Originally premiered in St. Petersburg in 1907, this four-hour blockbuster of an opera set in the 13th century was the last of the 15 operas composed by Rimsky-Korsakov, who died the following year. It is notable for its spectacular dramatic scope, demanding staging requirements, and a powerful lyric appeal grounded in the composer's admiration for the music of German composer Richard Wagner as well as in Russian folk and liturgical music.
"Kitezh" is sometimes referred to as the "Russian Parsifal" due to the mystical elements of its plot, and musically it presages the post-Romantic ballet "Firebird" by Igor Stravinsky, one of Rimsky-Korsakov's pupils. There are serene, deftly-colored passages in the score that evoke the beauties of nature, as well as stirring choral ensembles that create an urgent sense of great historical events in Russia's tragic history.
The production that can be seen at the Metropolitan Opera House through Friday was first staged by Dmitry Cherniakov, who also doubled as production designer, at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg in 2001. Cherniakov challenged tradition by putting the cast in more-or-less modern dress, but this in no way detracts from the strengths of this young opera whiz's dramatic concepts.
"Kitezh" is conducted by Valery Gergiev, the Kirov's world-renowned artistic and general director who often is guest conductor at the Metropolian Opera. The two casts performing the work, which is heavily into declamatory singing, are made up of some of the Kirov's greatest voices including soprano Olga Sergeeva and tenors Sergei Alexashkin and Vassily Gorshov who sang brilliantly at the performances seen by this critic. Gorshov is an extraordinary actor as well.
The date of this legend-fairytale is 1237. Christian Russia is being invaded by infidel Mongolian Tartar hordes led by Batu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan. A woodland hermit girl named Fevronia (Sergeeva), who practices natural medicine, is wooed and won by Prince Yuri (Alexashkin), son of the ruler of Kitezh, and they are caught up the Tartar siege of Lesser Kitezh, a rowdy town that stands guard over the route leading to Greater Kitezh, the principality's capital and spiritual center.
The Tartars devastate Lesser Kitezh, kill Prince Yuri, and persuade the town drunk, Grishka Kuterma (Gorshkov), to lead them to Greater Kitezh. But their conquest of the city is frustrated when it sinks into Lake Svetly Yar, becoming invisible except for its reflection in the water. Fevronia, who forgives Grishka for spreading a rumor that she led the Tartars to the capital, presses on with him to the Invisible City where she is reunited with the Prince Yuri in a divine afterworld.
Cherniakov demonstrates a genius for getting big stage effects with minimal effort, using clouds of smoke and mist, shafting beams of spotlights and the glow of hanging lamps, and a hoofed metallic creature of war that is more hi-tech than horse as the battering ram that breaks through the walls of Lesser Kitezh.
Only painted curtains that are raised at the beginning of each of the four acts provide realistic depictions of the scene to come. The rest is abstraction, including costumes alluding to both 18th and 19th century styles designed by Cherniakov and Olga Lukina.
The main flaw in Cherniakov's direction is having the Kirov's huge chorus standing stolidly in serried ranks as they receive the disastrous news of Lesser Kitszh's fall without any noticeable physical response or emotional reaction. The costuming of forest creatures who frequent Fevronia's hermitage as Russian peasants rather than animals is rather off-putting, as are the gigantic ceramic pitchers and ewers that surround the cottage to catch rainwater for use in her herbal brews.
"Kitezh" is one of five Russian operas being co-presented by the Kirov with the Metropolitan Opera for Lincoln Center's summer festival. The others are Sergei Prokofiev's "Semyon Kotko," also an American premiere, Modest Mussorgsky's "Khovanshchina," Peter I. Tchikovsky's "Eugne Onegin," and Anton Rubinstein's "The Demon," a concert opera. The company also is performing Giuseppe Verdi's "Macbeth."