Nikolaj Andrejevich Rimsky-Korsakov: Kashchey the Deathless/Kashshej bessmertnij (1902)

Opera in one act (three tableaux, twelve numbers). Running Time: 1 hour 9 minutes.

This will probably be the last of my Rimsky-Korsakov series for the time being. The image is Viktor Vasnetsov’s painting of the subject. Enjoy.

290px-viktor_vasnetsov_kashchey_the_immortal

PLOT: Thrice-Tenth Land, beyond Thrice-Ninth Land in Russian Fairy Tales, time unspecified. Princess Tsarevna has been kidnapped by Kashchey, a deathless warlord who preys on young women. The secret of his immortality lies in his daughter, Kashcheyevna, who so far has never wept. Tsarevna’s beloved, Ivan, is being held by this daughter and she plots to kill him but he is rescued, ironically, by Kashchey’s messenger, the Burya-Bogatyr or Storm-Knight. He rescues Tsarevna and Kashchey’s mortality is exposed.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fwrp8cN8EWg

LOOK OUT FOR:

Scene 1: Palace of Kashchey the Deathless.

2: After a very brief introduction from the orchestra we meet the Princess Tsarevna who is tormented by Kashchey *. The fact that Kashchey is a whiny tenor makes him slightly less scary for some reason. Tsarevna is his prisoner, but she longs for her beloved Prince Ivan-Korolevich.

8: Tsarevna peers into Kashchey’s magic mirror ** and sees his daughter Kashcheyevna seducing her beloved. A vibrant accompaniment wells up from the orchestra here as Kashchey reveals the source of his immortality which he worries may be found out by Ivan; if Kashcheyevna were to cry, Kashchey would be vulnerable to death. The Storm-Knight, the only other character, comes on to some snow-stormy music and is sent off by Kashchey to his daughter to check on her.

14, 22: Kashchey’s arioso *, ornery in many ways, deadly serious in others. An ornery harp of all things leads into a dull but serviceable chorus. The highlight of this are Tsarevna’s interjections. Towards the end it lightens up slightly *.

Scene 2: Kashcheyevna’s palace.

28, 32: The interlude serves its purpose yet is hardly interesting, but it does go on for quite a while. Kashcheyevna’s arioso comes as something of a relief *. Another bit of harp music as she reveals her plan: she prepares a potion which will cause Ivan to fall asleep and forget about Tsarevna, then, as he sleeps, she will decapitate him with her sword. There is a marching tune * as she goes over details.

34.5, 36: The entrance of Ivan occurs at literally the mid-point of the opera and it is a rather good if understated entrance ** including a very lyrical aria **.

38: The Kashcheyevna-Ivan duet * ends on one good wandering tune. He falls asleep and she is unable to kill him.

45: The Storm-Knight comes on and a somewhat energetic trio ** ensues as he wakes up Ivan and tells him of Kashcheyevna’s enchantment and connection to her father’s immortality and Tsarevna’s imprisonment. Ivan follows him back to Kashchey’s palace.

Scene 3: Kashchey’s palace as in Scene 1.

48, 50: The interlude here is a little more energetic and sinister * at least at first. Tsarevna’s Lullaby to Kashchey has a stronger sense of fear and urgency than a lullaby should * but given the circumstances can you blame her.

54: Ivan arrives and the Tsarevna-Ivan duet flows along energetically **.

58: Kashcheyevna arrives and pleads with Ivan to stay with her because he is the first man to awaken love in her (notice the allusion to Tannhauser here **). Tsarevna asks who this woman is and Ivan tells her she is Kashchey’s daughter, Tsarevna embraces her and she begins to cry.

61, 63: Kashchey wakes up *, realizes that his daughter has begun to weep, and the orchestra heralds his death **. Kashcheyevna is transformed into a weeping willow because why not?

66: Kashchey’s death throws *.

67: The chorus announces the end of Kashchey’s reign ***. The Storm-Knight opens the gates to the two lovers and they triumphantly leave.

COMMENTS:

Kashchey is a classic, dark, Russian fairy tale, with a happy ending. Both psychologically and musically this is a very interesting entry, and the star ratings should not deter listeners as this opera is better than the sum of its parts. Unlike so many other Rimsky-Korsakov operas which feel around 20 to 30 minutes too long with a plot that is stretched almost to its breaking point, his dramatic pacing here is near perfect, each of the three scenes consists of four numbers a piece and the first two scenes have a close symmetry starting with a female arioso, then the primary male character of the scene shows up, he gets an arioso and then the bass Storm-Knight shows up to resolve the action. Only the interludes can be termed boring, and this is understandable for once as they are the only lull in the action. Tsarevna’s lullaby, although not the big tune number it could be given the way Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird emphasizes it, it is however a good demonstration of the psychological state of a captive operatic character. And what of The Firebird? How does operatic treatment give justice to the story compared to the ballet adaptation? The opera is far less showy, although Rimsky-Korsakov’s usage of chromaticism to depict Kashchey’s realm is worth mentioning and would influence Stravinsky’s score. There is no Firebird here, more than likely bombarding us with coloratura soprano fioritura, instead we get the illusive figure of the Storm-Knight, and who is he actually working for ultimately? The usage of contrasting vocal types that are gender respective (soprano/tenor, mezzo/baritone) in the first two scenes with a constant bass is rather clever as well. I’m going to put this down as an A- in order to balance between those who think it should be either a B+ or a solid A.

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2 thoughts on “Nikolaj Andrejevich Rimsky-Korsakov: Kashchey the Deathless/Kashshej bessmertnij (1902)

  1. I love Rimsky’s musical imagination – and the ensemble at the end is wonderful.

    Why are so few of his operas done outside Russia? Probably because everyone thinks opera = Puccini / Verdi (love triangle that ends unhappily).

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  2. My guess is that Rimsky-Korsakov operas (excluding Golden Cockerel) are so rarely performed because of their specifically Russian psychological framework, which we westerners usually don’t bother to “get”, or at least producers assume we won’t. Excluding Servilia (which is probably the weakest musically of his 16 operas) and Pan Voyevoda (which is apparently set in Poland), they are either Russian fairy-tales or fictional accounts of Russian history which most westerners who don’t have Russian Studies or history degrees like me are clueless as to their symbolism. I do reference how I feel he has a very slow dramatic pace (similar to Wagner), but given that this shouldn’t be a handicap. There are however extremely famous excerpts from his operas (Flight of the Bumble Bee, Song of India, Hymn to the Sun, Overture to The Tsar’s Bride) which, although few realize that they are attached to operas, are recognized almost universally in the west which should give hope for a future introduction of Rimsky operas to our audiences. It would be great though if his operas (excluding Servilia, there really isn’t much in it to merit a full production, although a concert production would be nice) were performed so we could get more fairy tale operas, it is a neglected genre which is probably more accessible to the general public than romantic tragedy.

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