Wednesday 9 March 2016

May Night, Royal Academy Opera, 7 March 2016

Ambika P3, University of Westminster

Levko – Oliver Johnston
Ganna – Laura Zigmantaite
Kalenik – Alex Otterburn
The Headman – Božidar Smiljanić
Headman’s Sister-in-law – Katie Stevenson
Distiller – William Blake
Pannochka – Alys Roberts
Clerk – Dominic Bowe
Stepmother/Rusalka – Helen Brackenbury
Brood-Hen/Rusalka – Iúnó Connolly
Raven/Rusalka – Marvic Monreal

Christopher Cowell (director)
Bridget Kimak (designs)
Jake Wiltshire (lighting)
Mandy Demetriou (choreography)

Royal Academy Opera Chorus (chorus master: Richard Leach)
Royal Academy Sinfonia
Gareth Hancock (conductor)

And so, eight days in which I shall see no fewer than four Russian musical works for the stage began, with a true rarity, Rimsky-Korsakov’s May Night. As ever, Royal Academy Opera’s programming refreshes: last term we had The Marriage of Figaro, as far from a rarity as one might imagine, but in one of the best performances I have ever seen or heard, now an opera that would surely have Rimskyites and the simply curious determined to come. Which am I? More the latter, I suppose, although the composer certainly intrigues me. There is a materialist emptiness to much of his music I sometimes find problematical, but there is no denying, alongside an undeniable datedness (not always a bad thing, by any means), Rimsky’s mastery of colour, his legacy for twentieth-century music (above all Stravinsky), and many other strengths. Of the two operas I had previously seen staged, I much preferred The Tale of Tsar Saltan to The Tsar’s Bride, although the latter work clearly has its advocates. On the basis of my admittedly limited experience, the Orientalist and the supernatural Rimsky seem to me much more interesting than the merely realist. (Leave that to Mussorgsky and his towering masterpieces!) Characterisation does not appear to be a strength; where Rimsky can summon up a dazzling peacock, he seems – can one blame him? – less thrilled by the prospect of a group of peasants. Or maybe one needs to be Russian, or at least have first-hand familiarity with the language, to appreciate Gogol.


Such, at any rate, was my experience of by May Night too. Although I was grateful indeed to hear the work, especially performed so well, it was really in its third act that it came into its own for me, although there are certainly individual numbers, perhaps especially the choral ones, beforehand which prove arresting or at least interesting earlier on. At one point, I felt The Firebird calling; that, I thought was what I had been hoping to hear. Elsewhere, I felt a little too often that numbers were about to flower like Tchaikovsky, but never did. However, once the rusalki came along in the third act, the composer seemed far more in his element (or at least mine). There, the air of orchestral fantasy and magic – even if the Beckmesser in me might have queried quite so much use of the harps – proved a delight and incited the hero, Levko, to quite his loveliest music too, against that supernatural setting which would save the day for him once back home. The evening never looked back.

Christopher Cowell’s production makes the most of that. The water nymphs take over the stage, extending themselves and their realm physically as well as – well, if not quite metaphysically, for that seems alien to Rimsky’s world-view, then imaginatively. Choreography (Mandy Demetriou) and lighting (Jake Wiltshire) do excellent work in this transformation. But the production accomplishes a great deal beforehand too. Updating to the 1920s gives us a sense of where Russia – or, indeed, the Ukraine, where this is set – was heading, of the challenges of industrialisation more than hinted at in the setting of a distillery and its transformation, and sheds new light upon the relationship between village community and outside direction.  Striking designs by Bridget Kimak and students from Rose Bruford College frame the action splendidly, and work very well with the setting: the Ambika P3 bunker in Marylebone. I was surprised not just at the extraordinary visual transformation, but also at the fine acoustic results too.

As ever, a Royal Academy production offers a showcase for young singers, and once again, they performed very well indeed. Our pair of thwarted and finally united lovers, Oliver Johnston as Levko and Laura Zigmantaite as Ganna, truly excelled. Zigmantaite’s performance was graceful, flexible and grateful of voice, with a splendid vocal flowering at the close. Johnston’s was little short of sensational. The beauty of his voice was matched note for note by idiomatic command. His third-act aria, ‘Sleep my beauty,’ was ravishing: something that would have commanded the attention on the most celebrated of stages, all the more so for its lack of grandstanding. Its wistful sincerity was palpable. Everyone, however, played his or her part. Božidar Smiljanić’s bumbling, scheming Headman was a fine comic portrayal, likewise Alex Otterburn’s hapless Kalenik. Katie Stevenson similarly raised smiles as sister-in-law – one suspects that covers a multitude of sins – to the Headman. Alys Roberts made the most of her opportunity to steal hearts as the nymph, Pannochka, drawing us in to find her plight and rescue credible and affecting.

If the orchestra got off to a surprisingly rocky start in the Overture, it soon settled down. Earlier on, there were occasions when I thought a few more desks of strings would not have gone amiss. (When, after all, would that not be the case?) But as time went on, such thoughts vanished from my mind, and was able fully to enjoy a lovingly (post-)Romantic performance, thoughtfully directed by Jane Glover’s successor (in September) as Director of Royal Academy Opera, Gareth Hancock. Tempi were persuasive; the orchestra spoke without ever overwhelming the singers. Choral singing was very impressive too. As so often, I was left in no doubt that we shall hear more from many of these excellent young artists. This was, of course, a wonderful opportunity for them, but equally for us.