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<<  -- 3 --  Roderic Dunnett    AN UNUSUAL OPERA

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May seems to be a dotty time in Russia. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's May Night is based on a story by Gogol (from 'Evenings on a farm near Dikanka'). If only Rimsky, who penned his own libretto after a Gogol he had (surely rightly) adored since boyhood, had stuck a bit closer to his idol, one of the most compact and subtle comic writers and playwrights of the 19th and 20th centuries in any language, he might have made a rather sharper job of this opera: a delightful enough 'peasant' piece, which unfortunately strays insignificantly (this was, after all, only his second opera, dating from 1880, when he was 35) along significant other paths by introducing a wonderfully engaging (but here, slightly spurious) 'water-sprite' element -- already successfully explored in one of Russia's landmark operas, Dargomizhky's Rusalka, and soon to be explored further, albeit more indirectly than directly, in more obviously serious (or attempted-serious) operas such as Fibich's Sarka (surely a must for Garsington), Foerster's Eva (movingly revived, only recently, by Wexford Festival Opera in southern Ireland), Erkel's Bank Ban (Melinda's like Eva's, is another watery end) and -- directly and with more obvious success -- Dvorák's Rusalka.

Geoffrey Dolton as the charcoal burner in Garsington Opera's 'May Night'. Photo © 2006 Johan Persson
Geoffrey Dolton as the charcoal burner in Garsington Opera's 'May Night'. Photo © 2006 Johan Persson

Why is it that Garsington's experiments, even when they provide an evening of mixed success (there were times when I thought Olivia Fuchs's direction lamentable, and Jamie Vartan's designs little better; why, when you have an idyllic Bly-like backdrop that might well abut a mysterious lake, cover it up with pretty ludicrous, almost Jaws-like blue-hued billboarding?) invariably delight and catch or tease the imagination? First and foremost -- and nothing to do with what's going on on stage, there is what is happening in the pit. Garsington is lucky in its conductors, and lucky indeed in having Elgar Howarth -- once one of the world's greatest trumpeters and surely one of the outstanding musicians of his generation -- at the helm. Just as Steuart Bedford can be relied on to prise out the best in Britten, and in several other composers he has brought to life in Garsington's pit with the hugely talented Guildhall Strings, so Howarth has waved a kind of magic wand over Garsington.

Michelle Walton (Panochka), Peter Wedd (Levo) and the chorus of Rusalki (drowned maidens) in Garsington Opera's 'May Night'. Photo © 2006 Johan Persson
Michelle Walton (Panochka), Peter Wedd (Levo) and the chorus of Rusalki (drowned maidens) in Garsington Opera's 'May Night'. Photo © 2006 Johan Persson

To what do we owe the beauty and allure of Garsington's Strauss, its Janácek, its Tchaikovsky, its Strauss, and now its Rimsky-Korsakov? To many things, but perhaps above all to Howarth's feeling for the long line, his ability to keep over-enthusiastic young musicians (for their own sake) under some kind of rein, his instinctive knowledge (from the inside of an orchestra) of when a player needs help with a lead, and his refreshing utter inability to play the maestro. When, last season, he gave us Tchaikovsky's Cherevichki at Garsington and David Lloyd-Jones served up Tchaikovsky's The Enchantress at Grange Park, not a million miles away in a near-adjacent English county, two of Britain's outstanding musicians took the podium to reveal a marvel within days of one another. Both have northern connections, or affiliations. Is there something the north can teach us?

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Copyright © 15 June 2006 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry UK

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