Opera Made by Committee; Terry Grimley Looks at the Colourful History of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Magic Opera-Ballet" Mlada, Presented in Birmingham on Saturday by the Company That Premiered It in 1892

Article excerpt

Byline: Terry Grimley

If a horse designed by a committee is a camel, what might an opera composed by a committee sound like?

In the case of Mlada, which the Mariinsky Theatre Opera performs at Symphony Hall on Saturday, we'll never know. Yet that is how it was originally conceived.

In 1872, Stepan Godeonov, director of the Russian imperial theatres, had the bright idea of asking four composers to collaborate on an opera-ballet based on ancient Baltic folktales.

The proposed team was drawn from the so-called "Mighty Handful" group of nationalist composers - Modest Mussorgsky, CAsar Cui, Alexander Borodin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Cui and Borodin would write the first and last acts, with Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov sharing the second and third. A fifth composer, LAon Minkus, would contribute dance episodes.

Mussorgsky resisted the suggestion that one of his best known works, Night on the Bare Mountain, should be co-opted into the piece, and with Godeonov's sudden departure the project collapsed.

It was not until 1889, when Rimsky-Korsakov was playing through some sketches for Mlada by Borodin, who had died two years earlier, that yet another composer, Lyadov, suggested that he should write an opera of his own based on the original libretto by Viktor Alexander Krilov.

The fairytale story concerns the struggle between good and evil and a princess, the Mlada of the title, who has been murdered by the gift of a poisoned ring. The music belongs to the opulent world of Russian late romanticism familiar from Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade and Stravinsky's Firebird (in fact, Kashchei, the villain of The Firebird, appears as a character in Mlada, as does Cleopatra).

Directly influenced by a touring production of Wagner's Ring which Rimsky-Korsakov had heard in 1889, the score also contains pre-echoes of Stravinsky, whose father, a singer at the Mariinsky Theatre, took part in the first performance. Another, less likely, influence on the music was the pan-pipes Rimsky-Korsakov heard at the Paris Universal Exposition which have left their mark on the Cleopatra scene together with extremely rare clarinets pitched in D and E.

The conductor Evgeni Svetlanov, a modern champion of the work, comments on the composer's "marvellous treatment of sound, which is fantastically inventive and highly original. …