Snow Maiden

Aoife Miskelly as the Snow Maiden, Phillip Rhodes as Mizgir and Elin Pritchard as Kupava.

Pictures: Richard Hubert Smith.

The Snow Maiden

Nottingham Theatre Royal


The Snow Maiden was Rimsky-Korsakov’s third opera (if you exclude the first draft of Mlada), and he continued to view it, then and afterwards, as his finest work.

There are numerous reasons which might justify this. First staged in 1882 at the Mariinsky Opera in St. Petersburg, it is a gorgeous continuation of a tradition epitomised by Dargomizhsky’s Rusalka (a version somewhat less optimistic than the later version of Dvořák (1904), which this present opera in a way anticipates).

It harnesses in a beautifully conceived and structured way a host of different musical styles – traditional Russian, Western, Oriental – while treating us to one of Russia’s best loved myths: the story of Winter yielding to Spring and finally Summer, all personified by different deities.

Rimsky (1844-1908) draws on both genuine folk music and engineered, quasi-folk melodies (what Stravinsky dubbed ‘the Russian popular melos’) throughout the opera, and to great effect, and ranges from eerie, mysterious harmonies through to traditional operatic material. Leitmotifs abound – some dozen of them, played straight or adapted and developed by processes not as intense or integral as Wagner’s, but easily as beguiling. The characterisation – the composer forged his own libretto from an original play by Ostrovsky – is vital and appealing. The whole of this ‘springtime fairy-tale’ is pure enchantment.

Bizarre, then, that Snegurochka has had to wait six decades since its last a professional production in the UK. Hats off to Opera North, director John Fulljames and especially general manager Richard Mantle, that they are still producing, reviving and revitalising marvels of the repertoire that have fallen by the wayside.

In Nicholas Payne’s previous era, we were treated to glorious ‘rediscoveries’: Nielsen’s Maskarade, Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-bleue, Schreker’s Der ferne Klang, to name but three, as well as premieres like Benedict Mason’s Playing Away and John Casken’s Golem (both works well invite revival). But the tradition lives on – with operas by, for instance, Jonathan Dove (The Adventures of Pinocchio, Swanhunter) and now Rimsky-Korsakov, as well as a much-hailed Ring Cycle, all inspiring audiences both in the company’s home town, Leeds and on tour.

This was an enchanting production with a generous array of visual ideas, often well thought through. The opening sequence focuses on the two seasonal deities, Father Frost (James Creswell) and so-called Spring Beauty (Yvonne Howard), who move in an icy environment, or indeed scarcely move at all, a bit like the Gods in Rheingold. Winter has taken its grip now for 16 years – since the Sun God (Yarilo) took offence at the birth of a daughter to this divine pair – the delightful and innocent Snow Maiden (Aoife Miskelly), and has ceased to shine ever since - subjecting Russia to 16 terrible frosty winters. The opera is about the longing for the sun’s nurturing warmth, and the widespread ecstasy when it – at a cost - finally returns.


Lel (Heather Lowe) is invariably a hit with the girls

The Snow Maiden’s outfit, a yellow apron which she keeps on throughout, and faded blue jeans, looked rather like an inept attempt to fit into the human world. But it suits well enough for the ensuing scene, set in a village laundry and seamstresses’ workshop (the capable designer was Giles Cadle), which worked rather effectively as a location for her exchanges with the boy (nominally love god) Lel, an inspired singer, whose interest she fails to arouse by her declining to kiss him once he has sung for her.

This duo, Miskelly’s maiden and Heather Lowe’s crossed dressed Lel, were pure delight every time they sang, the one with a lovely, pure high register, the other with a wonderfully rich mezzo. Thanks to both there was a feeling of enchantment in the air.  

They seemed made for one another, but it was not to be. The Maiden’s ‘heart of ice’ is unable to unbend. Instead, she watches – much of her role is as essentially as an observer – as a couple due to marry, Mizgir (Phillip Rhodes) and Kupava (Elin Pritchard), fall out. Mizgir has spotted the Maiden, and turns his attentions to her; her longed-for boy, the lusty and characterful Lel, goes off with Kupava instead. However the latter appeals to the benevolent Tsar, Berendey, who in a scene of great dignity and empathy, despite banishing Mizgir for his misbehaviour, allows him to compete for the hand of the Snow Maiden.

The character of the Tsar was enchantingly brought out by Bonaventura Bottone, one of this nation’s most gifted tenors, entertainingly waited on by his splendidly over-the-top chamberlain, the boyar Bermyata. Both Rhodes (Mizgir) and Pritchard (Kupava) produced voices of, in the one case, rich firmness, the other, engaging charm and delight.

But much else in these scenes was owed to what Rimsky is up to with the orchestra. Pride of place he gives to the clarinet, which weaves line after line of enraptured beauty, emerging from the orchestra in elegant, alluring solos or soaring over a suitably reduced ensemble, always lucid, frisking around to usher in a chorus, or movingly plaintive as it introduces the hapless Snow Maiden’s wan solos.

Oboe and flute have much to do also, as one might expect from the composer of Sheherazade; sometimes doubled or paired, but one magical moment comes late in the opera, when (following a telling violin link) flute and percussion, all too briefly, produce some mesmerising effects and the flute, then gorgeous solo violin, evoke a scintillating atmosphere for the return of Snow Maiden’s mother, the Spring-goddess (or Spring Beauty).

Spring Beauty

Yvonne Howard as Spring Beauty

This, as it turns out, profoundly moving moment spells both hope and disaster, for in giving the Maiden the ability to warm to and return love like a human being, she is spelling her daughter’s doom.

Now that Summer impends, and will - this year at last – actually appear, his first warming rays will be enough to melt the unfortunate heroine. Not only will her heart melt with new-found love, but all of her body as well. She will shrink and disappear. This was done quite skilfully in Fulljames’ the staging, with her wedding dress slipping off her backstage, and like a kind of trompe-l’oeil rolling down to frontstage on its own, empty. 

By and large, the chorus was a joyous success. There were two limitations: in one early sequence they seemed to lag behind the orchestra (though only that once); and the size of the Theatre Royal’s stage, possibly more cramped than the Grand at Leeds, left the chorus members somewhat static, with little room for invention (that was left to Lel, who never stopped inventing, not least in the feisty way Lowe contrived to look, in stance, in youthful swagger, in buoyant or quasi-butch gesture, impressively like a real boy).

But as the events unrolled, and, especially in front of the Tsar, in some positively hearty folk dances and in the resplendent, optimistic closing scene, Opera North’s well-drilled chorus excelled. And one particular sequence when they gradually peeled off in pairs was masterfully managed, right down to the last couple who lingered onstage before finally leaving.

This was an opera that patently deserved reviving. Its mixture of traditional operatic musical language and plaintive folk melody, plus Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous gift for orchestration, impacted time and again. But the highest admiration of all should go to conductor Leo McFall, working for the first time for the company, impeccable in his leads to singers and player alike, pleasingly lucid whatever musical style Rimsky was engaging, and able to differentiate those varying qualities in a way that made this score speak volumes.

This buoyant production joins series of others – WNO’s Mazeppa, Grange Park’s The Enchantress, Garsington’s Cherevichki, Buxton’s The Maid of Orleans – all neglected Tchaikovsky operas (though in parts especially later, The Snow Maiden acquires a Tchaikovskian feel, it is surprising how distinct is Rimsky’s idiom from his elder contemporary) – in being a triumphantly successful recapturing of a rarer item for the rerpertoire.

One can only applaud the initiative and welcome the pluck – the company has plenty of that - of ever-pioneering Opera North.     

Roderic Dunnett


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