You don't expect daunting vocal acrobatics, too many lyrical passages or European-style arias in Russian opera--yet with skilful singers and firm musical direction the emotional effects can be stunning.
Such was the case when Opera In Concert, always noted for its adventurous repertoire, concluded an excellent season Apr. 6 with a bold, well-sung production of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow Maiden.
OinC's fourth presentation of a work by this composer--a piece that clearly inspired Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring--earned, extra appreciation because its mythic theme of the enduring struggle between the gods, specifically Grandfather Frost and Red Spring versus Sun God Yarilo, coincided with Toronto's first warm weekend of 2008.
Alter 15 years of cold rule, the parents decide a human couple should adopt daughter Snegurochka (the Snow Maiden) to protect her from warmth. Her heart is icy, and should it melt, she will die. The youthful innocent is soon embroiled in earthly imbroglios, especially those revolving around love's fickle nature, and no deep insight is needed to realize she is doomed, a Juliet when she discovers her Romeo.
The musical journey is attractive, however, with splendid contributions from pianist Raisa Nakhmanovich and a chorus fortified with extra basses directed by Robert Cooper that frequently managed to emulate that distinctive Russian sound.
In her Canadian debut as the maiden, the young Russian soprano Luiza Zhuleva proved a great find, her technically gifted, powerful voice emanating from a slim frame symbolizing femininity and vulnerability. Ascending lines were shrill early on, but she soon settled into detailed, pure-voiced clarity that brilliantly sketched aching passions.
There was more superb singing from sopranos Katerina Tchoubar (Kupava, a village beauty), who delightfully captured the flowing rhythms of the fast-moving narrative, and Ani Imastounian (Red Spring), whose mature, radiant voice demonstrated an unerring instinct for phrasing.
Mezzo Louise Cowie in the trouser role of the shepherd boy, Lel, demonstrated considerable fair for dramatic projection while maintaining a beguiling sweetness.
Baritone Michael Meraw (Mizgir), secure of pitch if somewhat short of tonal warmth, delivered with assertive intensity, bass-baritone Gerrit Theule made a stentorian Frost and lyric tenor Paul Williamson impressed as the Tsar. Lesser protagonists revealed no weaknesses in a performance fuelled by a relentless piano attack and well-honed textures from the choristers.