Mussorgsky’s Sorochintsi Fair at the Komische Oper

Mussorgsky’s Sorochintsi Fair is a strange work. Based on a story by Gogol, it deals with life and love in a Ukrainian village and with superstitions which are all-pervasive there. The plot is, to say the least, thin.  The Devil is seeking revenge for not having had returned to him a red jacket and is haunting the inhabitants by adopting the form of a pig. Meanwhile a young couple cannot wed because the girl’s mother opposes the match and the father is too weak and besotted with drink to combat her refusal. There is much folksy banter as the villagers observe and comment on events and some farce as the mother first prepares a meal to encourage her lover’s sexual endeavours and then has to hide him – in a pig’s carcass – when her husband returns unexpectedly from his drinking session.

The dramatic structure is episodic with little to draw the various scenes together. For his production at Berlin’s Komische Oper, Barrie Kosky adeptly uses several devices in an attempt to make the piece cohere. A gypsy is present throughout at the rear of the stage as if to exert his skills to secure a happy ending. The large, augmented chorus come and go expressing their emotions with stylised movements. Most important of all, the disparate scenes are linked by additional folk musical material, some choral, some solo, mostly unaccompanied by orchestra while all stage activity ceases. The effect is magical, lending an almost spiritual depth to the proceedings. It is as if above the village a divine order prevails, the Devil’s machinations notwithstanding.

Conductor Jordan de Souza and the Komische Opera orchestra were lively interpreters of the score, and the chorus met all of the considerable demands made of them with aplomb, clearly enjoying their frenetic activity. The soloists were, without exception, excellent; let me pick out a few for special mention. The powerful bass of Jens Larsen in the role of Cherevik, the father, filled the auditorium with crafted sounds, whether reeling from excessive alcohol or protesting when he gets a beating from his wife. As the latter, mezzo Agnieszka Rehlis developed an appropriately hard-edged tone to her scolding, but then mellowed to a warm, sensuous legato as she prepared the meal, anticipating her lover’s caresses.  Ukrainian tenor Oleksiy Palchykov was predictably in his element in this work. His plangent, penetrating voice is ideal for Russian music as he demonstrated through the idiomatic singing of his passionate arias, but also in the wistful linking songs.

Kosky’s stagecraft, the quality of the soloists, and the exuberance of the chorus, contrasting with the calm generated by the interpolated musical links, combined to make this a memorable evening. But I left the theatre conscious that there was something missing, because it did not engage me emotionally. The problem lies, I think, with Mussorgsky’s disjointed and unfinished original. As hard as the Komische Opera production fought to convince us otherwise, it is inconsequential, telling us little about humanity.