“Rimsky-Korsakov and His World” was the theme of this year’s Bard Music Festival, an annual two-weekend exploration in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, of a composer’s work and cultural environs. As always, the scholarly side of the inquiry was scarcely less significant than the music-making itself—not that the latter, spread over twelve programs, was anything less than comprehensive. But this year saw the participation in panel discussions, along with other notable scholars, of Richard Taruskin, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, who was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree at a ceremony in which he was hailed as the leading music historian of his generation. Bard once again offered a measure of intellectual stimulation otherwise unheard of at an American summer music festival.
Rimsky’s pivotal position in Russian music gave the scholars much to discuss. His prominence among the circle known as the Mighty Five, who in the 1860s labored successfully to develop a Russian compositional school, is evident simply from the way his name stands out from his peers, which include, besides the well-known Modest Mussorgsky, such lesser lights as Alexander Borodin, Mily Balakirev, and César Cui. Rimsky manned the group’s laboring oar. And later, as a professor at the newly formed Saint Petersburg Conservatory, he influenced another generation of composers, including his student Igor Stravinsky.
Rimsky staked his reputation on his operas.
Those who remember Rimsky as simply the composer of Flight of the Bumblebee (1899–1900) or Scheherazade (1888) will be surprised to learn that, in the words of Marina Frolova-Walker (Bard’s 2018 scholar-in-residence), Rimsky “staked his reputation on his operas.” They number fifteen, of which three show him at his best: The Snow Maiden (1882), the finest of his fairy-tale operas; The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya (posthumously produced in 1907), a work with an absorbing spiritual dimension that has been likened to Wagner’s Parsifal (1882); and The Tsar’s Bride (1899), his most “Western” opera. During the second weekend of the festival (August 18–19), Bard offered semi-staged performances of The Tsar’s Bride as well as Mozart and Salieri (1897), a short one-act opera with a European setting based on a poetic drama by Alexander Pushkin.
Nobody actually believes that the composer Antonio Salieri poisoned Mozart, but a legend developed that he did, and Pushkin built that into his drama. Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus (1979) did its part to set the record straight, and in the process made Salieri a more interesting character: he reacts to Mozart’s staggering genius as an ordinary person rather than as a potential murderer. Still, Rimsky’s opera conveys Salieri’s anguish when he looks over a Mozart manuscript with astonishment while the audience hears a piano piece that starts conventionally but turns jaggedly modernistic. Another side of Mozart—his flippant nature—is revealed when he brings in a blind fiddler whom he discovered playing his music; Mozart thought Salieri would find it funny, but the latter considered it a desecration of art.
Salieri’s is the bigger role, and it includes soliloquies in a declamatory style. The bass Mikhail Svetlov delivered them engrossingly in a big gravelly voice, and he was particularly effective in the final one, in which Salieri muses on the incompatibility of villainy and genius—his crime serves as a tacit admission that he lacked the latter. Gerard Schneider’s voice has an intense timbre typical of Russian tenors, which lent his Mozart an idiomatic sound, and Schneider agreeably projected the Austrian composer’s good nature. Members of the Bard Festival Chorale did nicely in a quoted excerpt from Mozart’s Requiem. They and members of The Orchestra Now, who were persuasively conducted by Zachary Schwartzman.
The Tsar’s Bride, a four-act opera, was given more of the semblance of a full production, although the chorus didn’t have their music memorized and sets consisted mainly of benches. Still, the drama of the piece, as staged by Doug Fitch, came across, and a fine piece it is. Ostensibly a work about Russian history, it is in essence a passionate, even lurid story of frustrated love, not unlike the plots of contemporaneous Italian operas. Its point of departure is a “bride parade” conducted to find a tsarina for Ivan the Terrible in the sixteenth century. Marfa, the daughter of a Novgorod merchant, is selected, which works havoc on her plans to marry her beloved Likov. But that relationship was already imperiled because Gryaznoy, obsessed with Marfa, obtained a love potion to give her; learning of this, Gryaznoy’s lover Lyubasha, desperate to keep him for herself, substitutes poison for the potion. The doomed Marfa, now tsarina-elect, sings a mad scene on the order of those by Donizetti and Bellini, and then she dies. See what I mean about the story?
Rimsky’s music, however, does the plot proud, with juicy solo scenes for the main characters and more than a dash of local color, particularly from the chorus. There are places that a Verdi would have tightened up, but the opera only rarely drags. Lyubov Petrova sang Marfa in a handsomely resonant soprano, marred only by some steely high notes, and she brought poignancy to the delicate melodies of the mad scene. Nadezhda Babintseva had difficulty bringing Lyubasha’s Act I a cappella song to life—most mezzo-sopranos do—but invested her jealous outpouring later in the act with a rich, vibrant tone. Gerard Schneider, who previously sang Mozart, scored another success with Likov, and Efim Zavalny brought a warm, velvety baritone to Gryaznoy, a role peerlessly sung by the late Dmitry Hvorostovsky. Andrey Valentiy sang sonorously as Marfa’s father, Sobakin. Leon Botstein, though often conducting metronomically, held the performance together securely.