We’ve all gone to heaven

February 27, 2005, Sunday

We’ve all gone to heaven

By Peter Reed

People still speak in hushed tones of the Kirov Opera’s performance
of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and
the Maiden Fevroniya at the Barbican in 1994. If it was anything like
last Wednesday’s given by the same forces (now called the Mariinsky
Theatre) and again conducted by the Mariinsky’s director, Valery
Gergiev, I can understand why. The impact it made is all the more
remarkable when you consider that this conflation and interpretation
of two medieval Russian fables is not without flaws.

Its epic historical scale lacks dramatic focus – you think that the
“pilgrim’s progress” of saintly Fevroniya is at the centre of things,
but Kuterma, the grotesque and drunken idiot-savant, is far more
powerfully drawn. The love between Fevroniya and her prince,
initiated in Act I, is then virtually ignored until the last act, by
which time they’re both dead in the now celestial city of Kitezh. The
influence of Wagner – not for nothing is the work known as “the
Russian Parsifal” – is all over the score like a rash; and when it
isn’t the music is dominated by those characteristically Russian
folk- and hymn-style melodies that always seem to be looping back to
where they started.

The reason it works, of course, is that the Mariinsky performs it
with such conviction. Kitezh is in their blood and, with the
exception of the two main roles – a steady and radiant Fevroniya from
Tatiana Borodina (standing in for Mlada Khudolei) and Vassily
Gorshkov’s strident and demented Kuterma – in their heads: the other
13 soloists sang from memory. These included Lyubov Sokolova and Olga
Trifonova’s expressive two birds of paradise, who announce
Fevroniya’s death and lead her into the heavenly city, and Gennady
Bezzubenkov as Prince Yuri, sonorous and moving in his prayer for the
city’s deliverance from the Tartar hordes.

This sense of cohesion was firmly grounded in the grandeur of the
chorus’s singing and by the orchestra’s hyper-responsive playing,
which under Gergiev’s fairly minimal direction illuminated the
music’s visionary and narrative detail. One moment it was like
viewing one of those huge sombre Russian landscapes, the next like
contemplating an icon. Gergiev presented us with a rock-solid fusion
of style and content, and the result was both remarkable and

The following night the Mariinsky chorus reasserted the authority of
their disciplined, flexible singing in a short concert of Russian
church music in the warm and very comfortable Armenian church of St
Yeghiche in south Kensington. The music included some lovely extracts
from vespers by Kalinnikov and Rachmaninov; Bezzubenkov was the
soloist in a magnificently gloomy Litany of Supplication by
Grechaninov; and I very much liked Arkhangelsky’s concerto for chorus
“I Think of the Dies Irae” – you and me both, all the time.