Opera in four acts. Running Time: 2 hours 18 minutes.
As you all know, today is my 29th birthday and I always release a post on my birthday. I finished this one in April, although I had been working on it since January.
Rimsky-Korsakov dedicated this score to Frederic Chopin and it possesses strong Polish influences (particularly dances such as the Mazurka and Polonaise). Due to its incredibly weak (and frankly irrational) plot, (you have to read it to believe it!), it has proven to be one of his most unpopular works. The music, however, is at times beautiful and invariably lush with a strong emphasis on nature and dance music in the vein of Dvorak, Smetana, and Chopin (although I think there are traces of Wagner and even Mozart as well). This review is of the 1951 Soviet studio recording conducted by Samuil Samosud, which is considered to be the definitive recording.
SETTING: Poland, 16th or 17th Century. This is one of the most completely ridiculous plots in the entire history of the genre of opera. At its heart, it is a love-pentagon involving three men and two women. The title character Pan Voyevoda (bass) is a powerful Polish aristocrat who kidnaps a poor but equally aristocratic orphan named Maria (soprano) who he meets in the forest and forces to marry him. The problem is that she already has a fiancé, Boleslav Chaplinsky (tenor), and the Voyevod has a very jealous mistress, Jadwiga (soprano) who goes to a beekeeper and sorcerer named Dorosh (bass) for a poison with which to kill her unwilling rival which she decides to administer during the wedding feast which occurs just as Chaplinsky and his friends storm the castle of the Voyevod in a failed attempt at liberating Maria, leading to one of the most bizarre endings in all opera. Over-complicating matters, but providing a solution to this travesty of a plot, is Olesnitsky (contralto) who is the secret lover of Jadwiga (!); I told you this was completely ridiculous, and I haven’t even gotten into what happens with the poison!
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: A forest glade. (43.5 minutes)
0, 2: A vot i meljnitsa The quiet prelude ** makes strong references to the prelude to Das Rheingold, (one recurring melody appears to be a leitmotif for fate and it returns VERY frequently), although with some Polish dance references it livens up a little and gets a bit forest-y, flowing immediately into an aria for Chaplinsky * as he anticipates the arrive of Maria to the sedate beat of an underlining mazurka, very effecting. A feminine chorus comes on as Maria shows up for their boreal rendezvous.
7: Razmetavj svoj ruchki Maria has a lovely aria ** in 2/4 time.
13: Ha-ha-ha-ha! Afterwards the low strings from the prelude return to underline Chaplinsky’s response and then there is another mild all-female chorus *. The low strings return.
15, 25, 28, 31: Ochemj zhje govopitj?/Odnako eto skuchno Voyevoda!/ The Maria-Boleslav duet * has one cute melody, as mild as milk, and lasts all of about two minutes. Soon there are some very western sounding hunting horns as the rendezvous is broken off and Pan Voyevoda and his party come on. They bump into Dzjuba (baritone), one of the hunting party who is a friend of Yadviga, who herself comes on with Olesnitsky and they discuss the status of their relationship. The Voyevod dialogues for the longest time with his mistress Yadviga and his friends over a tempo marked in the score as that of a Polonaise * as he relates his chance encounter with Maria in the woods which causes Yadviga to depart with her friends to another part of the word. Eventually a Krakowiac * is performed and the romantic ardour of the Voyevod is on dramatic display ***.
36, 39: Zdesj, blizj meljnitsy/A-oo! A-oo! Left alone, his is allowed to fantasize about Maria ** before she arrives on accident singing some sort of hunting call *. The kidnapping scene is relatively quick and not particularly remarkable musically: Chaplinsky arrives and fights the Voyevod when it is revealed that he is her betrothed but his is quickly wounded and left for dead in the wood. The hunting party returns and both Maria and Yadviga are enraged by the turn of events as to whom is marrying the Voyevod one week hence.
ACT 2: Backwoods cabin of the beekeeper and sorcerer Dorosh. (38.5 minutes)
0, 1: U vidimj kto hrabryej The act starts in the same key (and melody) as the last ended * with a combination of Ring Cycle brooding music and Tristan und Isolde. Olesnitsky hides waiting for Yadviga * to a slightly energetic arioso. She comes on with Dzyuba, who is apparently terrified of having to inquire of Dorosh. It is never quite ornery, but it comes deathly close.
4: Kakj molnijasj Yadviga is determined, whatever must come, will happen **.
7, 11: Kto tamj?/Temno vjvodej The interview with Dorosh * is a frightening affair as he predicts the future with a bowl of water: he sees Maria and the Voyevod at the altar. Yadviga decides to kill Maria **. Dorosh offers her a poison with which to accomplish this, but warns her that it might miss its intended target.
15: Rimsky-Korsakov, possibly out of irony, follows up this deathly sequence with a lovely orchestral intermezzo ** which restates the main Ring Cycle theme.
