|Ramon Tenefrancia, Shelén Hughes, Maestro Jorge Parodi, Gabriella Chea, Marcel Sokalski, and Melanie Long at Manhattan School of Music|
This seems to be the year of fairytales at Manhattan School of Music--first Cendrillon, now Rimsky-Korsakov's Snow Maiden, and soon Cenerentola. These operas come in three languages--French, Russian and Italian. Well, Snow Maiden should have been sung in Russian but we are aware that might have been too much for undergraduates to undertake. Undergraduates? Yes, the astonishing artists we witnessed last night were mostly undergraduates; but no excuses or qualifying comments are necessary.
We accepted what occurred onstage as a highly professional production, not only vocally but dramatically and terpsichorean as well. Director Dona D. Vaughn pulled together a show that dazzled the eye and ear but also reached the heart. That she had some exceptional talent to work with was obvious and the ensemble spirit was evident. One of the impressive features of the production is the avoidance of condescension and irony. The story is presented with innocence and sincerity, just like the character of the Snow Maiden herself, winningly performed by the sweet voiced soprano Shelén Hughes.
The existence of this love child of Fairy Spring (effectively portrayed by Cassandra Brooke Kalinofski) and King Frost (excellent bass-baritone Andrew Henry) has angered the Sun who has withheld his presence, causing much cold in the land, and a coldness in the hearts of its occupants, as observed by Tsar Berendey (the terrific tenor Ramon Tenefrancia).
Snow Maiden, or Snegurochka as she is known in Russia, is adopted by a local peasant family comprising the bibulous Bobil (the very funny tenor Joshua Ross) and his complaining wife Bobilicka (excellent soprano Aleksandra Durin). Snegurochka loves music and enjoys listening to the songs of the shepherd Lell (portrayed by the sizably voiced mezzo-soprano Gabriella Chea).
Her friend Kupava (splendid soprano Melanie Hope Long) is celebrating her marriage to the wealthy Mizgir (burnished baritone Marcel Sokalski) in a charming scene in which he must "purchase" the bride from her friends.
The fickle Mizgir falls fur hat over fur boots for the pure Snegurochka. The devastated Kupava goes to Tsar Berendey for justice and compassion. (That's how we know it's a fairytale!) He banishes Mizgir but Mizgir won't give up his pursuit, from which Snegurochka flees.
Witnessing the joy of the couples that Tsar Berendey has blessed in a kind of group mating ritual, Snegurochka wants to feel the love that comes so naturally to others but which has never entered her cold heart. She asks her mother Fairy Spring for help. The help comes with a warning to avoid the rays of the sun.
Perhaps you have already guessed the ending. She submits to the importunate Mizgir and gets melted by the sun. Mizgir takes a jump in the lake. She has performed the ultimate sacrifice and has restored seasonal order to the frigid kingdom. The populace celebrates.
There were so many precious moments in this production! It was like a string of pearls strung together and laid against a background of some of the most gorgeous music we have heard in some time. Indeed, we recall that it was a childhood hearing of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade that awakened our interest in classical music. The composer's gifts for orchestration are obvious to the naive listener but would provide plenty of meat for analysis by advanced musicologists.
The magic hands of Maestro Jorge Parodi brought out every nuance of the score, which incorporated Russian folk melodies and "kicked them up a notch". Sounds of nature were omnipresent with birdsong being featured, especially the sound of the cuckoo. Let us here praise the performance of lithe soprano Lauren Lynch as the Spirit of the Woods and the chorus of birds featuring Ashley Lea, Cynthia Soyeon Yu, Rong Yue, Tzuting Tsai, and Lauren Marie Curet. We were not at all surprised to learn that the choreographer was John-Mark Owen whose work we enjoyed even before we began writing about opera.
Smaller roles were as effectively sung as the leads, with baritone Yichen Xue performing as the Boyer Bermata, soprano Ziyi Dai as a Page, and tenor Mimi Chiu as a Herald. We do not know who fulfilled the position of Chorus Master but the chorus was excellent.
Sets and costumes were designed by Maureen Freedman whose wonderful work is new to us. The set for Snow Maiden was simple but effective--some bare white trees with tiny lights suggesting icicles, a cutout of a minaret and some windows suggesting a town, a hanging cutout of the faces of Sun and Moon, and a tiny rabbit hiding in the trees.
The simplicity of the set was balanced by the elaborate design of the costumes. Fairy Spring was covered with flowers and greenery; King Frost was, like Snegurochka, decked out in white and fur. The Tsar was resplendent in gold and the wealthier citizens looked like pictures in a book of 19th c. Russia. Peasants wore babushkas and long skirts with aprons. It was all picture perfect.
If you have read this far without boredom, let us have our say about fairytales. True fairytales, those handed down since medieval days, evolved slowly until Perrault and Hans Christian Andersen wrote them down. According to Bruno Bettelheim, in his landmark exploration The Uses of Enchantment, they exist to help children deal with adversity in a simplified way. Parental death and abandonment, evil step-parents, poverty, difficult siblings, etc.
So is Snegurochka a true fairytale? Aleksandr Ostrovsky wrote the play (in rhymed verse) in 1873, using music by Tchaikovsky! (We can imagine how Tchaikovsky felt when Rimsky-Korsakov's opera premiered within a decade.) We have researched European and Russian fairytales and there are various iterations of the tale of a child made of snow that melts. But the embellishments provided by Ostrovsky may have been original. We are reminded of Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen (also seen at MSM and elsewhere) and Dvorak's Russalka, both of which also deal with man's troubled relationship with the natural world and a kind of magic realism.
Unless a reader more scholarly than we are can provide additional information we would have to say that this compelling story is not an echt fairytale but nonetheless a source of aural and visual pleasure. What more could one ask! Hearing it in Russian perhaps?
(c) meche kroop