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The Snow Maiden

Rimsky-Korsakov, English translation by Christopher Cowell

RNCM Opera

Royal Northern College of Music

December 10-16, 2023; 3 hrs 20 mins

A scene from the RNCM's production of The Snow Maiden
Flower power: Scene from the RNCM's production of The Snow Maiden. All pics: Craig Fuller

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“This performance contains representations of misogyny, aggression, ritualism, and death,” the RNCM’s programme booklet informs us on its title page. Well, come on, guys, it’s a Christmas show! There’s snow and dancing, true love finds its reward, and the turning of the seasons promises joys to come.

Now I realise these warnings of paper tigers have to be made nowadays, but director Jack Furness’s presentation of the opera, which uses Christopher Cowell’s English translation, reads some surprising things into the allegory-cum-fairy story that Rimsky-Korsakov borrowed from a Russian play of his time (itself based on a folk tale).

When Opera North did it in 2017, in Alasdair Middleton’s translation and giving the work its first fully-professional UK production for 60 years, it was absolutely enchanting. Middleton and John Fulljames took some liberties with the original, but all for good reasons and in keeping with the story of a girl, given to a childless couple, who will die if ever love melts her heart of snow. She grows up in a community where young love can bring both heaven and heartbreak, and, when another girl’s betrayal by her betrothed leads to a journey to see the Tsar to ask for help, she finally opts for love – which means an end to her life but a rebirth of nature.

One jarring thing in this production – which, with design by Georgia de Grey, offers delightful presentations of the changing seasons and the figures of the Snow Maiden’s mythic parents Father Frost and Mother Spring, while dressing the chorus as village folk in 19th century Mother Russia – is its reconfiguration of the Tsar and his court into a 1960s hippie commune, with a rather slimy young guru in charge. That’s despite the text describing him as a silver-bearded old man in embroidered robes (there’s a line where he says a girl should “never say no to love”, but it’s a pretty thin basis for the change, and Opera North had him as a kind of eccentric Father Christmas).

There’s also a pre-figuring at the outset of a ceremonial, seen later in the story, where the girls bid farewell to the Snow Maiden as she makes her big decision… but to what purpose it's shown at the start I couldn’t discern. And it seems as if the shipboard hot tub from last year’s Die Fledermaus is making a re-appearance as a pond for her to melt into (and for another character to drown himself in… or be drowned). So there’s your ritualism, aggression and death.

It’s a long sit (two hours before the interval), but the positives are the quality of the solo and choral singing and the orchestral playing. Matthew Kofi Waldren is a wizard in the pit and draws lovely sounds from his players. Kevin Thraves has, as so often before, trained the chorus to a very high standard, and Bethan Rhys Wiliam has taught them, and several principals in particular, to dance nicely.

Eleven of the roles are double cast for this run, and I have seen only one team, but it’s clear that the RNCM has some remarkable vocal talent in its ranks at present. Of those I saw, I’d commend especially Kanchana Jaishankar (Mother Spring), who has voice and presence both apt for the professional stage; Sara Donnelly (Kupàva), who is an excellent young soprano and inhabited her role with passion and awareness; Bonnie Callaghan (the Snow Maiden), who was unflaggingly alert and alive, and Jay Broadhurst, who sang the Tsar with consistently fine tone. Olivia Hamblyn (Lyel) also offered a rich mezzo voice, and Ishay Ravina (Mizgìr) promises excellent things, while the two heralds (Dominic Morgan and Patrick Osborne) projected splendidly in their brief moment of glory.

Info and tickets here


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