 1970

Semyon_Kotko04.gifScene from Semyon Kotko

The plot is puerile, but the score is intriguing. The vocal techniques range from pure speech (with rhythmic notation) to traditionally shaped melody, with every possible degree in between. There a Mussorgskian realism in the way voices overlap and different types of expressions are heard simultaneously. We are far away from Prokofiev’s nearly futuristic style, such as in The Love of Three Oranges or in The Gambler. The orchestration is rich. There is a strong, and apparently earnest, effort to follow “realistic socialism” aesthetics, which were incompatible with Prokofiev’s tendency toward innovation.

Semyon_Kotko02.gifScene from Act I

Does it work now? The Cagliari-Mariinsky production is, no doubt, an excellent effort: the stage direction is highly dramatic, acting is very good, a set of first-class tenors and basses (with a large gamut of varieties in their vocal specification), good conducting (Alexander Vedernikov), an intriguing stage set (Seymon Pastukh), and a stage direction (Yuri Alexandrov) that consists of 28 or so short scenes (post-World War I Ukraine looks like an immense garbage dump). In spite of these efforts, Semën Kotko fails because it is hampered by its inability to meet the demands of Bolshevist propaganda “despite [Prokofiev’s] best efforts . . . [to] bring it down to the level the Stalinist cultural establishment . . . required” [Richard Taruskin, Semyon Kotko, Grove Music Online ]. In light of the many attempts to please the powers-to-be and to experiment with a new mix of styles, it would have been well enough to have left this in the attic. Perhaps its principal significance is being a precursor to War and Peace, composed by Prokofiev a few years later.

Semyon_Kotko03.gifScene from Act II

Nonetheless, a trip to Cagliari is worth for the marvelous voices, especially of the tenors, rarely heard in the West.

Giuseppe Pennisi

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