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Rimsky-Korsakov’s penultimate work counts as one of the great operatic mysteries. It fascinates Russophiles and invariably captivates anyone lucky enough to experience it in the theatre, but the piece is impossible to pin down and, with a big cast and more than three hours of music, it’s expensive to stage.

Small wonder most of the world’s major opera companies fight shy of it. The plot revolves around a mystical maiden, a city promising earthly paradise, an army of slash-and-burn marauders – and a final vision of transcendence. Kitezh is many things: Symbolist dream, Mussorgskian fairytale, Wagner-like drama of innocence, corruption and redemption.

Rimsky lavished on it some of his most memorable music, embracing Russian folksong, rich choruses and an orchestral coat-of-many-colours. Whether this DVD of Tcherniakov’s 2012 Netherlands Opera production offers a suitable introduction for first-timers is debatable, but it’s the best available. The iconoclastic Russian director-designer downplays the supernatural elements in favour of a modern-dress parable about the intensity of life in the face of death. His characters resemble 21st century Russian archetypes, the emphasis being on chill realism.

If the visual result negates the opera’s poetry, the musical performance provides compensation. Albrecht draws consistently brilliant orchestral playing and the chorus is excellent. The cast – led by Svetlana Ignatovich’s homey Fevroniya, John Daszak’s swaggering Grishka and Maxim Aksenov’s bright-voiced Vsevolod – sings decently, while missing the fervour of an all-Russian ensemble. The package includes a short documentary with rehearsal footage and comments from the self-assured, fast-talking Tcherniakov.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh

Netherlands Opera/Dmitri Tcherniakov/Marc Albrecht

(Opus Arte)

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