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The Invisible City of Kitezh
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Matthew Paris

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Post Fri Jan 30, 2004 8:53 pm - The Invisible City of Kitezh
On July 16th I saw Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakoffís strange liturgical penultimate opera of 1907, The Legend Of The Invisible City Of Kitezh, done to a turn by the Kirov opera Company at the Met. The singing and ensemble work was wonderful, particularly the Prince Yuri of Gennady Benzubenkov. Mlada Khudolei was lovely and affecting as the protagonist of this sacred opera: the joyous redemptive Pantheist sybil Fevronia. Nikolai Gassiev gave a wild Dostoysefkian performance as Grishka, the philosophic drunkard and tormented, half-daft sinner.
The ensemble was impeccable, even to the raucous singing of the Tartars, the bad guys in many a Russian opera. Valery Gergiev gave the orchestral felicities of the virtuoso score the kaleidoscopic ride they deserved. The musical lanugo, blended from patches of folk song, lots of orthodox sacred music and ideas of organic musical cell development moving by half steps taken from Wagner and Liszt, had an erratic but often compelling power; like Wagner and Liszt it dissipated its initial virtues sometimes with its not either overlay varied or notably cunning repetitions of its materials.
The libretto emulated Richard Wagnerís studies in staying on the stage twice as long as one should; at once idiosyncratic and indifferent to dramatic values, it parable would have seemed better over the five hours had Rimsky-Korsakoff chosen to be more inventive to fill out the time than he was.
Though there are many paintings of Kitezh inspired by the old tale and this opera, the stage designed Dmitri Cherniakov, seems to have been totally baffled by how to produce a set that might support this murky and not entirely coherent opera. On never sees greater Kitezh, the heavenly city of the last scene. Though the time is the 12th century, one sees vary varied costumes designed by him and Olga Lukina from realistic Tartar warrior garb of several centuries ago to 1907 Wester business suits.
The set also had mysteriously descending electric lamps of a dubious symbolism whose meaningful resonances escaped me. The odious yet virile Tartars amble around a nocturnal war zones with flashlights. The motile flowers, animals and birds are dressed in a manner that never even suggest they are what they are or seem to be. This vaporous visual spectacle makes an already fantastical tale clouded by some less than clear intent even more opaque.
I couldnít help thinking as I listened to much beautiful music that didnít gain in my assessment by repeating its effusions four or five times that maybe Philip Glass, not Stravinsky had been his most famous pupil. Rimsky-Korsakoff hadnít been wise to borrow from Liszt the technique of stating the same material a half step up after a cloudy diminished chord as if some crepuscular ascent were afoot; these lugubrious flights merely lead muddily to more diminished chords and other such static yet vertiginous statements of what had already been heard and duly digested.
The composerís very spiritual if not always competent librettist Belsky had fashioned a story line that aimed fantastically to be an impeccable mirror of life and worlds beyond life. This tale matched in its static posture music that were not notably optimal for a genre always in presumptive dramatic trouble from the get-go; opera is at once is an Art that extends itself in time, yet has many static moments in which nothing at all happens on stage. It has been the stop and start bane of opera and even light musical comedy that the large movement forward that graces acceptable song and plot is hard to mix successfully.
Music that with no effort to be propulsive or and richly different in its variations, one that repeats itself with little or no diversity emphasizes this inherent weakness in opera. Most librettists try to get around this lair for the inept at the nub of the form by making static arenas confessionals about the nooks of ecstasy or some ferocious testimony about ruling passion. The arias in opera have to be revelatory in some way; they stop the obvious action.
In human life our secrets or moments of stasis tend to be about some fierce and primal itch. If done well, this movement back and forth from action to character revelation has to be set up by the deeds of the tale as the show turns introverted and internal, the confessions foaled from some previously veiled nook of character; the revealer of such hermetic matters of the heart has to be presented as not merely interesting but introspective enough as one guesses their inner life gleaned the action of the tale to be persuasively capable of such sheathed, subtly gilded offerings.
For this reason as well as others operas have tended to be about passions, autocratic compulsions or some delicate extended meditation on the byways of honor. Perforce some of the best arias in opera are such sudden effusions of the clandestine sung by the villains; the wicked in our common view have more partiality and reason for concealing their inner character than our more transparent sympathetic protagonists.
Actors in opera tend to be paradigms as well; the banality they emerge from in song becomes a kind of inner shorthand that quickly lays the foundations at its best for more subtle psychological exegesis.
