Last weekend saw a delightful, magical world of fantasy come alive on the stage of the Royal Opera House Muscat in Sergei Banevich’s opera for children, “Kai and Gerda”.
The 2014 production from Moscow’s prestigious Bolshoi Theatre was one of the most perfect seen in Oman in every aspect. With fairytale sets and complementing 19th Century costumes designed by Valery Leventhal, and inspired Direction by Dmitri Belyanushkin, the show was a visual masterpiece appealing to all ages.
Seventy-five superb musicians from the Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre of Russia performed in the pit under their youthful Maestro, Philipp Chizhevsky. Twelve refreshingly young and energetic Principal Soloists and forty-eight chorus members interpreted the story of Hans Christian Andersen’s 1844 fairytale, ‘The Snow Queen’ in the expressive Russian language on stage.
The icing on the cake, however, was the 1979 score by St. Petersburg children’s composer, Sergei Banevich, which transformed the story into one of the finest, most accessible contemporary operas around. Banevich’s musical language is a kind of ‘Shostakovich goes to Broadway’. It is clearly influenced by Rimsky-Korsakov, with Tchaikovsky’s breadth of orchestral colour and rich romantic harmony.
It opened with a divided landscape projection, juxtaposing an icy winter scene with the coming of spring — a theme which permeated the story. A strong chorus of Trolls appeared on stage as antagonists, ironically singing beautifully, to lavish orchestration for Brass and horns while the ugly creatures reflected light with broken mirrors into the audience — another thread of the opera.
Act One had a backdrop of Dutch houses as Alexander Miminoshvili sung the role of Lamplighter-Narrator in his gorgeous, expressive Baritone. Scene Two saw the cast enter as townsfolk, rolling diminutive houses of Odense on stage as a twelve-piece on-stage Marching Band crossed the village square with a first glimpse of Kai, Gerda and Grandmother. The latter was performed tenderly by celebrated Bolshoi soloist Tatiana Erastova, her warm, maternal Alto quality in a delightful Polka with off-stage chorus and wintry glockenspiel bells. Many songs ended with high piccolo shrieks, adding to the otherworldly, storybook atmosphere.
The captivating twenty-five-year-old Uzbek Tenor, Bekhzod Davronov was boy-like as the unreliable Kai, opposite young Soprano, Anna Khrapko as the steadfast, beautiful Gerda. Together their lovely ensemble performance made for a real-life fairytale.
Kai’s Aria telling Gerda that he will always be faithful and never leave her alone was chromatically lush, delivered in his strong, powerful upper range enhanced by evocative harp, flute and celeste timbres. They declared their love in a moving Rachmaninov-like duet, with Ms Khrapko’s vocal control in her impossibly high register echoed delightfully by clarinet obligato and brass chorale. There was a sense of Prokovief’s pulsing bass and angular melodies in Granny’s Aria as she warned them not to joke with the frosty snowstorm.
It was followed by a surreal, polytonal waltz as the children played a game of Blind Man’s Buff. An approaching Troll plunged a shard from the ‘mirror of evil’ into Kai’s heart and he became cold as ice, arrogant and disdainful. With silvery snow effects across the front gauze, Snow Queen, performed with warmth and clarity by Mezzo Yulia Mazurova clad in menacing black, appeared vision-like at an upstairs window and tried to bewitch Kai in a seductive, romantic aria.
They sang a Trio with Berg-like pathos as she tried to lure Kai away, and Vladimir Sklyarevskiy played a haunting fiddle solo from the pit. A company of touring performers in the town square included three snowball jugglers and children’s Punch and Judy Theatre featuring puppets, Blue Soldier and Ballerina, whose shadow actors danced to a Tchaikovsky-like Waltz juxtaposed with a military March (Choreographer: Natalia Fiksel). A mad, dream-like sequence waltzed towards a Finale of Mussorgsky proportions, with projections of three white horses and a startling blue backdrop.
Act Two opened in French impressionist vein as Gerda battled through a snowstorm. The male chorus of Robbers, accompanying the Pantomime Dame, ‘Old Robber Woman’ (parodied by Bass, Valery Gilmanov in drag) sang a simple, rhythmic drinking song. They teased Gerda in a light-hearted melodrama, tying her to a tree and leaving her all alone. Here Ms Khrapko sang the memorable Gerda’s Aria, ‘There is no land where you can forget me’ with clarity and tenderness. A comedic Calamity Jane character, the boy-hating, ‘Little’ Robber Girl was played by a tall, colourful Ekaterina Vorontsova from Kazan. Her companion the Reindeer from Lapland sang a sad, chromatic lament (by Baritone Miminoshvili off-stage), before flying across the stage on a trapeze with Gerda to rescue Kai.
Alexander Miminoshvili reappeared to sing the Lamplighter’s Aria, ‘The saddest fate of all is not to be loved’ with haunting oboe and harp motifs (Elizaveta Simonenko) over a falling bass line. Meanwhile, in the Snow Queen’s Palace, Kai’s task was to spell ‘eternity’ in ice. The Snow Queen’s Aria (Yulia Mazurova) was paradoxically beautiful, warm and tender as she stabbed him with her icy magic wand. Gerda, arresting in red against the white set, found Kai and broke the spell through ‘love’. They sung a romantic duet to express their devotion and fled to more Prokovief-like rhythms and angular themes with an incredibly high trumpet solo from Alexey Korniliev.
The scene shifted back to Odense and Home. The music ascended in hope and the performance concluded in a brassy film score climax. The on-stage marching band returned, bringing the narrative in full circle in a glitzy fantasy Finale as Lamplighter, Grandmother, Robber girl, Kai and Gerda were united in a Chorus of “Let your memories only be good ones”. Banevich’s music is dripping with memorable tunes like Tchaikovsky or Bernstein. Memories of this splendid Bolshoi production will surely only be good ones for all those fortunate enough to have experienced it last weekend.
PHOTOS BY KHALID AL BUSAIDY