Arts & Events

Island City Opera’s Rimsky-Korsakov Double-Bill

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday January 21, 2018 - 08:12:00 PM

At the Alameda Elks Club, Island City Opera presents two one-act operas by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov – Mozart and Salieri, set to a play by Alexander Pushkin, and Kashchey, the Immortal, based on a Russian fairy tale. This double-bill opened on January 19 and concludes with performances on January 26 & 28. I caught the Sunday matinee on January 21.

Let me say straightaway that I consider myself lucky to have attended the January 21 performance, for that was the only date when the role of Kashcheyevna, the wizard’s daughter in Kashchey, the Immortal, was sung by German mezzo-soprano Katja Heuzeroth. I have always appreciated Silvie Jensen, who sings all the other performances of this role, whenever I’ve heard her. However, Katja Heuzeroth was absolutely sensational. Her voice was sumptuous, sensuous, and rapturous. According to the program notes, she made her professional debut at Bayreuth in Wagnerian roles, which I’m sure she sang beautifully. The big question is where can we in the Bay Area hear Katja Heuzeroth in any role she wishes to sing? I’d go anywhere to hear her; and I hope to have many opportunities to do so if, as the program notes seem to indicate, she now is locally based.  

But here I’m running ahead of myself. Opening the Island City Opera double-bill was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri, which was sung here in an English translation prepared by Richard Bogart and Lidiya Yankovskaya. The latter, by the way, was the conductor for both Rimsky-Korsakov operas. She comes to the Bay Area from the Chicago Opera Theatre, where she is Music Director. In Ms. Yankovskaya’s hands, the small Island City Opera Orchestra of some two dozen members gave a richly robust rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov’s music.  

In Mozart and Salieri, Rimsky-Korsakov eschewed his usual Russian style for a more strictly classical style befitting the subject matter. Setting to music a word-for-word text by the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, Rimsky-Korsakov created a two-man opera that imagines a day and evening in the lives of Mozart and Salieri, in the course of which Salieri convinces himself that it is his duty to poison Mozart in order to save the art of music from aspiring to reach heights only Mozart could achieve. In the role of Salieri, baritone Anders Froehlich was superb. His ardent baritone was both powerful and vulnerable. In the role of Mozart, tenor Darron Flagg was insouciant and yet humble, earnestly conveying Mozart’s ill-placed trust in his friend-and-colleague Antonio Salieri. When Mozart plays on piano something he has just written for Salieri, Rimksy-Korsakov offers a pastiche of Mozartean music he composed himself. But when Mozart lets Salieri read the score of his just-completed Requiem, Rimsky-Korsakov gives us some of Mozart’s opening measures for orchestra and chorus. If Pushkin’s text lacks some of the deeper psychological insights into artists’ envy as delineated by Peter Schaffer’s play Amadeus (memorably filmed by Milos Foreman), nonetheless, it offers a tasty hors d’oeuvre for the more substantial fare to come in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kashchey, the Immortal. 

Sung here in Russian, Kashchey, the Immortal gave Rimsky-Korsakov an opportunity to engage Russian folk tales of sorcerers and magic. In this one-act opera, the composer demonstrated how he had assimilated Wagner’s lush orchestration and use of leitmotives. Yet he did so in true Russian fashion, even foreshadowing Stravinsky’s music in The Firebird. Considered one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s finest operas by Russian audiences, Kashchey, the Immortal has never until now been performed in the USA. Island City Opera did itself proud in giving this opera a fine staging by director Richard Bogart and providing a conductor, Lidiya Yankovskaya, with excellent experience and credentials in the Russian repertory. 

Tenor Alex Boyer sang the title-role of Kashchey. His voice rang out with malevolent ardor in Kashchey’s confidence in his own immortality. Yet Alex Boyer conveyed a vulnerability in Kashchey as well as this wizard’s bluster. At the January 21 performance I attended, the role of the Tsarevna, or imprisoned Princess, was sung by soprano Maria Okunev, who was convincing as the much put-upon captive of the venomous grey-bearded Kashchey. (For all other performances the role of the Tsarevna is sung by Rebecca Nathanson.)  

The role of Prince Ivan, who is both the betrothed of the Tasrevna and viewed as a threat to Kashchey’s rule, was ably sung by baritone Igor Viera. When Prince Ivan is lured into the castle of the beautiful but evil daughter of Kashchey, named Kashcheyevna, he drinks a potion that causes him to momentarily forget his love for his betrothed Tsarevna. Thus he succumbs to the blandishments of the beautiful Kashcheyevna; and a lyrical dream-like love duet ensues between these two. Here mezzo-soprano Katja Heuzeroth was at her finest as Kashcheyevna, her voice sensuously enveloping Prince Ivan’s voice in lustrous sound. However, a winged messenger, the Storm Knight, flies in and brings a breath of fresh air that awakens Prince Ivan from the dream-world of his love for the false Kashcheyevna. The Storm Knight, sung here by veteran baritone Bojan Knezevic, brings Prince Ivan to his senses and transports him to Kashchey’s castle, where he is reunited with his betrothed. However, Kashcheyevna follows Prince Ivan and makes one last effort to win his love, but to no avail. For the first time in her life, Kashcheyevna begins to know the pangs of love, and at this moment she sheds tears. This undoes the magic immortality of her father Kashchey and brings about the wicked old man’s death, as Prince Ivan and Tsarevna live happily ever after, and the earth sings of Spring and renewal in a chorale finale.  

Kashchey, the Immortal, for all its fairy-tale elements of sorcerers and magic, and its all too simple division of good versus evil characters, is a highly successful opera full of vocal highlights and wonderful orchestral color. Congratulations are in order to Island City opera for offering us this American premiere of an opera I hope to have the opportunity to hear again in the not too distant future.