Like The Gambler, this opera has suffered in concert representation from the rather bland suite derived from it. Semyon Kotko is a better work than its lone orchestral offshoot might suggest. But this opera's popularity has been sabotaged by other factors, too. To illustrate the most important of those one need only to read the first paragraph of Andrew Huth's notes in the handsome 300-page album booklet Philips provides. He describes the political aspects of this work and then asks, "Can such an opera be any good?" He goes on to answer with a resounding "yes", but one has to wonder what the point of the question was in the first place. (It should be noted that Huth's notes are intelligent and insightful, even if he spends time on an irrelevant issue here.)
Perhaps the ill-founded attacks on Prokofieff of Richard Taruskin that have appeared in the New York Times over the past decade or so have raised some kind of quasi-paranoid awareness of extra-musical subjects in the works of this composer. While there's no denying that this opera portrays the emerging Soviet state and the revolution in positive ways, it is hardly a ringing endorsement of Stalinist policies, of Bolshevism, or of communism. Even Prokofieff's Cantata on The 20th Anniversary of The October Revolution, completed after the politically naïve composer had gotten a taste of Stalin's reign of terror, was a grand satire, whose dramatic moments were so fraught with raucous high jinks that it would be difficult to regard its biggest climactic movement, Revolution, as anything but a depiction of hooligans seizing power in Russia. So, for the umpteenth time, Prokofieff was not a communist or communist-sympathizer. But even if he had been, I must say, political conservative that I am, it still shouldn't matter in assessing his art.
Semyon Kotko is based on the 1937 novel I am the son of working people by Valentin Katayev. The libretto was fashioned by Prokofieff and Katayev. The story takes place in Ukraine (where Prokofieff was born, by the way) in 1918. The newly-established Bolshevik government has reached peace with the Germans, but some of their forces still occupy the territory. The advancing Red Army is hampered by Ukrainian nationalists, and of course by the remaining Germans. Semyon, a demobilized soldier and prominent young man in his village, is hoping to marry Sofya, daughter of the wealthy Tkachenko. The latter hopes to restore the old order and plots with loyalist elements and Germans to undermine the revolution and to thwart Semyon's marital intentions. In the end, Semyon, after Tkachenko's intrigues have cost the lives of two friends, is reunited with Sofya, and Tkachenko is arrested and executed. It's a pretty bloody opera and its forty-eight short scenes allow for plenty of action and plot development.
Gergiev has hardly any competition in this work. The only other recording was an early-1960s Soviet effort that did not circulate widely in this country. There was no "Melodiya/Angel" or "Columbia/Melodiya" LP issue of it, nor to my knowledge was it ever licensed to any other label. This new version is simply excellent, and even if it had more competition, it would still probably be the recording to get. There isn't a weak singer in the cast. In fact, most are excellent. I liked Olga Savova's Frosya: try her Act I number, The sound of the rain. Viktor Lutsiuk as Semyon and Gennady Bezzubenkov as Tkachenko are also splendid.
But the star here is Gergiev, whose sense for the dramatic ebb and flow of vocal music (and orchestral music, for that matter) is growing stronger with each new recording. Even in this Prokofieff series he has evolved from the so-so effort of War and Peace to the thrilling performances of The Fiery Angel and The Gambler. In Semyon Kotko Gergiev wisely plays up the rich lyricism of the work, aware this opera is closer in spirit to the mellifluous War and Peace than to the thorny The Fiery Angel.
The chorus and orchestra respond well to Gergiev's baton, as usual, and Philips' sound is the best in the series so far. The recording was derived from performances at the Grosser Saal, Konzerthaus, in Vienna, November 19-21, 1999. The final issue that arises for many before purchase of this CD set is, how does Semyon Kotko rank alongside Prokofieff's other operas? In some quarters, the work has a weak reputation. In my opinion, The Fiery Angel, War and Peace, and The Gambler are his three greatest. While I have a higher opinion of The Story of a Real Man than most, I cannot rank it or Maddalena (Prokofieff's first opera) with any of the others. Semyon Kotko falls in the middle, probably a notch below Betrothal in a Monastery and perhaps a bit above The Love for Three Oranges.
Semyon Kotko has many compelling moments: try Scene I, Act III, for some truly mesmerizingly beautiful music, or, for real sonic thrills, hear the last half of Scene XIV of that same act. The music here corresponds to the section in the Suite called The Village is Burning. There the drama and power barely come across here, it is powerful, with Prokofieff's six-note motif repeating obsessively until it crushes everything in sight. There are many other highlights in the work, of course, but suffice it to say that Prokofieff invested the opera with many beautiful and memorable themes and in typically colorful orchestration. In the end, this is a very worthwhile recording that will appeal not only to Prokofieff mavens but to those interested in Russian and 20th century opera. Gergiev's next effort will be The Love for Three Oranges, then, to complete the series, The Story of a Real Man. I'm waiting anxiously.
Copyright © 2000, Robert Cummings