Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

The Snow Maiden

Rimsky-Korsakov, after Ostrovsky
Opera North
The Lowry
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

Comments

Comment by David Cunningham

Director John Fulljames shows no sign of being daunted by staging the first production of the opera for over sixty years and  draws out the darker consequences of repressing passion The score brings to mind a tempest in full blast so Fulljames creates a mood of a community struggling against the elements. Set designer Giles Cadle frames the action behind an opaque screen upon which images of encroaching winter or dark forests are projected suggesting that the community is constantly beset by nature.

 

Whilst the score catches the full passion of people consumed by love the opera does not glorify the emotion. It takes place in a grim sweatshop and Matthew Haskin’s stark lighting sets a background of permanent twilight where the sun never shines. Lel ( Heather Lowe), the object of the Snow Maiden’s affection, is a baby-faced roué jaded before his time and remorselessly seducing anyone a skirt. Far from being a symbol of the life force Kupava ( Elin Pritchard ) is a randy flirt who drowns her disappointments in vodka.

 

These days any female character who sings in an icy setting brings to mind Disney’s Frozen. Actually the cartoon character who Aoife Miskelly most resembles is Bambi. Miskelly has an otherworld quality – standing at the side away from the rest of the cast and observing them through startled doe-eyes .Her soaring vocals simply add to the impression that she is a supernatural creature.