Stanislavsky Opera

Rimsky-Korsakov, May Night

A performance of Rimsky-Korsakov‘s rarely-performed early opera May Night tonight at the Stanislavsky Theater.  Musically, the Stanislavsky is excellent and as I mentioned in the Fall is regarded as better than the Bolshoi at the moment.  No stars, but with a good ensemble they don’t need to have any.  And so it was.

The opera itself is based on a 19th-Century fairy tale by Gogol, with the comedy played up by Rimsky.  Nothing special about that, but this production decided to make it political (although I am not entirely sure what the political drama was meant to indicate).  The scene was moved to the 1920s-30s, and during the overture a Soviet propaganda film (silent) of that period was shown, displaying Ukrainian farmers celebrating bountiful harvests.  Considering the Soviets starved the Ukrainians to death in the Great Famine at that time, this is not exactly a pleasant film to watch – and indeed, even those who saw the film at the time elsewhere in the Soviet Union would have noticed that they had none of this food on the shelves in the stores.

But by setting it in that period, the drunk Ukrainian peasants who form the main chorus in this opera – dressed in Ukrainian garb (as in the film) and dancing cossack dances (again, as in the propaganda film) –  come across also as the Nazi-sympathizers they were.  Having just returned recently from Ukraine and seeing how the existence of Jews has been mostly eradicated from memory (since Ukraine’s Jewish history did not fit into the Soviet narrative, nor does it fit into the Ukrainian nationalist narrative), this was certainly foremost on my mind (after the Great Famine, one can certainly understand Ukrainians welcoming the Germans as liberators, but that does not excuse their behavior, particularly towards Jews).

Anyway, after the intermission things toned down a bit.  But when the Mayor changed his outfit during the second act, the color of his new suit was notably the medium-blue of Yanukovich, with Soviet medals pinned to him.  At the end of the opera, some peasants were draped in the orange of the Orange Revolution and carried orange banners and post-1991 Ukrainian flags.  Who knows why.

Also interestingly, the announcements over the public address system before each act (telling people to turn off their mobile phones and that recording and filming were not allowed) were done not only in Russian and English (as normally at the Stanislavsky) but also in Ukrainian.  This was obviously done on purpose, but who knows what the purpose was.  The opera is not a Ukrainian opera (although Gogol was born in Ukraine and the opera is set there), and Moscow is not exactly full of Ukrainian tourists (who likely speak Russian anyway; the English is for the benefit of non-Russian-speaking tourists).  I can only imagine this was another political statement.

Ignoring the unclear politics, the staging was otherwise fine.  The music certainly was worthwhile.  Glad I went.