With snow sweeping across the country, we did not have to make such a wild leap of the imagination towards the icy landscape of Dikanka in Ukraine on Christmas Eve in Rimsky-Korsakov’s eponymous opera (1894-5). Full marks, then, to all concerned with Chelsea Opera Group’s venture.
Gogol’s story had already served Tchaikovsky for Vakula the Smith (revised as Cherevichki) but Rimsky-Korsakov awaited the older composer’s death before treating the subject himself, and adding a more mythical frame of reference to it by inserting an invocation to the Slavic gods Kolyada and Ovsen, which gave him greater scope for the sort of fairy-tale drama and colourful orchestration at which he excelled, and revelled in by Timothy Burke and the orchestra, be it the darker, Wagnerian hues of lower brass and woodwinds for the scenes with the Devil (recalling the realm of Nibelheim in the ‘Ring’); the magical flickering motif during Act Three, depicting the dumplings leaping from the pan to Patsyuk’s mouth; or the more evocative sequence of dances and interludes as the Devil flies Vakula on his back to St Petersburg.
The only criticism one could level is that, for all its well-integrated sonority, the orchestra sounded cautious and temperate, rather than driving the performance with vivid drama. As an ensemble accompanying the singing, however, balance was well-judged as the soloists were not obscured, but in combination with the chorus a resplendent glow was achieved, bombast too, such as in the Polonaise in praise of the Tsarina.
During some of the folksong and carol sequences the chorus sounded somewhat polite and restrained, instead of conveying an earthy peasant vigour. But again, climaxes were served with sufficient clarity and enthusiasm, marking off the dramatic points of effectively.
As the widow Solokha, considered a witch by many, Anne-Marie Owens maintained reserved dignity, complementing the more effusive passion of Jonathan Stoughton’s Vakula, her son, and Natasha Jouhl’s Oksana, the latter’s lover. At times a tendency to over-project resulted in a lack of tonal variety by Stoughton, and of verbal clarity in Jouhl’s diction, but the Italianate warmth of their performances was apt. As Chub and Panas, Jeremy White and Keel Watson brought humorous conviction, as also Kevin Hollands and Alun Rhys-Jenkins in their more-limp realisations of the Deacon, and the Mayor, the would-be suitors of Solokha who are each hidden in a sack (here a brown paper bag over their heads), concealing them from the others as they separately come to try and win Solokha’s affections. Richard Roberts’s amiable account of the Devil also recalled a Wagnerian parallel, with his comic portrayal achieved through a sort of high-pitched, strained voice at times like Mime. Sarah Pring’s Tsarina (whose slippers Vakula secures for Oksana) was daintily noble, in contrast with her and Sally Harrison’s bickering as the two Women.
Bravo to Chelsea Opera Group for bringing another operatic rarity to life, all the more welcome in providing seasonal cheer.