BuxtondoubleJean Sibelius - The Maiden in the Tower
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - Kashchei the Immortal

Buxton Festival, 2012 | Stuart Stratford, Stephen Lawless, Kate Ladner, Emma Selway, Richard Berkeley-Steele, Robert Poulton, Owen Gilhooly | Buxton Opera House - 12 July 2012

Even though they are both very different in style, approach and meaning, there is at least one very obvious common theme between the two exceptionally near-contemporaneous rare one-act operas brought together in Buxton’s “Festival Double Bill” - both clearly deal with young women held captive in a tower by an evil, oppressive figure of power. If Jean Sibelius’s The Maiden in the Tower (Jungfrun i tornet), the composer’s only opera work, is the slighter and more superficial of the two in its treatment of this theme - both in narrative and in musical terms - it’s contrasted nonetheless to good effect in this clever pairing with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsahov’s Kashchei the Immortal, which is characteristically a richer and more complex reading of fantasy fairytale elements for this composer, aligning its themes and concept towards making a very real statement about the political situation in the Russia of its time.

The Buxton Opera production smartly avoids making reference to any early Russian turn-of-the-20th-century social or political messages, which though interesting are far from relevant today and perhaps one of the reasons why the work is so rarely staged outside of Russia. Instead, Stephen Lawless’s direction cleverly links the two works through having the same singers play corresponding/contrasting roles in both works, allowing the characterisation of the earlier Sibelius work to influence the meaning of the Rimsky-Korsakov. Removing the original context of a work and replacing it with another artificial background is of course not an uncommon practice in opera productions, but usually it is achieved through an updating or reworking of the stage setting, period and location. It’s highly unusual to see a work given a different musical background as a basis in this manner but it’s cleverly and most successfully done here in a way that doesn’t distort the deeper meaning of the two works.

It’s probably the Sibelius work however that gains the most from this double-bill enhancement. The Maiden in the Tower has a very simple storyline set at a children’s birthday party, although one immediately thinks of Oscar Wilde’s fairytale ‘The Birthday of the Infanta‘ and how dark and twisted that can be. The Maiden in the Tower does indeed set out with just such an intent, emphasised during the short overture in this production where the bailiff’s son, at his birthday party, is seen cruelly twisting off a doll’s head and furtively peeking up its skirt before donning a demon mask, effectively summarising his character is a few brief stokes - as does Sibelius in the score. When the bailiff’s son’s advances are rebuffed by a young uninvited guest, the boy has her locked away in a tower intent on having his wicked way with her. The girl’s reputation is mocked by the other guests, but her young boyfriend discovers the truth and tries to rescue her, fighting the bailiff’s son. A governess intervenes and releases the girl and the party continues without the birthday boy.

As a version of the Britten-like theme of the corruption of innocence, The Maiden in the Tower is not a terribly complex or insightful affair, the dialogue straightforward and declarative, and it’s not scored in any particularly subtle way either by Sibelius. It does however sound ravishing, with a Tchaikovsky-like Romanticism in its symphonic and folk-tinged arrangements which give strong dramatic punctuation to the Cherevichki-like folk and fairytale elements, with some wonderful chorus work that strikes those moments home even further. The piece is however given a little more edge from the stage direction which plays on the awkward age of innocent children approaching sexual awareness and makes the most of the singers evidently looking older than the children they are playing. This takes on another layer of depth when placed alongside Kashchei the Immortal. Is the kind of childish devilment and humiliation that has been inflicted at an early age capable of developing into something rather more unsettling and dangerous in later life?

Kashchei the Immortal, despite its more obviously fantastical setting, does actually suggest that this could indeed be the case with its evil magician. Played by the same actor/singer who played the bailiff’s son in The Maiden in the Tower, Kashchei has not only imprisoned a princess in his tower (Kate Ladner again the unfortunate captive), but he has brought-up his daughter Kashcheyevna to seduce and kill men in order to avenge himself “for past humiliations”. Seeing in his magic glass (an old flickering TV set here) the threat of the Princess’s lover Ivan, he dispatches the Storm Wind to warn Kashcheyevna, but his daughter finds herself unable to carry out her evil deeds despite having Ivan at her mercy. The Storm Wind, who had been held captive by Kashchei, spirits Ivan to the castle to rescue the Princess. Realising that she is in love with Ivan, who rejects her, Kashcheyevna weeps, and in displaying such emotion she brings about the destruction of Kashchei.

As well as using the same singers for similar roles, the connection between the two works in this production is evident in the subtle transformation of the same set used in both pieces and the connecting element of the demon mask, but nothing else is over-emphasised to the extent that the shadow of Sibelius lingers over Rimsky-Korsakov’s work. It does however feel appropriate that the moral of goodness triumphing over the seemingly immortal power of evil and being rewarded as promised in childhood stories does indeed be seen to be true in later adult life. In an additional twist at the conclusion however, the production realistically considers that such experiences do not come without a human cost. It’s not just “happily ever after”. The Princess, released from her captivity, the cruel ruler destroyed, curls up beside the defeated Kashchei as if having endured the captivity, she is unable to recognise freedom or in some way her inherent goodness sympathises with his predicament. It’s a truthful touch that shows that the situation has been realistically considered just as thoughtfully as Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration of the work itself with its underlying real-world meaning.

The performances in this production were simply marvellous across the board, the five main singers - Kate Ladner, Emma Selway, Richard Berkeley-Steele, Robert Poulton and Owen Gilhooly - equally strong, alive to the possibilities within these enhanced characters, giving them perfect expression in the singing and in the acting. The Northern Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Stuart Stratford also delivered a stirring performance that played to the strengths of these two very different musical works in a way that also made the most of their complementary contrasts.