Tub-thumping turns to triumph

Forgotten for 30 years, Prokofiev's Semyon Kotko is being recognised as a masterpiece
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The Independent Culture

After slaying the dance world with two weeks of balletic dazzle, the Kirov are now embarking on operatic slaughter. If their biggest weapon - a cinematic version of Prokofiev's War and Peace - is being held back until next Tuesday, last night's salvo, Semyon Kotko by the same composer, was a flawed but still-fascinating ploy.

After slaying the dance world with two weeks of balletic dazzle, the Kirov are now embarking on operatic slaughter. If their biggest weapon - a cinematic version of Prokofiev's War and Peace - is being held back until next Tuesday, last night's salvo, Semyon Kotko by the same composer, was a flawed but still-fascinating ploy.

Semyon Kotko has never been staged here, and only seldom in Russia, despite Prokofiev's desperation to please his political masters with it. It's a tale of heroic Ukrainian villagers defeating murderous German invaders in 1918, but its true focus is 1939. Its Moscow premiere was calamitous: the director for whom it was written was purged during rehearsals, and the Soviet-Nazi pact scuppered Prokofiev's plans to ingratiate himself with his leaders by demonising the Germans. An official embarrassment, it was dropped forthwith, and languished in limbo for the next 30 years.

Yet from the unpromising clay of a tub-thumping Soviet tract, Prokofiev drew a masterpiece which is only now getting due recognition. It's a whirling sequence of short scenes whose musical textures contrast with intense vividness. Sometimes the voices inter-weave to create rippling tissues of sound; sometimes the tension is ratcheted up by brutal repetition. For both singers and players it's a very big test.

No surprise that in Valery Gergiev's magic hands - fluttering constantly like humming-birds - this great St Petersburg company rise effortlessly to the challenge. But the feel of the production is oddly Soviet. The curtain rises on a blasted landscape of mangled railway machinery, under a thick pall of smoke. There is no sense of place - we could be on the moon. Since the first half of the opera is essentially a village comedy, with nothing more menacing than an obstructive father-in-law, it seems perverse to pass up the chance for bucolic charm in favour of tortured Expressionism from the start.

Kitted out like scarlet Ku-Klux Klan, even the chorus look sinister. In the climactic central act, where the peasants leader is hanged and their village incinerated, the staging works disastrously against the plot, with "risible dance" and clumsy symbolism where simple realism would have done fine. That the drama still comes powerfully across is a tribute to Prokofiev's musical characterisations, and to the innate theatricality of the splendid cast.

Viktor Lutsiuk's Kotko is a sad joker and Gennady Bezzubenkov as the prospective father-in-law is much more than a mere pantomime villain; Viktor Chernomortsev's Tsaryov holds the stage every moment he is on it with sheer charisma.

No great voices, perhaps, but many very good ones, and some wonderful ensemble singing. Tatiana Pavlovskaya's skittering soprano over Lutsiuk's sturdy tenor; Irina Loskutova's keening lament which is gradually taken up by the whole orchestra. Who cares if the denouement comes across like a demented Leninist version of "Onward Christian Soldiers"?

The Kirov's opera season continues with 'Mazeppa' (tonight, tomorrow, Tuesday, 7pm) and 'Khovanshchina' (Monday, 6.30pm). Royal Opera House, London WC2. Booking: 020-7304 4000

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