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CD Review

Serge Prokofieff

Melodiya 1002353

The Story of A Real Man, Op. 117

  • Alexei - Yevgeny Kibkalo
  • Olga - Glafira Deomidova
  • Grandfather Mikhailo - Georgy Shulpin
  • Vasilissa - Vera Smirnova
  • Varya - Margarita Miglau
  • Petrovna - Antonina Ivanova
  • Seryonka - Alexander Suzanov
  • Andrei - Georgi Pankov
  • Fedya - Vladimir Kurguzov
  • Senior Doctor - Vladimir Petrov
  • Zinochka - Maria Zvezdina
  • Colonel - Valery Yaroslavtsev
  • Klavdia - Kiri Leonova
  • Commissar - Artur Eizen
  • Vasili Vasilevich - Mark Reshetin
  • Kukushkin - Alexei Maslennikov
Chorus & Orchestra of the USSR State Academic Bolshoi Theatre/Mark Ermler
Melodiya MELCD1002353 2CDs 1:52:29
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This recording dates to 1961 and is still the only one ever made of this overlooked Prokofiev opera. But at least it has made many appearances over the years, reaching American shores first as an import on Melodiya in the 1960s, then on a widely available 1975 Melodiya/Westminster Gold 2-LP set, and then most recently on a Chandos 2-disc CD set in 2002. This performance also appeared on a Musical Heritage Society set of LPs, probably in the 1970s or 1980s. Anyway, here it is again, back on the Melodiya label, but with greater availability than that label usually had in the 20th century. The Story of a Real Man, the last of Prokofiev's eight operas, is generally regarded as the black sheep of his operatic family, even suffering in comparison alongside his neglected first opera Maddalena. Actually it's better than Maddalena – much better – but for some reason it has been recorded only this one time where Maddalena has had at least three recordings, despite not being premiered until 1979, sixty-eight years after Prokofiev wrote it. The Story of a Real Man also had a delayed premiere – 1960, seven years after its composer had died.

Gergiev led a concert performance of the opera in 2002 and a decade or so later was supposed to record it, with release scheduled for 2013, but we are still waiting for his thoughts on this work. Prokofiev mavens interested in The Story of a Real Man should probably snatch this Melodiya recording up because the wait for Gergiev could be extended. Moreover, this recording is a strong effort on most counts, as I'll delve into below.

It's hard to say why The Story of a Real Man has been almost completely ignored: some have suggested it is hampered by elements of Soviet propaganda, which Prokofiev and other composers were under pressure to put in certain works by Stalin's lackeys in the arts. However, the opera is based on a true story and is more about heroism and patriotism. Moreover, Prokofiev's fifth opera, Semyon Kotko, is far more propagandistic and has achieved greater, if somewhat limited success. Others have suggested that the opera's music amounts to watered down or recycled Prokofiev. True, in this work Prokofiev made use of some songs and other material from his output, and he also softened his expressive language somewhat. So, there may be a grain of truth in this assertion, but then the Seventh Symphony and especially The Stone Flower are also just as vulnerable to such a charge; yet they both have achieved a fair measure of popularity and critical plaudits. I'd say the primary reason for the neglect of The Story of a Real Man have more to do with the misguided but once prevalent view that Prokofiev's operas, which include masterpieces like The Gambler, The Fiery Angel and War and Peace, are inferior to his ballets, like the highly successful Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella. In addition, perceived elements of pro-Soviet propaganda were blown out of proportion, especially during the Cold War era.

The Story of a Real Man is tuneful and contains several memorable numbers, including a catchy and quite wild rumba (disc 2; track 19) and some stirring choruses. The libretto, fashioned by Prokofiev and Mira Mendelson-Prokofieva after the novel by Boris Polevoy, recounts the heroic actions of World War II Soviet fighter pilot, Alexei Maresiev. Alexei is shot down behind Nazi lines, crawls eighteen miles to safety, becomes a double amputee owing to frostbitten feet, but then overcomes seemingly impossible odds to return to battle as a fighter pilot once again, thanks to prostheses. At the end he makes a dramatic return after his plane is feared missing in action, and the opera closes following a reunion with his betrothed, Olga.

The album notes in this Melodiya release are very helpful but don't deal with the cuts and additions made to this version of the opera. Conductor Mark Ermler added brief opening and closing choruses based on the "Oak Tree" theme, apparently to give the work a more heroic and unified sense, and probably also because the melody is so utterly memorable. These choruses replace the original orchestral opening and closing number. There are other cuts, mainly small ones, although an entire arioso and duet are eliminated. Still, at 1:52:29, this version of the opera contains the huge majority of the music and is a reasonable representation of Prokofiev's work.

As for the performances here, the central character Alexei is brilliantly sung and portrayed by Yevgeny Kibkalo: he comes on strong from the opening scene at his downed plane, maintaining his vocal facility and dramatic focus right on through his ravings in the hospital and through to the end of the opera when he sings a duet with Olga. Most of the rest of the cast is also quite excellent; even the minor roles are well cast: I particularly like Kiri Leonova as Klavdia, whose Act II Green Grove is grimly powerful, though I think Ermler's tempo is a bit too slow here. Glafira Deomidova is convincing as Olga but her voice at times features an unpleasant brightness, as in the final duet with Alexei. This could be a feature of the close miking, however, as she was one of the leading Bolshoi sopranos of the day. Mark Ermler, then a young conductor on his way up, leads the proceedings with a fine sense for Prokofiev's lyricism and wit, and he draws strong performances from the orchestra and chorus. The sound reproduction is very good for its time, and comes across especially well in this new mastering. Unfortunately, no libretto is provided in the album booklet. All in all, I can highly recommend this set.

Copyright © 2015, Robert Cummings