Rimsky-Korsakov’s Invisible City of Kitezh, given at the Dutch National Opera

One compensating feature for the absence of live operatic performances is the ability to choose from a wide range of works streamed from major opera houses. I have been searching in vain for a live performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh ever since, twenty or so years ago, I failed to get a ticket when the Leningrad Kirov (as it then was) brought it to the Edinburgh Festival. So I jumped at the chance of seeing, by courtesy of OperaVision, the Dutch National Opera’s 2012 production.

The piece is rarely given – it has shamefully never been mounted by a British opera company. Such neglect is a betrayal of its musical and dramatic qualities. A relatively late work of its composer, it reveals a maturity of style and creativity. The plangency of typically Russian vocal melody is combined with exotic orchestral colours but also softened with much lyricism. This to reflect the spiritual core of the opera, the pursuit of religious fulfilment through peace, love and oneness with nature. Not without reason has it has been dubbed the “Russian Parsifal”.

Admittedly, it is not easy to stage. A fairy-tale involving the destruction of one city by barbaric hordes and the imaginary creation of another through the mutual love of a simple peasant girl and a prince would, if presented literally, far too readily turn into kitsch. The well-known director and designer Dmitri Tcherniakov was obviously keen not to fall into that trap, for he converted much of the narrative into socio-political commentary, the animals, for example, becoming humble, rustic humans with an inherent capacity for cooperation and compassion. Then there is a drunkard who is portrayed as a social outcast rebelling against the political system, but who eventually leads the heroine towards her salvation. If the result was a little prosaic because it erred on the side of being too realistic for the imaginary world of the original, it nevertheless made for a compelling dramatic experience.

Musically, it was in the very capable hands of a first-rate team of conductor, orchestra, chorus and soloists.  Marc Albrecht has done marvels since he arrived in Amsterdam and this, at the head of the admirable Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, was one of his finest achievements. Sensitive to the vocal line, he was careful not to drown the singers, but still was able to capture the originality in Rimsky-Korsakov’s scoring, particularly as regards timbre and pointed phrasing.

The soloists were all impressive. Svetlana Ignatovich as the heroine peasant girl has a monster part, hardly leaving the stage, but her singing, with a pure tone, was tireless and she perfectly captured the naive idealism of the role. As her lover Prince, Maxim Aksenov sang agreeably but his characterisation was rather pale – perhaps it is inherent in the libretto. John Daszak, the senior non-Russian in the cast, was vocally assured and his portrayal of the brutal drunkard, displaying eventually a heart of gold, was most convincing. The rich, resonant and very Russian voice of the bass Vladimir Vaneev gave much pleasure.

Altogether a very satisfying performance of a work which deserves more outings than it gets.