A folk-inspired shaggy dog story, in a performance full of charm and verve

Chelsea Opera Group Chorus and Orchestra with soloists for Il trovatore, 2016. — at Cadogan Hall. Photo by Robert Workman

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov wrote over a dozen operas, but they still only rarely crop up in the UK. His opera Christmas Eve, based on a Gogol story, was staged by English National Opera in 1988 but has not been seen much since so Chelsea Opera Group‘s performance of the opera at the Cadogan Hall on 10 December 2017 was more than welcome.

Conducted by Timothy Burke, there was a strong cast with Anne-Marie Owens as Solokha, Richard Roberts as the Devil, Keel Watson as Panas and Patsyuk, Jeremy White as Chub, Jonathan Stoughton as Vakula, Natasha Jouhl as Oksana, Kevin Hollands as the mayor, Alun Rhys-Jenkins as the sacristan, Sarah Pring as the woman with a violet nose (I kid you not!) and the Tsarina, and Sally Harrison as the woman with an ordinary nose.

Yevgeniya Mravina as Oksana in the premiere of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve

Perhaps one reason that many of Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas do not quite take in the West is that they resemble shaggy-dog stories, filling the stage full of folk-inspired characters. Christmas Eve is technically about the smith, Vakula (Jonathan Stoughton) and his wooing of the proud Oksana (Natasha Jouhl) who sends him off on a journey to get her a pair of slippers like those worn by the Tsarina. Only this gets almost lost in the welter of subsidiary plots, with Vakula’s mother Solokha the witch (Anne-Marie Owens) and her antics with the Devil (Richard Roberts) and her other lovers, Chub (Jeremy White), mayor (Kevin Hollands) and sacristan (Alun Rhys-Jenkins), whilst Chub (who is Oksana’s father) also seems to be the town drunkard along with his mate Panas (Keel Watson). And when Vakula does get to the court at St Petersburg (thanks to the co-operation of the devil), Rimsky-Korsakov seems as interested in the journeys there and back, giving us some wonderful orchestral interludes.

If you worried about character development, then there wasn’t any; only Oksana changes as she realises she cares for Vakula when he disappears, presumed dead. But if you sat back and relaxed, then it was great fun.

Clearly, the opera cries out for a staging (and I have happy memories of the 1988 ENO staging), but the cast seemed to be enjoying themselves so much at the Cadogan Hall that they carried us along. It helped that there was a reasonable amount of interaction between the characters, and some colourful added theatrical touches.

As the woman with a violet nose, Sarah Pring did sport a purple nose, whilst as the Tsarina she had a tiara, and Oksana did indeed sing to a mirror for her first solo. For Chub and Panas’ first entry, when they get lost in a snow-storm, Jeremy White and Keel Watson appeared bundled up in overcoats, scarves and hats and when Solokha’s various lovers have to hide in old sacks, the singers put paper bags over their heads.

The opera was sung in David Pountney’s lively translation (made for the ENO performances) and the casting, with its rich array of character actors, ensured that we were well entertained. Anne-Marie Owens’ Solokha always seemed to have a gleam in her eye, and you felt Owens really relished the part. Jeremy White and Keel Watson were equally characterful as the inebriated Chub and Panas, with Watson popping up as the sorcerer Patsyuk too. Richard Roberts made a lovely devil, seemingly delighted to be getting involved in all of the human goings on.

As the notional hero, Jonathan Stoughton sang Vakula with bright, heroic tone coping well with the part’s seemingly high tessitura, and managing to convey the ardency of Vakula’s feelings whilst hinting that he had ‘fists like anvils’. As his beloved, Natasha Jouhl was wonderfully self-regarding in her glorious opening solo and it is only at the end that she softened and began to humanise.

The smaller roles were all well cast too, with Sarah Pring giving well contrasted accounts of her two roles, and Sally Harrison as a lively woman with an ordinary nose, Alun Rhys-Jenkins made a smugly self-satisfied sacristan whilst Kevin Hollands’ mayor seemed always on his dignity.

There was a great deal for chorus and orchestra to do. As ever with Rimsky-Korsakov he set the action in the context of everyday life so we had various rituals for Christmas Eve. Whether as carolling villagers, courtiers or Cossacks pleading with the Tsarina, the chorus sang lustily and with character. The orchestra made the most of their opportunities, giving us some lovely moments of magical orchestration, and making the various orchestral interludes become part of the charm of the piece.

Rimsky-Korsakov based the opera on a Gogol short story already used by Tchaikovsky (the Royal Opera did a production in 2009), but Rimsky-Korsakov felt that he could do better. The result is a charming fable, full of folk characters and rather resembling a rambling story by an elderly aunt, full of non-sequiturs and charming diversions. Conductor Timothy Burke navigated his forces expertly through Rimsky-Korsakov’s lively score, ensuring that the work’s charm and its beauties came over.

 

Rimsky-Korsakov Christmas Eve

Natasha Jouhl, Jonathan Stoughton, Anne-Marie Owens, Jeremy White, Keel Watson

Chelsea Opera Group, conductor Timothy Burke

Cadogan Hall, 11 December 2017