History Repeating Itself: Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko, Amsterdam Concertgebouw

a sensational Die Frau ohne Schatten, Vladimir Jurowski now returns
with a Prokofiev masterpiece, of which he informed his audience this Soviet
Opera “is the first time performed by a non-Russian orchestra and choir.
The Dutch Radio Choir and the Flemish Radio Choir proved phenomenal, while a
sprawling cast of Russian singers the best for these roles were brought in for
this epic performance.

Not only did this afternoon’s programme provide a high point in the
history of the NTR Saturday Matinee, but it was the most impressive opera
concert of the last few seasons programmed in this serie. It was also the
farewell after 33 years of casting director Mauricio Fernandez. He ended his
reign with a bang.

Prokofiev wrote the quite clumsy libretto, basing it on Katayev’s 1937 novel
I, Son of Working People, in the style of the French grand opera. Set
in 1918 at the end of the Great War, Kotko tells the story of Semyon
returning from the front. He saved his superior Tkachenko’s life, and so
he is promised his daughter Sofya for marriage. When he arrives in Akt I,
things don’t go as planned.

After Mr. Jurowski transported the audience to Soviet times with the
sweeping Overture, Semyon arrives on stage. Oleg Dolgov commands the stage with
his burly physique, deeply sonorous voice, but warm hearted appearance. His
vocal reach had no problem conquering the acoustics of the Great Hall. The
First Act is also filled with comical town folks. Prokofiev includes sound
effects with laughter from the audience as result. Prokofiev knows how to add
wit to his drama. Especially with the bird calls.

Kotko includes three love couples: Semyon and Sofya; his sister
Frosya and her Mikola; and Semyon’s sailor friend Tsaryov and his fiance
Lyubka. With a little bit of focus, you could quickly discern who was who. Of
the singers, there was not one who seemed out of place. Each reflected his or
her character through the style of their singing.

Alexandra Kadurina dazzled as the slightly naive Frosya. Her nearly shrill,
copper toned vibrato voice terrifically penetrant with relentless stamina. Her
contrast to Lyubov Petrova added a resonance to each of their interweaving
voices. Where Kadurina has a slightly restless tone in her voice, perhaps
channelling Frosya’s girlhood insecurities, Petrova sang Sofya with a
robust voice, determined by passionate love. She easily commanded the attention
on stage and had terrific chemistry with Oleg Dolgov’s Semyon.

In Act II, Tkachenko still refuses Semyon and Sofya’s wishes to get
married. Maxim Mikhailov intoned his bass voice with a stubborn air of a
know-it-all. Irina Dolzhenko supplied Tkachenko’s wife Khivrya with a
nervous fear. Prokofiev alternates the heavier confrontations with choir
episodes. In the Second Act, a girls choir softly sings wedding songs. The
choirs’ soothing clarity, soft-spokenness and innocence, offered the
necessary contrast to the traitorous Tkachenko. Prokofiev neatly doses the
nearly four hours in episodes of laughter, despair, hope, anger and fear.

After Jurowski led the magnificent Dutch Radio Philharmonic through the
dreamy, pastoral overture of the Third Act, Tkachenko rats out the remaining
Bolsheviks in the village to the Germans, including Tsaryov and Ivasenko,
Semyon’s friends. The Germans arrest and hang them. Then Tsaryov’s
fiance Lyubka is driven mad by grief.

As the Germans invade the town, some of Prokofiev’s most fearful music
resonated through the Concertgebouw with lots of explosive, percussive sound
effects. Together with the screeching strings that echoed Shostakovich,
Prokofiev’s music got under your skin and left you with a cold sweat.

Instead of ending after Act III, Jurowski continued through to the first
scene of the Fourth Act. Sung with great tragedy by the two choirs superbly
prepared by Klaas Stok, here Jurowski ended with Taras Shevchenko’s
Soviet poem “Testament” that Prokofiev placed central in the opera.
The Russian poem describes the sorrows that came from the always returning
violence in Ukraine. Haunting and thought-provoking.

In the last part of the Fourth Act, the village has been razed to the
ground. Semyon and Mikola arm themselves to fight. They attack a church service
with grenades. They are captured. But the Germans have to flee from the Red
Army, leaving Tkachenko behind, who is then executed. Sofya and Semyon end up
together, and everyone vows to keep Ukraine free.

In the present, as the war continues at the border between Russia and
Ukraine. Jurowski’s emphasis on the “Testament” poem felt all
the more significant. In Prokofiev’s time, after the Soviet-Nazi pact was
made, the powers that be required the Soviet-Ukrainian composer to rewrite his
original ending and replace the German enemies for Ukrainian nationalist
‘Haydamaks’. Jurowski arranged the poem to be repeated by the
choirs at the end of the last Act, this time translated into Ukranian with
deeply moving results. The lady next to me could not contain her tears.

From the depth of his lungs, Vladimir Ognev impressed with his deep bass as
Remeniuk. Even supporting roles by Tim Kuipers as Von Wierhof, a high ranking
German soldier, did not go by unnoticed. Prokofiev presented him as a fool,
which his phrasing and intonation perfectly conveyed. The smaller roles all
felt like they were filled with the strongest of voices.

Semyon Kotko contains many characters and themes: German
nationalism, Bolshevik revolutionaries, Lyubka going mad, alongside massive
choir scenes, all shaped into a massive Soviet Opera full of propagandistic
Stalinist music by the then recently repatriated Prokofiev. The music sounds
closer to Shostakovich’s fear-inducing War Symphonies, than to
Prokofiev’s less accessible rhythmic and pulsating works like his
symphonies that always seemed to have some hope hidden in them. Vladimir
Jurowski proved himself a master at balancing all the singers, while
stimulating the Radio Philharmonic to great musical heights.

David Pinedo

image_description=Vladimir Jurowski [Photo by Drew Kelley courtesy of IMG Artists]
product_title=History Repeating Itself: Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko, Amsterdam Concertgebouw
product_by=A review by David Pinedo
product_id=Above: Vladimir Jurowski [Photo by Drew Kelley courtesy of IMG Artists]