GLINKA Ruslan and Lyudmila
As the curtains part during Glinka’s whiplash Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila, the Bolshoi audience breaks into applause. Is it relief? The sky-blue dome, like a Fabergé egg interior, and sumptuous period costumes appear to indicate a traditionally safe production. They should know better. This is Dmitri Tcherniakov, enfant terrible of Russian directors, whose 2006 production of Eugene Onegin was so controversial that the great soprano Galina Vishnevskaya vowed never to set foot inside the Bolshoi again. Tcherniakov doesn’t do safe.
We’re at the wedding feast of Ruslan and Lyudmila, and everything looks as conservative as Lotfi Mansouri’s cardboard cutout staging for the Mariinsky Opera (filmed for Philips in 1995, conducted by Valery Gergiev). Rear panels seem to be rich tapestries but are soon revealed to be video screens…and then a cameraman wanders into shot. It’s a film set, and when Lyudmila is abducted during a power blackout, it all seems part of a ruse; but we soon realise that it’s part of a bigger game, a struggle between sorcerers Finn and Naina, putting to the test Naina’s argument that true love does not exist. Ruslan – along with two suitors Lyudmila rejected – are sent on a quest to rescue the bride. It’s a quest Ruslan eventually wins when he discovers Lyudmila trapped in a weird sanatorium where she is ‘entertained’ by a white-suited violinist, chefs juggling knives, a parrot and an onstage glass harmonica player (Glinka drawing on Lucia di Lammermoor’s mad scene?). She is returned to the film set, where an injection from Finn brings her back to her senses.
Tcherniakov retains all Glinka’s music, including a ballet sequence in which scantily clad ladies show off party tricks, rhythmic gymnastics, rollerskating, plus a conga. One can forgive Mikhail Petrenko’s Ruslan for looking a tad bemused. Petrenko’s soft bass makes for a warmly sympathetic Ruslan, especially moving in his Act 2 aria as he surveys the dead at a deserted battlefield ahead of his encounter with the disembodied head of one of the evil Chernomor’s victims, here represented on a big screen. Albina Shagimuratova copes well with the coloratura of Lyudmila’s teasing wedding feast aria, although she’s not as charming as a (very) young Anna Netrebko for Gergiev, as then unknown outside Russia. Shagimuratova’s laser-like attack is superb in Act 4 and she acts the suicidal bride convincingly.
Tcherniakov’s got another surprise up his sleeve. One of Lyudmila’s rejected suitors, Ratmir, a mezzo role, is cast as a countertenor. Yuri Minenko sings beautifully, with warm, supple tone as the women of the ‘harem’ conjured up by Naina tend to the bloodied, muddy Ruslan. In this modern setting, a mezzo Ratmir would look implausible – Gergiev has the redoubtable Larissa Diadkova in a beard – but Tcherniakov’s bold move pays off.
Charles Workman is a light-voiced, sympathetic Finn and Alex Penda’s dark dramatic soprano suits Gorislava, Ratmir’s former lover. Vladimir Jurowski conducts an urgent account of Glinka’s colourful score. Recommended for an entertaining, if weird, staging.