Although Mikhail Glinka is considered, and rightly so, the father of Russian opera, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) is undoubtedly the cornerstone of this magical repertoire. Indeed, throughout his career he composed seventeen operas, the largest number by any Russian composer, dealing mainly with the historical and fairy-tale elements of his country. It is pertinent to mention that before he took up music as his lifelong ambition, Rimsky-Korsakov was a sailor in the Russian Navy, and this helped no end to stimulate his descriptive talent of places and situations which in one's imagination seemed almost impossible to express in musical sounds. Apart from this unique gift, the composer was also a master orchestrator - some consider him as the greatest in nineteenth century Europe - and these natural ingredients spurred Rimsky-Korsakov to create a world of operatic magic and mystery that is wholly irresistible.
Now to Kashchei. In 1901 Rimsky-Korsakov had already been a professor at St Petersburg Conservatory for thirty years and his reputation was peerless. Having already composed some eleven operas of varying subject-matter, his interest in folklore led him to the story of the evil genie Kashchei who holds as his prisoner Princess Tsarevna, the bride-to-be of Prince Ivan Korolevich. Kashchei's immortality lies hidden in a tear of his cruel and heartless daughter Kashcheyevna, through whose realm one must pass to reach the genie's kingdom. A series of events bring about a love triangle between the Prince, the Princess and Kashcheyevna that finally destroys the evil Kashchei.
Listen — Rimsky-Korsakov: It seems?
(Kashchei the Immortal, Scene 3)
(track 12, 0:00-0:56) © 2019 Melodiya :
The opera was premiered in Moscow in December 1902, but more pivotal was the St Petersburg premiere in 1905 in the aftermath of 'Bloody Sunday'. With proceeds intended for the victims' families and cries of 'down with the autocracy' after the performance, the police soon evacuated the hall with little mercy. Ever since, the main character has always been associated with tyranny and injustice, and that is why this opera is so relevant even today.
Listen — Rimsky-Korsakov: Days without gleam, sleepless nights
(Kashchei the Immortal, Scene 1)
(track 1, 0:02-0:56) © 2019 Melodiya :
The work is small in scale with just five performers, and the realm of the supernatural is emphasised through artificial modes. Further musical characterisation can also be found in Kashchei's chromaticism and altered harmonies and Prince Ivan's heroic lyricism. Passionately sung by some of the foremost Russian singers of the day, this Melodiya recording was a first of this mini operatic masterpiece; moreover, it was taped in 1949 on the 175th anniversary of the composer's birth.
Listen — Rimsky-Korsakov: The night falls, and gently wind lulled
(Kashchei the Immortal, Scene 2)
(track 6, 6:01-7:00) © 2019 Melodiya :
Do not be taken aback; the sound quality is miraculous and I enjoyed listening to this historic venture with immense pleasure. Try it; there is much more to opera than Traviata or Carmen.
Copyright © 23 May 2020