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Vladimir Jurowski [Photo by Drew Kelley courtesy of IMG Artists]
06 Dec 2016

History Repeating Itself: Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko, Amsterdam Concertgebouw

A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.

History Repeating Itself: Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko, Amsterdam Concertgebouw

A review by David Pinedo

Above: Vladimir Jurowski [Photo by Drew Kelley courtesy of IMG Artists]

 

After a sensational Die Frau ohne Schatten, Vladimir Jurowski now returns with a Prokofiev masterpiece, of which he informed his audience this Soviet Opera “is the first time performed by a non-Russian orchestra and choir. The Dutch Radio Choir and the Flemish Radio Choir proved phenomenal, while a sprawling cast of Russian singers the best for these roles were brought in for this epic performance.

Not only did this afternoon’s programme provide a high point in the history of the NTR Saturday Matinee, but it was the most impressive opera concert of the last few seasons programmed in this serie. It was also the farewell after 33 years of casting director Mauricio Fernandez. He ended his reign with a bang.

Prokofiev wrote the quite clumsy libretto, basing it on Katayev's 1937 novel I, Son of Working People, in the style of the French grand opera. Set in 1918 at the end of the Great War, Kotko tells the story of Semyon returning from the front. He saved his superior Tkachenko’s life, and so he is promised his daughter Sofya for marriage. When he arrives in Akt I, things don’t go as planned.

After Mr. Jurowski transported the audience to Soviet times with the sweeping Overture, Semyon arrives on stage. Oleg Dolgov commands the stage with his burly physique, deeply sonorous voice, but warm hearted appearance. His vocal reach had no problem conquering the acoustics of the Great Hall. The First Act is also filled with comical town folks. Prokofiev includes sound effects with laughter from the audience as result. Prokofiev knows how to add wit to his drama. Especially with the bird calls.

Kotko includes three love couples: Semyon and Sofya; his sister Frosya and her Mikola; and Semyon’s sailor friend Tsaryov and his fiance Lyubka. With a little bit of focus, you could quickly discern who was who. Of the singers, there was not one who seemed out of place. Each reflected his or her character through the style of their singing.

Alexandra Kadurina dazzled as the slightly naive Frosya. Her nearly shrill, copper toned vibrato voice terrifically penetrant with relentless stamina. Her contrast to Lyubov Petrova added a resonance to each of their interweaving voices. Where Kadurina has a slightly restless tone in her voice, perhaps channelling Frosya’s girlhood insecurities, Petrova sang Sofya with a robust voice, determined by passionate love. She easily commanded the attention on stage and had terrific chemistry with Oleg Dolgov’s Semyon.

In Act II, Tkachenko still refuses Semyon and Sofya’s wishes to get married. Maxim Mikhailov intoned his bass voice with a stubborn air of a know-it-all. Irina Dolzhenko supplied Tkachenko’s wife Khivrya with a nervous fear. Prokofiev alternates the heavier confrontations with choir episodes. In the Second Act, a girls choir softly sings wedding songs. The choirs’ soothing clarity, soft-spokenness and innocence, offered the necessary contrast to the traitorous Tkachenko. Prokofiev neatly doses the nearly four hours in episodes of laughter, despair, hope, anger and fear.

After Jurowski led the magnificent Dutch Radio Philharmonic through the dreamy, pastoral overture of the Third Act, Tkachenko rats out the remaining Bolsheviks in the village to the Germans, including Tsaryov and Ivasenko, Semyon’s friends. The Germans arrest and hang them. Then Tsaryov’s fiance Lyubka is driven mad by grief.

As the Germans invade the town, some of Prokofiev’s most fearful music resonated through the Concertgebouw with lots of explosive, percussive sound effects. Together with the screeching strings that echoed Shostakovich, Prokofiev’s music got under your skin and left you with a cold sweat.

Instead of ending after Act III, Jurowski continued through to the first scene of the Fourth Act. Sung with great tragedy by the two choirs superbly prepared by Klaas Stok, here Jurowski ended with Taras Shevchenko’s Soviet poem “Testament” that Prokofiev placed central in the opera. The Russian poem describes the sorrows that came from the always returning violence in Ukraine. Haunting and thought-provoking.

In the last part of the Fourth Act, the village has been razed to the ground. Semyon and Mikola arm themselves to fight. They attack a church service with grenades. They are captured. But the Germans have to flee from the Red Army, leaving Tkachenko behind, who is then executed. Sofya and Semyon end up together, and everyone vows to keep Ukraine free.

In the present, as the war continues at the border between Russia and Ukraine. Jurowski’s emphasis on the “Testament” poem felt all the more significant. In Prokofiev’s time, after the Soviet-Nazi pact was made, the powers that be required the Soviet-Ukrainian composer to rewrite his original ending and replace the German enemies for Ukrainian nationalist ‘Haydamaks’. Jurowski arranged the poem to be repeated by the choirs at the end of the last Act, this time translated into Ukranian with deeply moving results. The lady next to me could not contain her tears.

From the depth of his lungs, Vladimir Ognev impressed with his deep bass as Remeniuk. Even supporting roles by Tim Kuipers as Von Wierhof, a high ranking German soldier, did not go by unnoticed. Prokofiev presented him as a fool, which his phrasing and intonation perfectly conveyed. The smaller roles all felt like they were filled with the strongest of voices.

Semyon Kotko contains many characters and themes: German nationalism, Bolshevik revolutionaries, Lyubka going mad, alongside massive choir scenes, all shaped into a massive Soviet Opera full of propagandistic Stalinist music by the then recently repatriated Prokofiev. The music sounds closer to Shostakovich’s fear-inducing War Symphonies, than to Prokofiev’s less accessible rhythmic and pulsating works like his symphonies that always seemed to have some hope hidden in them. Vladimir Jurowski proved himself a master at balancing all the singers, while stimulating the Radio Philharmonic to great musical heights.

David Pinedo

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