One has often has to have a confidante to confess to; Don Given does so often to Leporello. Unless one is singing a soliloquy one with a covert life and a taste for singing about it has such convenient and amenable lackeys about. Since opera is magic, in a mythic sense Don Giovanni and Leporello are one at the margins of our perceptions a single composite male character; their farcical outward meditations reflect the inward range in us all of human will, intrepidity, fear and caution.
The mechanics of this singing genre that, as Virgil Thomson says, by its nature must be fantasy, demands this kind of mythic approach to its at once dramatic and musical discourses. Opera cannot be honestly realistic; if it were, everybody would utter banalities and stop singing. Even if they did all that and more for us in the shadows, anyone can find realism more easily and cheaply out of the opera house. One should look for it in an alley, not at the Met. Operaís more likely to claim out of cunning to be chillily realistic while offering lowlife soft core pornography to the unwary such as Il Tabarro, Wozzeck or Lulu. While offering us sensational murders, hardly the ordinary fare of life, only the rubes are cajoled into thinking they are observing grisly real existence with impunity, anymore than twelve tone music is likely to be the normal parlance of any character anywhere on the planet.
Saying this, one has at least some of the geography from which one might derive the flawed and erratic character of the worst of The Legend Of The Invisible City Of Kitezh. After the first charming and dramatically viable scene of the price discovering the Pantheist saint Fevronia in her forest paradise amply remote from any city, the story knocks off the hapless young noble in the next scene; the natural direction of a main action set up just prior to his piteous dispatch is squelched in the first hour of this slow moving five hour opera.
The opera ends on the writing of a letter of the redeemed saint to the tormented sinner, hardly much of a denouement unless one is mad for the virtuous correspondence by mail.
Of course the worst example of a botched climax to any opera is Il Pirato, in which the lovers who foal the main action never see each other much less bid a leisurely but tragic and longing addio to each other in the final act because one of them is locked up; the plot of The Legend Of The Invisible City Of Kitezh comes close to that lethal disaster done to Donizettiís great music in its own more pretentious mechanical ineptitude of craft in its dramaturgy. At least bel canto opera even when haplessly senseless never claim to be profound.
There is also a lack of focus in the whole tale of the opera. Based on an ancient Russian legend of God keeping a holy city invisible to protect it from enemies, the central idea is never developed. Beyond this near fatal neglect, the details of the story are notably unkempt. A brother of the female protagonist, himself a charming saint of nature, is mentioned as living with her. We never see him during the whole opera.
Fevronia talks to the flowers, birds and animals of the woods; like such life forms in the real world they donít talk back. Unlike them these amiable flowers and birds look like real people on a Catskill hike. It doesnít help much to put the characters for reasons that are baffling into a fine dacha that supposedly represents a kind of inside protected nook or sequestered area much as the city itself does later.
The symbols in this visual production rarely have the resonance one wants from successful magic; they make for even less clarity than one gets from the rest of the opera.
Yet one canít dismiss The Legend Of The Invisible City Of Kitezh as a pretentious bore, flaws and all. Itís twice as long as it should be; one should say nothing is easier to cut than music that hundreds of times takes the same material up a predictable semitone, or adds some very inconsequential contrapuntal figure or bit of obvious imitation to it the next time around. Nobody evidently told Rimsky-Korsakoff that in show business as in slurping up caviar at a feast, too little is always better than too much.
Yet most scenes are very beautiful, viable if like fat men in the circus they would be healthier coming in at half or less of their monstrous and gigantic adipose weight. The Manichean theme that seems to haunt many Russian operas depicting the dismal character of human life as it is commonly lived, the need for a way to transcend it, is a subject worthy of our attention even if we arenít Russian.
Both Fevronia and Grishka are interesting, complicated intelligent and even witty one of a kind characters such as one rarely sees in opera. Fevronia may remind one of Hudsonís Rima in Green Mansions; Grishka is an unforgettable mad and darkly wise lush Rimsky-Korsakoff drew perhaps from his own intimate knowledge of the self-hating inner life of alcoholics. It may be a memory of Moussorsky.
The relation of these two improbable companions, which is the main action after the librettist has killed off Fevroniaís convectional lover, the young Kitezh prince in disguise, is more interesting than such a banal romance if its direction makes the first scene of this opera totally irrelevant and cuttable as drama. This tardily taken up main action, fascinating and inimitable, is finally resolved ineptly by sending Grishka an epistle by some imaginary 12th centra Russian postal service.
