Run, do not walk, to the Harvard ticket office for tickets to Rimski-Korsakov’s Snegurouchka, (“The Snow Maiden”), which is receiving its premier American performance as a fully staged opera in the original language by the Lowell House Opera Society. A great favorite in Russia, the opera seems nearly unknown in the west. The story, drawn from Russian folk tales, is no sillier than any other opera. In true Russian fashion the happy ending involves the heroine dissolving into a puddle of water while singing a beautiful aria, and her star-crossed lover, well, I won’t say what happens to him. But the music is gorgeous, full of Russian folk melodies, Wagnerian leitmotifs, and orchestration worthy of Ravel. The music director, Russian-born Lidiya Yankovskaya, conducted a remarkably capable orchestra with authority and sensitivity, and the singers uniformly delivered both excellent diction and acting. Lowell’s production is beyond reproach.
The story involves the love-child, Snegurochka, of two ill-matched gods, the goddess of Spring, and the god of Frost. Snegurouchka has become a great beauty, and too old to be kept hidden away in a forest castle. She is capable of great affection to her parents, and they to her, but she is too frosty to be capable of romantic love. None the less, she is anxious for her freedom, and the parents reluctantly give her permission to live with common people. But there’s on hitch: if she finds love, she becomes vulnerable to the power of the sun god and she will melt. You can probably figure out the rest, which transpires, only slightly tediously, with great beauty.
Just for truth in advertising, some years ago I was a member of the Lowell Opera Society and have always been a fan. But the affection goes deeper. Opera is a form of drama best experienced up close. Most modern opera houses are too large. Unless one is very lucky to get a ticket in the first few rows, one is relegated to a seat where the actors are just tiny figures before you, and the sound is distant and muddled. As luck would have it, I first heard Snegurouchka in Moscow, in rehearsal for the opening of the new stage of the Bolshoi, built next door to the old house as a temporary substitute for the renovation of the main theater. (The renovated main theater opened last fall with great fanfare and a cost of $700 million.) Small and visually intimate, the new stage could have, should have, been a wonderful place for opera. But it is and was an acoustic disaster. Unlike the jewel-box Italian theaters it could have emulated, the new stage is made of hard cement, with curved walls behind the balconies that focus reflections down on the floor with more strength than the sound that comes directly from the singers. The powerful Russian cast was loud, drowned out by the orchestra, and nearly totally incomprehensible.
Exactly the opposite transpired in the Lowell House Dining Hall, where the operas are traditional held. I sat in two seats, one near the back, and one in the first row directly in front of the first violins. In both seats the balance of the singers and the orchestra was as good or better than I hear in most productions elsewhere, and the sense of intimacy — of being close to and engaged by the actors — was exemplary. Good opera sound need not be reverberant, the orchestra can provide that with a skilled conductor, but it absolutely needs to be clear and engaging.
I might have a few quibbles. The two screens used for the translations were too small to be easily read by people with less than great vision from the rear of the hall. The tickets are general admission, so it is a good idea to come early and sit close. The A cast, which performed last night, was very strong. The lead singer in the part of Snegurouchka was Russian-born Irina Petrik. She has a strong voice, and her acting and final aria was quite convincing, but her coloratura is not precise. The pitches slide together uncertainly. On the other hand, Knarik Nerkararyan, who played the jilted lover Kupava, is an amazing talent, both as an actor and a singer, and worth the price of admission to hear. And the chorus… wow! Check it out.