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A scene from May Night [Photo by Robert Workman]
10 Mar 2016

Rimsky-Korsakov’s May Night, London

Descending into the concrete cavern that is Ambika P3, at the University of Westminster, I reflected that the bunker-like milieu was a fitting venue for Royal Academy Opera’s production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s May Night, which updated the original early-19th century locale to the beginning of the Soviet era.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s May Night, London

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: A scene from May Night [Photo by Robert Workman]


The action is framed by a set which presents a traditional distillery, the planned technical renovation of which causes consternation among the country folk: a gentle allusion to the strife of rural industrialisation in the early 20th century. (Alexander Titel’s 2008 production with the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Academic Music Theatre in Moscow also adopted a 1930s early-Soviet milieu, ironically depicting lavish farmers’ feasts during an era of Stalinist deprivation.)

The vats and barrels, pipes and filters dwelt comfortably in the former concrete construction hall; it wasn’t always clear where set ended and venue began. A large keg, from which fumes (or fairy spirits?) spiralled, served as the moonlit pond. The split levels and ramps of the atmospheric design — by Bridget Kimak and students from Rose Bruford College — effectively facilitated the often farcical comings and goings.

May Night , Rimsky-Korsakov’s second complete opera, is based upon a Ukrainian folk-tale, ‘The Drowned Maiden’, from Gogol’s collection, Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka. It’s a cross between Dvořák’s Rusalka and Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. The dramatic structure is somewhat haphazard and the narrative negligible, but the opera’s unpretentious humour and warm rusticity — lots of drunken escapades, mistaken identities, and supernatural visitations — are as engaging as its cantabile folk-derived melodies and colourfully orchestrated score.

A pompous Mayor (Headman) and his son, Levko, are in romantic pursuit of the same girl, Ganna. Levko tells Ganna of an eerie local legend: a young girl, Pannochka, who drowned herself to escape her step-mother, has become a rusalka (a sort of Eastern European mermaid), but the step-mother herself has now drowned too and the ‘witch’ is rumoured to mingle undetected among the ‘good’ rusalki. Much chaos ensues: Levko discovers the Mayor serenading Hanna; a drinking party erupts exuberantly; the Mayor’s sister-in-law is mistaken for the devil and imprisoned in the cellar. To escape from the frenzy, Levko retreats to the lake, where he sings a panegyric for Ganna. His song summons the rusalki who, proving remarkably adept counterfeiters, produce a letter from the Military Commissar — to whom the Mayor must defer — commanding that Levko must get his girl: the young lover’s reward for saving the rusalki from the witch.

Director Christopher Cowell did not seem entirely sure if it wanted his production to be tongue-in-cheek or serious and sincere. I felt that it could have done with a bit more comic shtick; indeed, not until the entry of the wild, drunken charcoal burner, Kalenik, was it clear that it the work is in fact supposed to be a comedy. The opera is a slightly disconcerting amalgam of folk and fantasy, romance and realism, the supernatural and a dash of surrealism; and this production seemed to veer between these modes, rather than finding a happy blend and balance. After the romance of Act 1 and the farcical scenes of rustic life in the second act, Act 3 rather lost its way.

The rusalki were believed to be at their most dangerous during ‘Green Week’ (Russian Whitsuntide), engaging in nocturnal escapades which saw them leave their watery depths in order to swing from birch trees. Jack Wiltshire’s lighting cast a fittingly lurid green glow but the choreography in this act (Mandy Demetriou) was disappointingly uninventive — a pity as elsewhere I was impressed by the effectiveness of the stage business. The problems may be inherent, but this act felt dramatically inert and amateurishly staged. I admit that perhaps that’s an overly harsh a judgement, especially because the score’s jewels sparkle most brightly in this final act and the superb singing made the musical treasures gleam. But, mock hauntings need to be staged with conviction and not just caricature.