One must also praise the intent if always not the execution of The Legend Of The Invisible City Of Kitezh. It asks the audience to examine their own notions of what is possible on Earth as a remedy for a seemingly ubiquitous human misery that accompanies civilization.
This must have been on the minds of a lot of people in Russia in 1907. The 1905 popular revolution had failed, crushed by ruthless military force, yet the rulers of Russia didnít have any solution to feeding their people, franchising them and making them allies instead of enemies, organizing them for effective group action in common cases, identifying their real enemies and quelling them, or even generating a viable survival culture anymore than the Bolsheviks would later over many decades.
Sadly, the history of Russia has been among other things the depredation of a vast people by various focused pillages from earliest times through the Tartars or Mongols in this opera through the German economic, then military expansions of the 19th and 20th centuries toward the East.
Whatever one thinks of Rimsky-Korsakoffís and Belskyís sentimental Pantheism and theosophical worship of the maternal Earth goddess to which Fevronia converts the repugnant Grishka, as a solution for Russiaís problems under the tsar and afterwards, at least the makes of this opera had enough respect for humanity to bring the issues before all Russia into the bully pulpit of the opera house where Glinka and Moussorsky had once preached famously in their time to the Russian people. If nature can have all the benign redemptive power of a mosquito, the earthly city of lesser Kitezh was a place of many and diverse miseries from which one in fact did escape in the forest.
Some have compared this opera to Parsifal, another bit of mad and colorful fantasy and eccentricity posing as a liturgical opera; in this tale its sacred fool, Grishka never makes it out of his torment into grace or ever reaches the great Kitezh. At most he gets a letter from a saint there enjoying its immaculate vistas in her afterlife. Perhaps thatís a comment on as much guidance as all of us get on Earth; it isnít very dramatically satisfying or even amusing otherwise.
Some of the incoherence of this opera does resemble Wagner in both its symbolism and inward look. Earthly Kitezh is represented superficially as a walled world ruled by a moral and compassionate prince, possibly because the censors would have closed down this opera otherwise. Yet in lesser Kitezh most people are poor and miserable; they and their leaders are moreover unable to protect themselves from their enemies.
That not a bad description of Russia in 1907. Certainly the spiritual polemics of The Legend Of The Invisible City Of Kitezh couldnít have made the orthodox happy; Rimsky Korsakoff and Belsky were lucky they werenít locked up for writing this opera. Risky-Korsakoffís next and last opera was a chilly comedy, Le Coque DíOr, armed with much more spiky dissonances, featuring an openly foolish king, priesthood and leadership. It suggests a much more dark and nihilistic view of Russian life than even this dour vision.
After a single performance of the Russian operas done by the Kirov along with repertory resonant with the political vision of the Russian people like Verdiís Macbeth one begins to wonder as an American why there is not in our own republic a single opera or opera house that is in the league with the Russians or even the Czechs for serious intent.
Do we lack subjects worthy of serious theatre? It seems as if we have more of them than anybody else in the world. We have many great men from Washington on, the first and most successful anti-colonial revolution plus high issues of the Civil War, some colorful heros from going back to Daniel Boone though Davey Crockett, Teddy Roosevelt, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway to Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, fascinating villains like Nixon, complex flawed souls like Jack Kennedy, a musical language and strong speech from the bottom that has been imitated and admired as a clarion call to freedom all over the world in blues, jazz and rock and roll.
As importantly, we have at least legally a general franchise of freedom of speech that would make theatre and opera a logical extension of honest talk in the Agora.
Do we lack talent or intelligence to do anything like serious opera or theatre? We have too huge and diverse a population, almost of whom until the past few decades have been educated, to assume such a dearth of gifts and craft among us. Do we lack the money to support opera and theatre?
Hardly. We have more millionaires than any country in extant history. Do we know where to find people of talent and genius in a world in which competence isnít good enough? Probably not. Yet if a patron or a commercial situation sets up our opera and theatre, the prospects alone are in all places and times are a magnet that draws itinerant genius their way like moths hungering for the moony fires of lamplight.
Do we lack only real or fake princes, an aristocracy or set of secretly crass oligarchs who want out of vanity to pretend they are Volga noble to promote any excellence among us at all? Itís hard to say. In the Arts we have tended to socialize nationally in either eccentrics or sonic interior decorators for houses of pleasure.
As corporate finances have dominated our thinking eccentrics have been clearly hard to sell; it was cheaper an more reliable to hire people imitating the once marketable dead than to promote anything that might waken the sated and dead from a commodious if torporous sleep. If actors tend to be hired as lookalikes of people now corpses, our musician have been most often sound-alikes.