19, 24: Takj votjonj/Sjneba prozrachnago Yadviga returns and wakes the sleeping Olesnitsky * and they embark on a duet which takes around five minutes to warm up but when it finally does ** it is rather good.
29: Ne bojtes pani! They are interrupted by the arrival of Chaplinsky (who has apparently recovered from his wounds) and his friend Poslavsky and others. Their plot * to storm the castle of the Voyevod and liberate Maria during the wedding festivities is overheard by Yadviga. Most of the music is a return of earlier material over a double-bass line until the chorus gets in on the act. Yadviga seeks away unnoticed by the men but Dorosh is left alone to reflect on fate (the theme gets modulated several times before the curtain falls).
ACT 3: The Great Hall of the castle of the Voyevod. (31 minutes)
0: The act starts with a majestic Mazurka ***, the middle of which is interrupted by a chorus of tenor wedding guests, and eventually the Voyevod himself gets in on the act. The three-part chorus comes in although the males are a little tiny bit ornery. Dzyuba goes into a drinking song with the chorus and Voyevod tries to toast Maria but she declines to reciprocate.
8: A Polonaise ***. Yadviga appears, obviously uninvited, and attempts to poison what she thinks is the goblet Maria is drinking from but she is distracted by Dzyuba who for some reason flirts with her (possibly because he is drunk?). The Voyevod decides to make fun of his former mistress but she retorts that Chaplinsky and his forces are about to storm the castle.
19: Neponjatno yeya poljavjelye Suddenly, out of no where, there is a classic ensemble number ** as everyone reflects on the coming home invasion.
22: Pyesnus spoyu Maria is ordered to sing for the guests and delivers a funeral dirge for a swan *, a decidedly depressing piece displaying the morbid state of our heroine. The Voyevod is infuriated by this and orders Dzyuba to sing again and then order up more dancing.
28: This time it is rowdy Cossack dance **, but it is interrupted by the invasion of the hall by Chaplinsky and his forces. Maria falls into his arms and a battle ensues in the hall as the curtain falls.
ACT 4: The same, the following morning. (24.5 minutes)
0: An entracte *, ironically without the slightest trace of the battle, well almost, there is so angst.
2: Uzheli onj ymertsj? The Marshal tells the Voyevod that Chaplinsky is imprisoned in the dungeon. Maria arrives ** and begs her husband to spare her former betrothed but he tells her that the man is to be executed immediately, after which Maria is free to go to a nunnery if she does not want to be his wife. But first they will drink a toast (for some reason that only makes sense as a way to wrap up this storyline). Yadviga comes on with Olesnitsky and tells him to poison the goblet Maria will be drinking. The orchestra waltzes about on this rather cheerfully.
10: Shto pasmurny take, Pane Voyevoda? The Yadviga-Voyevod interview ** quickly becomes very passionate (if a tinge Mozartean) as it is obvious that Maria has no love for him at all and, well Yadviga is his mistress after all! Olesnitsky sees them together and decides that he will poison someone, but not Maria….
14: Idemj pozdravitj The finale ** starts off with a march, Dzyuba performs another song with the chorus, the Voyevod and Maria arrive for the toast and Chaplinsky is brought in before his execution followed by a priest confessor. The Voyevod and Maria drink the toast, Chaplinsky is allowed final words before the sentence of death is declared, but the poison is very fast acting and before he is able to order the execution the Voyevod falls dead. Yadviga screams and realizes that Olesnitsky has poisoned him. There is a brief but starchy requirem before Maria, now the widow and heir of the Voyevod, orders the servants to release Chaplinsky as the curtain falls.
There are so many things that are wrong with this opera. The plot is a series of tired and frankly uninteresting operatic cliches ranging from maiden meets old man in the forest to widow rescues lover from execution order. In fact some elements: such as a jealous female rival seeking a poison to get rid of the protagonist, isn’t even original within Rimsky-Korsakov, it is also the plot of The Tsar’s Bride! In many ways the story seems like an excuse for writing Polish-style showcase dance music, but said dance music has its merits. Olesnitsky is a late incarnation (along with Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier and the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos) of the contralto playing a man. Maria is a standard operatic heroine. Yadviga is a little more interesting seeing that she is neither good or evil really in spite of her murderous intentions regarding Maria. Chaplinsky is a standard tenor hero who doesn’t get very much stage time (around forty-five minutes in a nearly two and a half hour long opera). The Voyevod himself is a standard bass, neither villainous nor particularly sympathetic. Dzyuba is basically a comic divertissement in himself. The score, apart from a few great moments and dance pieces, is a little repetitive (the fate motif is used A LOT!). So what we have is a gamma plot used as a vehicle for beta (sometimes alpha) level Polish dance music. B-.