Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden is a rather odd opera. It’s set in some sort of idyllic pre-Christian Russia where the tsar is approachable, just and benevolent and the people spend most of their time drinking and having sex. Into this world comes Snow Maiden, the fifteen year old daughter of Winter and Spring. Her parents have various things to do and so decide to park the girl with the local peasantry. Various romantic complications ensue involving a rather nasty, rich merchant Mizguir and the mysterious Lel, who may be a shepherd but likely isn’t mortal either. The mating behaviour of the locals confuses Snow Maiden as she is incapable of falling in love. Eventually Spring grants her that faculty and she gives herself to Mizguir, while really wanting Lel, but the rays of the sun on the first day of summer melt her. The natives ignore her death and get on with singing and dancing.
That’s the canonical version anyway. Unsurprisingly Dmitri Tcherniakov in his production for Opéra de Paris filmed in 2017 introduces a twist. The villagers; tsar and all, aren’t real villagers, or tsars. They are a modern reenactment group. While this perhaps offers an alternative to seeming to push a romantized past, (which is a bit of an issue in Putin’s Russia) it creates its own problems. Who, or what, now, are the non-human characters? Are they still supposed to be divine and immortal or are they humans; reenactors even? And what sort of parents would entrust their teenage daughter to a bunch of hard drinking and sex obsessed weekend nutters? And what reenactment group would casually ignore the death of one of their members?
Problems aside it’s all actually pretty straightforward and plays out in a setting of sort of “holiday camp in the forest” of chalets and caravans. The reenactors wear an odd mix of folky and modern clothing; camo vest and baseball cap worn with an embroidered shirt sort of thing. They also spend a lot of time dancing and singing folk songs. And that’s one element in what is actually a bit of a musical pot pourri with folky music for the humans, something a bit artier for the not-so-humans; especially Lel, who is constantly called on to sing. There are also very Russian orchestral passages with lots of brass and booming percussion.
The performances are very good. Aida Garifullina is Snow Maiden. She’s quite charming; acting in an appealingly gauche way and singing sweetly. The part of Lel is given to the tall and imposing counter-tenor Yuriy Mynenko (it’s written for a contralto). This is genius as, besides being a very fine singer, Mynenko comes off a bit like a Tolkien elf; a bit unwordly and more sinister than his shepherd persona suggests. Maxim Paster is Tsar Berendey and he has a really solid and rather pleasing tenor that reinforces the genial persona he projects. Thomas Johannes Mayer oozes malevolence as Mizguir. The rest of a very strong, and rather large, supporting cast all get the job done. the chorus is very good indeed and there’s some spirited playing from the orchestra. Under the baton of Mikhail Tatarniakov it all sounds very Russian indeed.
Andy Sommer’s video direction is straightforward and effective. The picture quality on Blu-ray is very good, even in the rather dark third act. The DTS-HD-MA soundtrack is quite spectacular in places with detail, solidity and a lot of bass extension. I don’t think the stereo mix is quite as good. The booklet has a synopsis and a track listing but absolutely nothing to explain what Tcherniakov is trying to do. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Spanish, Korean and Japanese.
This is the only video recording of The Snow Maiden in the catalogue and it’s a pretty decent way to get to know the piece. Tcherniakov’s “concept”, such as it is doesn’t add anything in my view but it doesn’t get in the way either and the music making and acting are very good.