Glinka Ruslan and Ludmila Netrebko Ognovienko GergievMikhail Glinka

Ruslan and Ludmila

CAST: Ludmila: Anna Netrebko, Ruslan: Vladimir Ognovenko, Svetosar: Mikhail Kit, Ratmir: Larissa Diadkova, Farlaf: Gennady Bezzubenkov, Gorislava: Galina Gorchakova, Finn: Konstantin Pluzhnikov, Naina: Irina Bogachova, Bayan: Yuri Marusin

Kirov Orchestra, Opera Chorus and Ballet, St. Petersburg

Valery Gergiev, conductor

In association with San Francisco Opera

Directed for stage by Lofti Mansouri

Philips, 1995 (DVD release date: 2003)

In his biography about composer Mikhail Glinka, David Brown points out that the opera Ruslan and Ludmila was «doomed from the beginning» because of the huge amount of isolated episodes already present in its literary source, the homonymous poem written by Aleksandr Pushkin in 1820, and because of the fact that «Glinka took too long writing it, working spasmodically and unsystematically, composing what took his fancy with little concern for continuity or proportion, until he had written too much of the wrong sort of music, however good much of that music might be in itself» (D. Brown, Glinka. A Biographical and Critical Study, pp. 199-200). Moreover, differently from Glinka’s previous opera A Life for the Tsar, the music of many of the tunes of Ruslan and Ludmila is non-Russian, as the themes of Finn’s Ballade and the Persian chorus.

The weaknesses of the musical texture seem not to trouble the performance staged at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg in 1995. It has been released both in CD and in DVD, but it is not exclusively for completeness that I review in this post the video recording because, visually speaking, this is a colourful and delightful stage production and can favourably be compared with other Mariinsky staging of those years, as Boris Godunov and The Queen of Spades (these too conducted by Valery Gergiev). The atmosphere of a pagan and magical Russia of Kiev is suggested very well by folk costumes and stage designs and lights and it is really amusing to see how the staging has been cured in every detail, as in the joyous and solemn banquet scene of the first act, in the dances and in many other occasions.

Conductor Valery Gergiev enriches with his sensitive and multifaceted reading of Glinka’s music the already enchanting stage design and proves to have understood and absorbed even the minimal hints of the score. The enthralling and brilliant overture is just the first sample of his skill – enough to guess Gergiev’s inspiration but not to predict all the nuances with which he will embellish the music: the suspense that accompanies Finn’s prophesy, the wit with which he provides Ludmila’s fist aria, the boldness with which he strengthens Farlaf’s boasting, Ruslan’s pain and heroism, Gorislava’s sorrow and Ratmir’s poetical melancholy – not to speak of the dances and choruses – are moments and feelings that Gergiev highlights with great psychological intuition.

The heroine of the opera, Ludmila, is sung by Anna Netrebko. I recognize that I was not too tender with her in previous posts of this blog, but this time I have not find anything to blame in her performance, with the small exception of a lack of naïve coquetry in the aria of the first act. This is not a serious defect and Netrebko is a lovely, marvellous Ludmila and is equally fine as a singer and as an actress. Delicacy, naivety and delightfully childish behaviour characterize the young girl who has just left her girlish pastimes to marry the man she loves and Netrebko’s beautiful voice, that at this stage has not the burnished colour that will acquire later, expresses with youthful joy (in the first act) and with courage (in the fourth) the most inner and strongest feelings of the adorable Ludmila.

Next to Netrebko there is the noble and exquisite Ruslan of Vladimir Ognovenko. This is a real prince warrior of old times and his singing alternates the expression of the most tender feelings for his Ludmila, the despondency in front of magical wonders and the heroism that cannot be disregarded, so that Ruslan becomes almost a true human being with many complex feelings to cope with at the same time.

Gennady Bezzubenkov’s Farlaf is instead completely filled with his disappointment for his rejected love and bellicosity, feelings that he expresses in the aria of the second act with the required bravery and as if he has not noticed its intrinsic difficulty. Ludmila’s other pretender, Ratmir, is finely performed by Larissa Diadkova as a melancholic and poetic character, while Galina Gorchakova is a sorrowful, heart-breaking Gorislava who gives voice to desperation with a beautiful, silvery voice. Equally good is Konstantin Pluzhnikov, who sings the role of the good sorcerer Finn in a way that makes him hypnotical and authoritative. Also Irina Bogachova (Naina), Yuri Marusin (Bayan) and Mikhail Kit (Svetosar) are very good singers.

The weaknesses of the composition of Ruslan and Ludmila did not prevent the opera to become popular after the indifference of its premiere in 1842 and do not prevent this production to be successful from any point of view thanks to the concourse of an excellent stage director, a great conductor and a cast in a state of grace that are able to surround the watcher with the magical world an ancient legend.

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