A decade ago, few outside Russia had ever heard of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia (to give, once only, the full and intractable title). Nor had many Russians; soon after its premiere, at the Maryinsky Theatre in 1907, it vanished from the stage. Nevertheless, since Valery Gergiev began his campaign to reclaim for the Kirov Opera the company's czarist repertory and prestige, Kitezh has figured near the very top of the list of works he wished to revive. Three summers ago, when the Kirov came to the Metropolitan Opera House with Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel, Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades and Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, Gergiev already was throwing out tantalizing hints of "the Russian Parsifal."At that time the opera had not yet been brought back to the stage, even in St. Petersburg. Last year, it was; this month, with the least possible delay, it reaches these shores (Feb. 28Mar. 5), at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
The notion of a Russian Parsifal was intriguing, though to scholars in the field hardly unfamiliar. Richard Taruskin, the New Grove Dictionary of Opera's chief curator of the Russian wing, informs his readers that the phrase has been applied to Kitezh often, which is justified, in his view, "insofar as Wagner's last opera was clearly among its models.
"The miracle music in Acts III and IV resonates with the basso ostinato from the Good Friday Spell," Taruskin points out, "and there is even a sort of Dresden Amen in the last scene." But he also cites other parallels -- musical and dramatic episodes that mimic the Ring (the murder of Fasolt by Fafner, the Forest Murmurs), key schemes from Balakirev, echoes from Glinka and Mussorgsky, whose False Dimitri (né Grigori or Grishka) is the musical ancestor of the Grishka in Kitezh.
In concerts with the New York Philharmonic last February (and again on the Kirov Orchestra's American tour last fall), Gergiev whetted appetites for the complete opera with an orchestral suite comprising the Prelude ("Hymn to Nature"), Bridal Procession, Invasion of the Tatars, Battle of Kershenetz, Holy Death of the Maiden Fevronia and Pilgrimage to the Invisible City.
If to a susceptible mind the promise of fabulous adventures in those headings already worked a certain witchcraft, the music raised that witchcraft to a higher power. Rustling strings surrounded listeners with an Eden of sound as alive and busy as it was serene, as if all creation were a cathedral, its dappled height and vastness resonant with dispersed birdsong. Another song was heard as well -- a simple, unmistakably Russian melody of joyous radiance that might have been the mantra of a soul in bliss. The battle surged like the sea, army against army, wave chasing wave; listening, one breasted the flood. The final movement shimmered in chaste, ethereal tranquility.
Gergiev's dream of a staged production had come true just before the New York concerts, in January 1994, as part of the Kirov's pioneering festival centered on Rimsky-Korsakov in the twentieth century. The fully staged Sadko, The Maid of Pskov and Kashchei the Immortal were seen at that time as well, along with concerts featuring excerpts from other Rimsky-Korsakov operas and a rich array of works by students and artistic descendants such as Glazunov, Stravinsky, Respighi, Ravel and Messiaen. From all Europe, the music press flocked to St. Petersburg and came back bearing tales of a succession of marvels. At the White Nights Festival the following June, only one production was carried over from January. It was Kitezh -- and Gergiev's transcendent performances of the suite with the New York Philharmonic were reason enough to attend.
Like Wagner's "festival play to consecrate the stage," Rimsky-Korsakov's mystery play (libretto by Vladimir Belsky) begins in a forest. There, in prelapsarian innocence, dwell the maiden Fevronia (soprano) and her young brother, a woodsman and hunter. Suddenly a stranger appears, separated from a hunting party. He and Fevronia fall in love, and he departs, giving her his ring and a pledge to send matchmakers to her brother. When they arrive, Fevronia learns that her lover is Vsevolod (tenor), son of the mighty Prince Yuri (bass).
The action continues in the town of Lesser Kitezh. Wedding festivities are in full swing. Fevronia is expected at any moment. Most of the townsfolk rejoice, but a group of rich citizens, disapproving of Vsevolod's choice of a low-born bride, goad the drunkard Grishka (tenor) to insult her. When he does, the crowd drives him away. The ceremony begins, promptly to be interrupted by marauding Tatars. Two captives are taken: Fevronia, for her beauty, and Grishka, who, threatened with torture, agrees to lead them to Greater Kitezh. Fevronia prays for the city to be made invisible.
The miracle comes to pass. In Greater Kitezh, Prince Yuri leads his people in prayer. Church bells ring as Vsevolod leads the army to battle, and a golden mist descends, concealing the city. Vsevolod perishes on the battlefield. The Tatar warriors Bedyay and Burunday (basses, like their models Fasolt and Fafner) quarrel over possession of Fevronia, and Bedyay is slain. Grishka, crazed with remorse, runs to drown himself in Lake Svetliy Yar but stops short when he sees the reflection of Kitezh in the waters. The prisoners make their escape. Terrified by the vision of the invisible city, the Tatars flee.
In the final act, near exhaustion, Fevronia and Grishka wander through the wilderness. Grishka's mind snaps, and he runs away. Left alone, Fevronia falls asleep, and two prophetic birds (soprano and contralto) foretell her impending death and eternal life. Vsevolod returns to lead Fevronia to the invisible city, a place no longer of this earth, where their wedding ceremony is completed. Fevronia intercedes for Grishka but learns he is not yet ready for salvation. From her beatitude in the beyond, she sends him a message to inspire him to achieve life eternal and a reunion in the invisible city.
