Rimsky-Korsakov, after Ostrovsky
10 March 2017
Giving Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden its first full professional production in the UK for 60 years, Opera North seem to have found an unexpected hit on their hands. The one performance in Salford had the biggest evening house so far of this week’s operas.
It’s a lovely work, built on a Russian folk myth about a girl given to a childless couple who will die if ever love melts her heart of snow. In the end it does, but the story is really an allegory of the changing seasons and the cycle of nature, and the finale is a paean to the warming sun.
John Fulljames (who’s known for work at Covent Garden and has directed a string of masterly shows for Opera North in recent years) wisely avoided doing the allegorical thing too straight, even though ‘Spring’ sings twice, first as a youthful beauty and later as a fading one. He’s invented a supportive story set in a small-town clothing factory in (I guess) the late Soviet era, as the Cold War is just thawing. So Lel, the spirit of love, is a trouser-role for mezzo and the young guy the girls all fancy. Snow Maiden and Kupava, the sensual everyday character who’s jilted at her own betrothal, are fellow-workers. There’s the best use yet of the video resources available in Giles Cadle’s setting, with evocative projections on a gauze at the front and a comic mapped-out road journey at the back, when the cruel Mizgir (who rejects Kupava for love of Snow Maiden, but finally loses her when she melts for him) is bundled off to see the Tsar, a long, long way from home. The Tsar himself is a benign and quirky character, more village elder than blue-blood, and a little reminiscent of Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas. He encourages the workers to make the most of midsummer’s night, and by the end they’re all at work on baby clothes.
So Fulljames keeps a lightness of touch while making us feel for the young innocents in love – an experience which (as every Romantic knows) is heart-breaking when it comes.
The music is vintage Rimsky, atmospheric, folk-song-like and wonderful to listen to. Leo McFall keeps a cool hand on all of it, getting many beauties from the orchestra.
And there are outstanding performances from several of the principals – most of all (for sheer presence, stagecraft and vocal ability) RNCM-trained Heather Lowe as Lel. Having seen her impressive work as a student singer, it’s great to see her blossom now.
Aoife Miskelly, as Snow Maiden, is amazing, too – not only does she have to sing like an angel, but elicit our sympathy even when silently watching the others in their frolics. She is a real discovery. Elin Pritchard brought vitality and reality to Kupova, and Phillip Rhodes was a beefy, simple-but-sympathetic Mizgir.
Opera North pillar Yvonne Howard (as Spring) was as ever beautifully poised, rich and alive, and other stalwarts were James Creswell (Father Frost), Joseph Shovelton (Bobyl) and Claire Pascoe (Bobylikha). Bonaventura Bottone had a lot of fun playing the Tsar.
Reviewer: Robert Beale