Alexander Pushkin wasn't able to revise his mock-epic Ruslan and Lyudmila as composer Mikhail Glinka requested because the poet was killed in a duel occasioned by allegations of his wife's infidelity. That's one reason why the libretto for Glinka's opera is not exactly a masterpiece of the wordspinner's craft. Moreover, its most memorable aspect is its familiar overture and the two arias with similar motifs. Opera in Concert Director Guillermo Silva-Marin overcame such challenges with polished ease when the company opened its season Oct. 24.
Fantasy fuels Ruslan's narrative, which possibly accounts for the stilted descriptions of sorcerer's spells, beautiful maids, evil dwarfs and haunted places that occur throughout. At the same time, the fantasy underscores the Russian-ness of the work and the gap between its forms and the warmth of opera conjured in Mediterranean lands. Yet Glinka, the father of Russian opera, provides much marvelous music, as well as delightful three- and four-part singing.
Set in ancient Russian times, the opera begins in a castle where Svetozar, Prince of Kiev, parades his daughter, Lyudmila, before three suitors: Ruslan the knight, Ratmir the poet and Farlaf the cowardly Viking. A crash of thunder interrupts, Lyudmila disappears (abducted by the villainous sorcerer, Tchernomor) and the prince offers her hand to her rescuer. After a convoluted series of adventures, Ruslan emerges as the Lyudmila's saviour.
Surviving even the bare bones of the plot, sung in Russian with English surtitles, is daunting, but OinC's performers were on top form. The inexhaustible Raisa Nakhmanovich held supple sway at the piano while the 34-strong chorus under Robert Cooper, occasionally in all-male or all-female formation, clearly enjoyed its larger-than-usual share of the music, its striking interventions packed with Slavic passion and considerable brio.
Taras Kulish, the veteran bass-baritone with a big, smoothly executed range, was very comfortable as Ruslan, bringing great clarity of diction and grand attention to detail to his character. As Lyudmila, soprano Lara Ciekiewiez delivered goodly portions of rapturous lyricism, with moments of heartrending emotional fragility Mezzo Louisa Cowie, in a trouser role as Ratmir, impressed with unforced beauty of tone, impeccable intonation with no hint of vibrato and a clear understanding of the character, while tenor Paul Williamson (Finn) was an excellent mix of intensity and finesse in what must surely be one of his best vocal outings so far.
In other roles, baritone Igor Emilianov blustered effectively as Farlaf; soprano Luiza Zhuleva showed a fetching voice with gleaming top notes as Gorislava, Ratmir's lover; contralto Anna Belikova made the most of her part as wicked sorceress Naina; and young tenor Slava Serebrianik displayed great promise in his only aria as Bayan the Bard. As the prince, bass George Ossipov was strong in low registers but had difficulty on top.--G.C.