If this is the Russian Parsifal, who is Parsifal? Wagner's holy fool suffers for his failure to speak the compassion he feels in his heart. Grishka's sin in insulting the saintly Fevronia allies him more nearly with Kundry, who mocked the Savior, as does his delirium of self-laceration. So Grishka is no candidate, and there really is no other. Fevronia may have a spiritual twin in Tannhäuser's noble Elisabeth, though Fevronia's heart goes out to two men, not one -- her blameless husband Vsevolod and the wretched Grishka, whom it is not in her power to redeem.
Analogies between the "Russian Parsifal" and the German one come to little more, really, than a comparable atmosphere of mysticism and devotion. Wagner mines his material like a psychoanalyst, uncovering myriad poisoned morbidities. The constellation of meshed destinies at the heart of Parsifal, the obsessive Wagnerian point of view (from The Flying Dutchman onward) that folds all stories into one eternal ritual of guilt and deliverance -- these have no counterpart in Kitezh, and many may count this lack a virtue. The spirituality conjured up by Rimsky-Korsakov is comforting and naive, like a child's.
Fevronia sings in an idiom quite her own -- an idiom of wholeness and contemplative jubilation -- yet the molecular leitmotif technique as Wagner developed it plays no part in Rimsky-Korsakov's design. Even where Kitezh is most reminiscent of Wagner -- in the pages of nature ablaze with spirit, for instance, or the solemnity of the tolling bells -- Rimsky-Korsakov borrows Wagner's colors less than he fits them to his own jewel-tone palette. And as with Wagner, so with Mussorgsky. If Grishka's idiom derives from the False Dimitri of Boris, Rimsky-Korsakov gives it a distinctive accent.
At the 1994 White Nights Festival, ardent portrayals by Galina Gorchakova (Fevronia) and Vladimir Galouzine (Grishka) conveyed how moving their scenes in Kitezh can be. But the performance as a whole -- the first in five months, and only the fourth since the production's premiere -- did not fulfill the promise of the concert excerpts.
For one thing, the production was a disappointment. One could admire the fantasy of the costumes (Gorchakova recalled Sarah Bernhardt in the popular art deco posters of Alphonse Mucha, and ensemble members did charming turns as bears and horses), but the ill-lit stage pictures gave small pleasure. Aiming by means of an ugly arch, minimal decor and plentiful projections to create one huge magic lantern, Mart Kitaev's designs came off as merely poverty-stricken. And apart from one fine coup de théâtre (the Tatar army arriving by elevator), Aleksei Stepanyuk's direction failed to focus attention on the key incidents of the story.
Nor were the musical values what one would have hoped for. Apart from Gorchakova and Galouzine, Gergiev was forced to cast several roles from below the ensemble's top tier. And in a week that also saw the orchestra's first-ever Mahler Symphonies No. 2 (under Mariss Jansons) and No. 6 (under James Conlon), with the concert premiere of Verdi's original St. Petersburg version of La Forza del Destino in prospect, there was no time for a Kitezh rehearsal; the devoted but overworked orchestra and chorus lost focus here and there -- it was an off night.
Besides, one had to confront a shortcoming inherent in the work, which comes just where it does the most harm, in an unending finale that manages to recycle the seraphic motif from the prelude till it wears out its welcome.
True, the day may come, as it has for Boris Godunov (not to mention plenty of Mozart, Verdi and Wagner), when enlightened audiences will want to take their Kitezh straight -- as much as possible come scritto, without alteration and without cuts. But not yet. Like certain other Russian operas that the world is just now discovering or rediscovering, the dramaturgy has spots that feel gauche, amateurish, fatally unconcerned with pace and suspense. Maybe lack of familiarity creates the appearance of artistic flaws where they do not exist. Still, as a practical matter, cuts are at present a plain necessity.
For American admirers of the Kirov assembled in St. Petersburg for the White Nights, it was gloomy to think that the company's next New York appearance would show it to such disadvantage. Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila, performed the following night, seemed a stronger choice. As staged with devilish flair by Lotfi Mansouri in a recreation of the stunning 1904 decor of Golovina and Korovina, with dances choreographed in 1917 by Fokine, Glinka's chivalric epic proved simply dazzling. But BAM had requested Kitezh, and besides, Ruslan was unavailable for contractual reasons, pending presentation by San Francisco Opera in September 1995, with Gergiev in the pit.
In any case, Gergiev's faith in Kitezh remains unshaken: "It is Rimsky-Korsakov's testament. In the writing for the voice and the handling of the orchestra, it is the essential score of his life."
The happy news for BAM audiences is that the lessons of the White Nights Kitezh were not lost on those with the means to remedy them. The curtain had hardly fallen on the St. Petersburg performance when Gergiev started setting wheels in motion. "The Kitezh you saw was a work in progress," he remarked later. "The director and designer have made many excellent productions in the past, but this time they tried for something they did not know how to do. They simply did not have the technique or the equipment to work effectively with projections. What you see in Brooklyn will be different."
With a missionary's determination, Gergiev has had Kitezh remounted, investing an unbudgeted quarter of a million dollars (serious money for any opera company, but especially in Russia's disheveled economy) on new decor. New backdrops have been painted, the dishwater lighting has been dealt with, a new director has been rehearsing the cast. Only the costumes remain from the original production, and those are no cause for complaint.
Since last June, the Kirov has shown the evolving Kitezh in Hamburg, Rotterdam and Paris, to loud acclaim. In New York, Gorchakova will repeat her role, while Galouzine exchanges Grishka for Vsevolod. They will be joined by such front-line artists as Gegam Grigorian and Mariana Terrasova. And Gergiev has taken his pencil to the score, pruning ten minutes from the finale for a shapelier evening of music theater -- the Kitezh we have been waiting for.