Prokofiev’s SemÎn Kotko Lands in Sardinia

It is the only proper
opera house of Sardinia. Inaugurated slightly more than ten years ago, it has
met the challenge of giving new life to the Sardinian capital’s musical
life. Near to the theatre are a glittering modern hotel, a Church, a
well-tended park and middle-class and upper middle-class housing developments.
Opera is a wide, wild world that easily coexists with the
“miracles” of urban planning and zoning regulations.

It is difficult to attract interest to an albeit elegant theatre in remote
Sardinia. For the last ten years, the Cagliari Teatro Lirico has had a simple
recipe: standard repertory (viz. Rigoletto, BohËme,
Lucia) for most of the season but breaking news for the inauguration:
an opera never previously performed in Italy (better still if seldom seen in
the rest of the world) for a major opening to be scheduled in the Spring
— not in December or January like in other Italian Opera Houses. The
season’s inauguration coincides with the “Sant’Efision
celebrations”, a local event that is nearly a national holiday (April
25th “Liberation Day” after the collapse of Nazism in Northern
Italy). Thus, opera lovers flying to Cagliari can enjoy a little vacation and
the late April sun on the lovely white sand beaches surrounding the town.

This year SemÎn Kotko [Semyon Kotko] by Sergey Prokofiev
was chosen for the 2009 April event in a joint production with St
Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre. Until the mid-70s, SemÎn was
little performed even in Russia. The opera was composed when Prokofiev, having
returned to the Soviet Union after 17 years abroad, made an earnest attempt to
develop a good relationship if not with Stalin himself, at least with his top
bureaucracy. The plot is based on the then successful novel by Valentin Katayev
— the star of popular Soviet writers. It deals with a brave young
Bolshevik fighting in post-World War I Ukraine with horrid reactionary, stupid
but sadistic Germans; the happy end is the arrival of the Red Army when all our
“good folks” are about to be executed. Whilst the score was being
composed, the brilliant stage director who had commissioned it, Vsevolod
Meyerhold, fell out of Stalin’s favors and subsequently executed by
firing squad. During rehearsal, the Russians and the Germans entered into the
Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact (the Treaty of Non-aggression between Germany and
the USSR), which led to the partition of Poland. Thus, the libretto had to be
changed: the cruel Germans were replaced by the Czarist White Army. A few weeks
later, Nazi troops invaded the USSR. Thus, a new change — to go back to
the original libretto. In spite of all these efforts, and of successful
premiËre at the Moscow Stanislavsky Opera Theatre, the officialdom’s
reaction was icy: the opera (and its author) were accused of
“formalism”. Thus the patriotic music drama was withdrawn and was
not staged until 1958 — not in the USSR or in any major western opera
house, but in little Brno, Czechoslovakia. It appeared at the Bolshoi only in

Semyon_Kotko04.gifScene from Semyon Kotko

The plot is puerile, but the score is intriguing. The vocal techniques range
from pure speech (with rhythmic notation) to traditionally shaped melody, with
every possible degree in between. There a Mussorgskian realism in the way
voices overlap and different types of expressions are heard simultaneously. We
are far away from Prokofiev’s nearly futuristic style, such as in The
Love of Three Oranges
or in The Gambler. The orchestration is
rich. There is a strong, and apparently earnest, effort to follow
“realistic socialism” aesthetics, which were incompatible with
Prokofiev’s tendency toward innovation.

Semyon_Kotko02.gifScene from Act I

Does it work now? The Cagliari-Mariinsky production is, no doubt, an
excellent effort: the stage direction is highly dramatic, acting is very good,
a set of first-class tenors and basses (with a large gamut of varieties in
their vocal specification), good conducting (Alexander Vedernikov), an
intriguing stage set (Seymon Pastukh), and a stage direction (Yuri Alexandrov)
that consists of 28 or so short scenes (post-World War I Ukraine looks like an
immense garbage dump). In spite of these efforts, SemÎn Kotko fails
because it is hampered by its inability to meet the demands of Bolshevist
propaganda “despite [Prokofiev’s] best efforts . . . [to] bring it
down to the level the Stalinist cultural establishment . . . required” [Richard
Taruskin, Semyon Kotko, Grove Music Online ]. In light of the many
attempts to please the powers-to-be and to experiment with a new mix of styles,
it would have been well enough to have left this in the attic. Perhaps its
principal significance is being a precursor to War and Peace, composed
by Prokofiev a few years later.

Semyon_Kotko03.gifScene from Act II

Nonetheless, a trip to Cagliari is worth for the marvelous voices,
especially of the tenors, rarely heard in the West.

Giuseppe Pennisi

image_description=Scene from Semyon Kotko [Photo courtesy of Mariinsky Theatre]
product_title=Sergey Prokofiev: SemÎn Kotko [Semyon Kotko]
product_by=Semyon Kotko: Viktor Lutsiuk; Semyon’s mother: Ludmilla Filatova; Frosya: Olga Savov; Remeniuk: Viktor Chernomortsev; Chivrja: Ekaterina Solovieva; Sofya: Lyudmlla Kasianenko; Lyubka: Tatiana Pavlovskaya; Mikola: Vladimir Zhivopistsev. Teatro Lirico Orchestra and Chorus. Alexander Vedernikov, conductor. Yuri Alexandrov, director. Semyon Pastukh, set designs.
product_id=Above: Scene from Semyon Kotko

All photos courtesy of Mariinsky Theatre