'Ruslan' given its due by the Kirov Review: Glinka's great Russian opera, origin of so much that followed, is in good hands.

May 11, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

NEW YORK -- There was a peculiar logic to the Kirov Opera's choice of Mikhail Glinka's "Ruslan and Ludmilla" as the fourth and final production of its three-week Russian opera festival, which concluded Saturday at the Metropolitan Opera.

Glinka's "Ruslan" (1842) was not only the predecessor of the Kirov's other productions -- Tchaikovsky's "Mazeppa" (1884), Borodin's "Prince Igor" (1890), and Prokofiev's "Betrothal in a Monastery" (1946) -- but is also the source from which all Russian operatic music springs.

Glinka's setting of Pushkin's verse fairy tale established the pattern for the "opera legends" Rimsky-Korsakov was to exploit. The composer's "orientalism" -- the voluptuous undulation and restless chromaticism found in "Ruslan's" third act -- was the fount of origin for the similarly colored music of Borodin, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Prokofiev. "Ruslan's" harmonic innovations -- such as the creepy whole-tone scales that portray the horrors of the evil magicians Chernomor and Naina -- turn up in places as various as Puccini's "Tosca" and John Williams' film scores for "Jaws" and "Schindler's List." Glinka's use of folk-song inflections leads directly to those in Mussorgsky's "Boris" (and thence to Debussy's "Pelleas" and, eventually, Britten's "Peter Grimes.)"

But if "Ruslan and Ludmilla" is one of history's most important operas, why don't we know it better?

While the famous overture has always been a concert-hall favorite, the opera itself had to wait 100 years to be performed in the United States (and then only in a severely truncated concert version) and another 25 years to be staged (a bargain-basement production in 1977 in Boston).

Part of the problem is length: without cuts, "Ruslan" runs more than four hours. Russian art, its music as well as its fiction, reflects an extraordinary appetite for narrative. For the shorter attention span of an American audience, however, "Ruslan" can require patience.

In this wonderful sprawl of a fairy tale, Ludmilla, daughter of the grand Duke of Kiev, is betrothed to the valiant Ruslan, but during the wedding feast she mysteriously vanishes amid lightning and thunder. The Duke promises her to anyone who rescues her, including Ludmilla's two rejected suitors -- the passionate Ratmir (a "pants" role for a mezzo) and the comically evil Farlaf. But Ruslan is helped by a benign magician, Finn, who tells him Ludmilla was abducted by a sinister magus, Chernomor, whose might resides in his long beard. Ruslan must not only get Chernomor to a barber, but also overcome a number of other obstacles -- including a huge severed head (sung by a vocal quartet) and a bevy of seductive beauties (danced by soloists of the Kirov Ballet).

As the Kirov's production (which I heard Friday) surely demonstrated, to first-time listeners, however, "Ruslan" is not merely an influential opera, but also a beautiful one. Glinka's writing is rich melodically and vital rhythmically; his orchestral textures are intriguing; and his virtuosic vocal settings bring out the best in a good voice.

Though not as uniformly strong as the other Kirov productions, good voices are still in abundance in this "Ruslan." Except for an uneasy moment at the beginning, Anna Netrebko sang Ludmilla with both roundness and bite; she had the ductility to command the role's ornaments and runs with authority; and she had the coloratura instincts to dash them off with unmistakable relish.

As her Ruslan, basso Askar Abdrazakov sang with beauty of tone and youthful spirit. In the third leading role, Zlata Bulycheva as Ratmir was less persuasive: her mezzo-soprano simply doesn't have the rich, contralto-like timbre required. Soprano Valentina Tsidipova dispatched Gorislava with passion and control. As Bayan, the bard, Yevgeny Akimov's ability to finish a phrase made one hang on every word; as Finn, Graer Khanedanian was confident and intelligent. Irina Bogachova made an excellent Naina and was well-partnered by Gennady Bezzubenkov's Farlaf.

My only regret was that I didn't hear "Ruslan" conducted by the company's artistic director, Valery Gergiev. The Kirov's second conductor, Alexander Titov, accompanied his singers in an overloud and four-square manner that short-changed singers and music.

Pub Date: 5/11/98

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