Rimsky-Korsakov’s Snow Maiden in Leeds

The operas by Rimsky-Korsakov are not as often performed as they deserve. Perhaps his mixture of fairy tale, exoticism and Russianism, and the absence of “big tunes”, are thought not to appeal to a wide audience. But my experience in the last month of splendid performances of The Golden Cockerel ┬áin Brussels (see my blog of 29th December) and now The Snow Maiden, bravely mounted by Opera North, suggest that we are missing out on much.

At the heart of both of these pieces lies simple myth, but both take on extra layers of meaning: in The Golden Cockerel political satire; in The Snow Maiden emotional response to nature and the seasons. The eponymous girl whose aptitude for love is literally and metaphorically frozen comes to experience the warmth of human feeling with first spring, then summer. Her evolution within the changing environment is beautifully realised in the production by John Fulljames, designed by Giles Cadle. I had doubts at the beginning whether framing the staging in a workshop of seamstresses would not be too prosaic for the poetic content, and in the opening half-hour or so there was certainly an excess of clutter on the stage. But, as the dresses on which the girls work and which they wear change in colour and texture (superb costume designs by Christina Cunningham) and as the movement and behaviour of the young people develop to reflect the warmer climate, I was converted to the idea. It was then not difficult to become fully involved in their search for fulfilment through love.

A fine cast had been assembled. Aofie Miskelly executed the coloratura passages (an unusual feature of a Russian opera) with aplomb and was wholly convincing as the innocent Snow Princess. Phillip Rhodes, as the outsider Mizgir required to melt her frigidity, was forthright vocally and dramatically. Their rivals as lovers were both outstanding. Heather Lowe’s creamy mezzo was ideal for Lel, the philandering young man about town, and she was physically adept at portraying masculine swagger. Edin Pritchard was brilliantly comic as the blowsy Kupava and, when expressing passion, could open up to fill the theatre with her rich soprano. In the pit Leo McFall, making his Opera North debut, provided an orchestral accompaniment which was sympathetic, if a little too discreet.

But it would be wrong to focus too much on individual performances and aspects. This was an evening when visual images, astute dramatic ideas and musical charms combined to engage the emotions in a most satisfying way.