I should immediately point out, in case you haven't noticed it in the heading, that this Mariinsky offering features, like Gergiev's recording of Prokofiev's Cinderella, both a Blu-ray and DVD disc. That's a bonus to potential buyers since the price appears to be about the same as that of a single Blu-ray disc. But, I must note, it's also a bonus because of the extraordinary performance and production of this still rather neglected but thoroughly compelling Prokofiev opera.
This is Gergiev's second recording of Semyon Kotko: his first effort, derived from live performances in Vienna in 1999, was issued on a Philips double-CD set in 2000 which I reviewed here (Philips 464605). It was only the second recording of the work ever made, the first being a 1960 Melodiya effort, which I also reviewed here (Melodiya MELCD1002120 ) when it was reissued in 2014 on CD. The latter performance was led by Mikhail Zhukov and featured a mostly little known cast of singers. The Gergiev was the preferable choice, both in performance and sound. Now we have this new video, which is a re-staging of that same 1999 production. Many of the cast members are the same too, and Gergiev's approach is also very similar. Seeing this opera in Yuri Alexandrov's imaginative staging, actually raises my opinion of the work. Not that I had previously believed it was an inferior effort by Prokofiev – no, but now I rank it as one of his strongest operas, standing with War and Peace, The Fiery Angel and The Gambler as the best among the eight he wrote.
If you're not familiar with the story of Semyon Kotko, you may want to click on the link to my review of Gergiev's first recording to read a summary of the plot, found in the third paragraph. In this production there is, as in many operas today, a centerpiece on the stage. It is rather strange in its appearance, looking sort of like the ruins of a large structure: it has an industrial or even space-age look, and could be described as partial remnants of a crashed UFO! It has a huge round shaft in the middle and what appear to be bombed-out railroad tracks strewn about its surface. It sometimes represents a scorched-earth area, beneath which villagers live and emerge through trap doors. But the structure serves other purposes, including as a portal for German soldiers to rise up to the stage action through the shaft. Attached to the back of the structure and rising above it are moving mechanical parts that often form a huge hammer and sickle. Such symbolism and pro-Soviet statements are sprinkled throughout this production, but so are references to God and religion: characters talk of prayer, church, the local priest, a saint and sometimes make the sign of the cross, Eastern Orthodox style of course. It's an odd mixture of seemingly opposing elements.
Costuming seems as realistic and true to the times (1918, Ukraine) as one could want. Lighting often focuses on the characters on stage, leaving the background dingy and dark. There is a digital jerky quality to the picture, especially when a character moves quickly in a closeup, as in so many action movies today. At first this aspect bothered me, but as the opera proceeded I could see this effect was an asset, especially in the scene when the village is set afire (track 38). This is one of the most brilliantly realized operatic scenes I have ever encountered. When I watched it the first time I had to immediately play it again before moving on. Prokofiev's music is exciting, utterly thrilling here, but the stage action and filming aspects make it visually arresting too, in its lighting, camera work, special effects of fire and smoke, and even the costuming: the German arsonists, clad in gas masks and holding torches, look like truly monstrous villains. Prokofiev uses a six note obsessive theme here that grows into a crushing motif that you'll hear in your mind's ear for many days after. This is the kind of memorable operatic scene that one can only inadequately describe, because it is of such bizarre yet transcendent quality, well beyond the limits of description via the written word.
Four of the major cast members here (Viktor Lutsyuk, Tatiana Pavlovskaya, Gennady Bezzubenkov and Evgeny Nikitin) sang the same roles in the 1999 recording, and if you're wondering why Gergiev didn't replace them with younger voices, the answer is that these singers are all excellent: they have sung this opera many times and know the music inside and out. The two leads, Lutsyuk as Semyon and Pavlovskaya as Sofya are simply splendid. Bezzubenkov as Tkachenko makes a great villain, someone you'll love to hate. There isn't a weak member in this cast, and the chorus sings with total commitment. Gergiev draws spirited playing from his orchestra and his interpretation leaves you to wonder if this opera can ever be given a better performance.
The sound reproduction, camera work and picture clarity are all excellent. If you like Prokofiev or have a fondness for 20th century opera, do yourself a favor and acquire this thrilling performance, which is replete with many lush themes given in colorful orchestration and ingenious vocal writing. Highest recommendations!
Copyright © 2016, Robert Cummings