Gogol’s story had sentimental value to Rimsky-Korsakov, for he had read this tale of thwarted betrothal with his wife, on the day that he proposed to her. Much of the libretto is drawn verbatim from Gogol’s narrative, and Royal Academy Opera chose to sing in the original Russian, an ambitious decision which demanded a lot of the young cast, and must have necessitated a great deal of language coaching and preparation. Not being sufficiently linguistically knowledgeable to judge the accuracy and authenticity of the results, I can only say that the text was delivered confidently and certainly sounded convincing! But, I wondered whether it was a wise decision: the humour might have communicated more directly in an English translation (and, in any case, the very high ceiling of Ambika P3 made reading the surtitles a neck-straining and distracting task).

The young cast were superb, producing performances which would have not been out of place, indeed would have been admired, on many a professional stage. As the two lovers, Oliver Johnston (Levko) and Laura Zigmantaite (Ganna) shared an excellent rapport and their lyrical duets surged with feeling (many of the melodies were drawn from authentic Ukrainian folk material, collected by Alexander Rubets).

Zigmantaite’s mezzo-soprano is a big, powerful instrument: occasionally she did not seem entirely in control of its power, but she did demonstrate a good range of colours and flexibility, and produced some very shapely phrasing. Tenor Johnston was steadier: he has a wide range which is ringing at the top, and rich at the bottom — and unfailingly beautiful of tone. He has the heft to rise effortlessly above an orchestra but also a tender sensibility. Levko’s Act 3 romance — entirely without mawkishness — was heart-melting. His was a tremendous performance.

Božidar Smiljanić, William Blake and Alex Otterburn — as the Mayor, Distiller and inebriated charcoal-burner, Kalenik, respectively — had a good stab at the broad humour. Smiljanić used his strong low bass register to convey the buffoonery and pretension of the lecherous Mayor. Otterburn proved a master of physical theatre, tripping, lolling and hopak-ing with oafish ineptitude. William Blake was appropriately unlikeable as the greedily entrepreneurial Distiller. As the Mayor’s sister-in-law — the butt of all the jokes and trickery — Katie Stevenson did not let the comic shenanigans distract her from producing a firm, full-toned melodic line. Alys Robert’s silvery soprano beguiled, arousing our sympathy for Pannochka’s plight and inspiring our delight in her rescue.

The members of the Royal Academy Chorus were in strong voice, and maintained an impressive level of focus, acting persuasively. If some of the dancing was a little underwhelming then that can be forgiven; there’s no reason why young singers should be expert at the tropak or troika. Under the baton of Gareth Hancock, who assumes the role of Director of Opera in July this year, the Royal Academy Sinfonia swept through the folk-coloured score with brio and style. Although the string sound was not always as rich as might have been desired, there was much to admire, not least some silkily sleek clarinet solos, horn playing which exhibited remarkable control and stamina, and magic and mystery from the two harps who accompanying Pannochka’s Act 3 song.

May Night’s melodic appeal, rhythmic vivacity, and vivid characterisation made it a very good choice for Royal Academy Opera, and offered the cast much and varied opportunity to demonstrate their considerable talents. Their performance was warm-hearted and, given the subterranean nature of the venue, surprisingly sunny. I have no doubt that we will be hearing from many of these young singers again in the near future.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Levko — Oliver Johnston, Ganna — Laura Zigmantaite, Kalenik — Alex Otterburn, The Headman — Božidar Smiljanić, Headman’s sister-in-law — Katie Stevenson, Distiller — William Blake, Pannochka — Alys Roberts, Clerk — Dominic Bowe, Stepmother/Rusalka — Helen Brackenbury, Brood-Hen/Rusalka — Iúnó Connolly, Raven/Rusalka — Marvic Monreal; Christopher Cowell — director, Gareth Hancock —conductor, Bridget Kimak —designer, Jake Wiltshire —lighting designer, Mandy Demetriou — choreographer, Royal Academy Opera Chorus (chorus master — Richard Leach), Royal Academy Sinfonia.

Ambika P3, University of Westminster, London, 7th March 2016.

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