Is it that we send out our so-called intellectual world most out to stud? Certainly our commission go almost always to professors. In Europe gentle souls like Raff and Rhineberger were never give a guerdon in their hermitages to scandalizes the urbane of their often all too jaded capitals. In the old world they recognized that opera composers and musicians generally have to have the swagger and flamboyance of circus performers in large spas if they are going to come at the page with an ultimate audacity in a specialized realm where nothing short of high bravery is acceptable.
I wouldnít want the reader to think I am writing a footnote to Menckenís classic The Sahara of the Bozart. Outside of Lee Oswald and a handful of idealistic dupes of the last century the flow of humanity has been heading steadily from Russia to America from the 1850s to the present, not the other way around. Itís plain that most of our species are more impressed by the relative freedoms of United States life than places that have generated a very respectable culture.
I would ask the reader not to focus on the provinciality or lack of culture in America, but the insularity of our realm that essentially has no use for culture. Once some felt America had no utility for high culture because it was a republic of escapees from kings and priests; now one might wonder whether it values low culture any more than it did the harvests of the odious world of inequality.
One might wonder whether culture is in fact useless. Then one might poinder equally on whether consciousness and an examined life, as Socrates and Santayana aptly put it, is worthwhile either.
Iím hardly the first American to have such meditations. Musicals like Iíd Rather Be Right, Street Scene, Oklahoma, Annie Get Your Gun, The Most Happy Fella, The Music Man, all commercial productions of what we commonly call musical comedies, aimed high though not as stratospheric as the Russian in their intents; they were all on the atmospheric rather the epic side.
The courage came largely from former Tin Pan Alley people like George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Frank Loesser who after success as pop musicians felt they could get brave. There was also always a trickle of commissions from the old Met, not one of which mounted a single opera that stayed in the repertory; yet they were sometimes interesting.
Some of the composers were now underrated musicians of great gifts like Victor Herbert, Deems Taylor, and Walter Damorosh. Yet we shouldnít confuse any of their works with the kind of operas that the Kirov has been offering us.
We should also recognize tat something happened in Russia that didnít occur to us that produced the ambitious novels of Gogol, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, the plays by Chekhov and Gorky, movies by Eisenstein. The impetus, whatever it was, wasnít merely in opera.
My tentative feeling is that opera, always a part of culture, usually in an empire of some kind, doesnít attract the right patrons, composers or librettists. We certainly have plenty of local great opera singers. Commercial American theatre circa 1920-60 had been the best at this kind of Ibsenian definition of amusement the Russians do so easily and well; given its claim to be at bottom pure entertainments to aims the lonely, mildly depressed and bibulous tourist in for a pleasant week in a capital it isnít going to do anything like these ultimately serious Russian musical epics.
The best operas have always aimed at being at least slightly scandalous and sensational, taking up uncomfortable poetical and moral themes, looking downward toward the richness of the Earth for its sonic style. The natural direction for American opera would be to do what Verdi and the Russians did, make a musical language from the populist bottom in a country in which one sought out that level as well as oneís audience of preference. Weíve had banal jazz operas and rock operas, earlier musicals by Weill, Gershwin and Loesser that were really operas; that intrepid leap into making some large statement about history from Tolstoy to Rimsky-Korsakoff seems to be beyond us.
My own feeling is that the best sources for creative talent for opera in America would be Hollywood movie composers or still living jazz greats. Of course when Bernard Hermann thought of writing an opera he turned out Wuthering Heights.
The only composers of genius who did for American music what Verdi did far Italy and Rimsky-Korsakoff and The Five did for Russian music, Virgil Thomson, George Gershwin and Scott Joplin, never got on their operas in their lifetime easily; they were certainly not welcome at the Met or the New York State Opera.
The commissions and performances go to composers of small or no talent, what is worse, to hacks who donít have access out of gentility to the bottom. Instead oneís gets a grey musical neutral idiom in operas floating in black lakes at midnight like artificial giant corpses that could have been written in Transylvania or on Mars.
Last year I vowed never to see one of these plastic Leviathans again after listening to William Bolcolmís dismal A View From The Bridge, reflecting that the best piece in this wretched and pretentious miasma about nothing was his quote of Paper Doll, a top pop song of the early 40s.
I suspect there is lots of high populist bravery in Jerry Goldsmith, Danny Elfman, Quncy Jones and Ornette Coleman. Maybe somebody with a few bucks and aesthetic clout in the United States will ask them to write an opera.
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