OPERA / Some enchanted evening: Anthony Payne on the RPO / Kirov Opera's Rimsky-Korsakov revival

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The Royal Philharmonic Mariinsky-Kirov Series, inaugurated last December with a performance of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta, continued on Friday at the Barbican Centre with a concert performance of another splendid one-act opera, Rimsky-Korsakov's Kashchey the Immortal.

There has been a growing interest in Rimsky's operas here of late, and several have been staged or given in concert, revealing a breadth of style and language unsuspected from the three orchestral masterpieces on which his fame mostly rests.

The most successful of the operas, Kashchey among them, belong to a genre that Rimsky made peculiarly his own, in which human and fairy-tale elements are combined in an exotic and unreal world of meticulous resonance. It was a world that welcomed Rimsky's natural bent for experimentation in colour and texture, and in Kashchey there are many fresh inspirations of that sort: the major thirds the composer was so proud of, for instance, which represent seductive evil; the marvellously weighted wind textures that accompany Kashchey's arioso.

It has often been said that Rimsky's art is rarely touched by human feeling, but within Kashchey's world of magic unreality there are moments of compassion and of agony and joy in love that proclaim him a more warmly emotional dramatic talent than he is often given credit for. In this story of an evil magician and a captive princess, he manages to engage the heart as well as fascinate the ear.

This is music that requires the most brilliant array of colours and the sharpest rhythmic address if it is to weave its magic spell, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra certainly achieved as much under the inspired direction of Valery Gergiev, chief conductor of St Petersburg's Kirov Opera. The opera's hour-long structure was sustained throughout its three tableaux to create one perfectly tensioned arch, while character and atmosphere were dazzlingly recreated. Konstantin Pluzhnikov was a superbly sardonic Kashchey, while Larissa Diadkova moved majestically from coldheartedness to humanity as his daughter. The young lovers were invested with passion and radiance by Marina Shaguch and Alexander Gergalov, and Vladimir Ognovenko made an impressive Storm Knight.

Earlier we had heard music from another of the composer's late operas, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh. It is a work in which nature-worship is intriguingly mixed with Christianity. But despite moments of magical beauty, like the forest music that looks forward to Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe as well as back to Wagner's Siegfried, the score does not resonate in the mind as does Rimsky's finest work. The final jubilation, for instance, is rather ordinary compared with his other chiming evocations, and was not performed with quite the finesse which the RPO was later to bring to Kashchey.