Kabalevsky Colas Breugnon

Author: 
John Warrack

Kabalevsky Colas Breugnon

  • Colas Breugnon

The overture to Colas Breugnon has been much recorded, among others by Toscanini. The opera itself remains known more by repute than in the theatre, even in Russia, where despite revisions it has never really entered the repertory. Kabalevsky was a somewhat equivocal figure, always quick to be politically correct (as with his brief speech at the 1948 Zhdanov tribunal savaging Soviet music), but at the same time active in musical life and especially on behalf of young people, for whom he provided much music himself: the booklet to this issue cites performances of his Piano Sonatina by the 13-year-old Daniel Barenboim and Concerto by the 14-year-old Vladimir Ashkenazy. Colas Breugnon has an engaging immediacy of appeal that makes its lack of Soviet success rather surprising.
One reason for lack of interest may lie in the plot. Too complicated to summarize in detail, this concerns Colas, Romain Rolland's picaresque master carpenter and sculptor of Clamecy, who fails to marry his true love Selina and instead is scooped in by Jacqueline, while Selina marries Gifflard, the Duke's oily retainer. Forty years on, by when Colas and Selina have regretted the loss of one another, the Duke's soldiers return bringing plague to the town. Jacqueline is one who dies, but, released, Colas now feels that a distant love for Selina has perhaps been best. The resentful Gifflard encourages the Duke to destroy Colas's creations, but Colas has his rather silly revenge when he unveils a humiliating statue of the Duke perched backwards on a donkey.
There are elements of other plots of the artist at odds with society and his rulers (Benvenuto Cellini, Mathis der Maler, even Cardillac), but the atmosphere here is entirely comic—or should be, and though Rolland gave Kabalevsky carte blanche, he was upset when his sunny hero acquired a more serious nature and a 'social' role as contender against the Duke. Further, the number of scenes and characters makes for confusion. It needs the satirical rapidity of a Prokofiev or a Shostakovich, who could deal expertly with a farrago of characters in The Gambler and The Nose. Kabalevsky is quick-witted, but he lacks the Gogol-like capacity to characterize by slyly distorting and exaggerating which so much inspired his greater colleagues.
Yet the score is fun. Kabalevsky makes clever use of the little figure of three rising notes which fires off the overture, as well as the kick of the rumba-rhythm bar which gives its swift flight a comic lurch. These suffuse the invention, as does some French folk-song, though Kabalevsky is too cunning to rest on literal quotations; by the same token, he uses the ''Dies irae'' cleverly to generate his invention in the plague scene. Colas is quite a sympathetic character, even if Kabalevsky lacks the depth to give him much profundity. The exchanges with Selina are affecting, though, and Colas's confrontation with apparent death has a touch of morbid grotesquerie in a manner that Kabalevsky, like Shostakovich, seems to have inherited from Mussorgsky.
The 20-year-old recording is not at all bad, considering what could come out of Russia in the early 1970s; and the performances deal enthusiastically with some often complicated demands. Leonid Boldin does well to make so much of Colas. He is tender with Selina—a sharp but somewhat insubstantial performance from Nina Isakova—though he is a little overtaken by events in the rapidly moving patter song defending his craftsmanship. Georgy Zhemchuzhin conducts with a nice sense of how the score's lightness and weight are balanced, doing the best he can for a work that is very well worth hearing, perhaps even re-staging.'

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