Opera North has mounted this new production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden (1882) at exactly the right point in the year, on the brink of Spring. It adapts Alexander Ostrovsky’s play based on a Russian folktale that requires, in order to be appeased, the sacrifice of the Snow Maiden, the love-child of Spring and Winter, to the Sun God; without that the cold and dearth of Winter will continue. Undoubtedly Rimsky-Korsakov’s pupil, Stravinsky, had such themes of sacrifice and rebirth in mind when he came to compose The Firebird and The Rite of Spring.
Although John Fulljames’s production tends to avoid any suggestion of myth and allegory by making the characters fully human, much colour and vitality are present, perhaps even too much so in Heather Lowe’s characterisation of the trouser-role of Lel, the shepherd with whom the Snow Maiden initially falls in love, and who is rather more of a streetwise tomboy here than a figure of straightforward, rustic honesty. Lowe does capture the charm and easygoing nature of the part in her musical performance, however, particularly in the two ballads she sings.
Fulljames sets the drama partly in a factory where its workers make clothes, presumably to keep the other villagers warm during the cold season. Perhaps it would not be reading too much to see that work as constituting a dreary, lifeless world in desperate need of the enlivening force of love. But there is otherwise little to connect this interpretation of the opera with the folkloric inspiration of Rimsky-Korsakov’s original. Despite the temptation to comment upon Russian politics – be it Imperial reaction, Soviet totalitarianism, or Putinesque autocracy – that also is avoided except for a hint of irony in the passages which laud the wisdom and generosity of Tsar Berendey, which may account for Bonaventura Bottone’s somewhat nasal and wry account of the part, rather than a strictly musical one.
The lyrical tragedy inherent in the notion of the Snow Maiden’s melting away once she finds true romantic fulfilment is melodramatically disrupted by having Mizgir sensationally stab himself in response, rather than jumping into the lake as in the libretto and finding oblivion in the very element into which the Snow Maiden is transformed, and therefore paralleling her sacrificial metamorphosis. In her performance as the eponymous lead, Aoife Miskelly combines something of a Pamina-like self-pity earlier on, with a touch of soubrette vigour later to make for an attractively well-rounded musical character. Elin Pritchard’s Kupava is correspondingly more pert as the girl to whom Mizgir is initially is betrothed, before he succumbs to the demure charm of the Snow Maiden. Phillip Rhodes is confident as Mizgir if not maintaining a romantically sonorous quality – admittedly the role does not always require this, but it would better underscore the different relationship of his character with the Snow Maiden later.
There is characterful support in the smaller roles, not least Yvonne Howard’s Spring Beauty and James Creswell’s Father Frost. With a relatively pared-down ensemble, Leo McFall led the Orchestra of Opera North in a suitable translucent realisation of Rimsky’s Korsakov’s score, a rich tapestry, whether depicting the despond of Winter or the raucous dance of Summer. On the whole this is a creditable staging of an underestimated but stimulating Russian opera.
- Further performances in Newcastle, Salford Quays, Belfast, Nottingham