Nothing in Rimsky-Korsakov's Mayskaya Noch (May Night) quite lives up to the promise of its overture, a bountiful theme that has the the rapture of summer written all over it. And what a stroke of genius on Rimsky's part to save its appearance in the opera for the closing ensemble, when our young lovers are finally united.
Rimsky's second opera is a bucolic romp adapted from Gogol, in which elements of the supernatural are folded into an agreeably buffo scenario. Indeed, there are times (notably the second act) when one feels that the opera is being viewed through the haze of too much vodka. Which is appropriate, since the plot hinges on the efforts of a local distiller to tear down the enchanted house by the lake and build a distillery.
You have to take your hat off to Garsington Opera's now well-established spirit of enterprise that, for all its limited resources, it wouldn't shrink from staging a rare and stylistically challenging piece such as this, in Russian, and with a strong chorus element. The overriding pleasure came from seeing that the cast had been well schooled, both in the language and, more so (thanks to Elgar Howarth, the conductor), in the colour of the score. The small chorus mustered a lustiness beyond their numbers. Olivia Fuchs, the director, made individuals of them. She has a way with movement and physical shape on stage.
Scenically, Jamie Vartan, the designer, had devised an acting area that was very blue, with a finish that was crudely childlike, the stuff of a roughly illustrated fairy-tale anthology. But it was smart that the lake at the heart of the piece should be indivisible from the sky. And smart, too, to portray the village as a series of increasingly diminutive model houses along the lines of a babushka doll. Simple solutions to big problems.
You have to have the right voices for a piece such as this, though. Peter Wedd as Levko was especially impressive, given the tough requirements of the role. The virility of his delivery was in character and his account of the ravishing romance in the third act, with its distinctive piano and harp colourations, was affecting. As was Michelle Walton's generously voiced Pannochka, the drowned maiden seeking rest for her soul. And there was strong Slavic identity in the vocal characterisation of Darren Jeffery's pompous Mayor and Geoffrey Dolton's terminally inebriated Kalanik.
Champagne not vodka may the tipple at Garsington. But, let's face it, the effect is much the same.
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