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'Mlada' swirls with endless energy
Symphony turns Rimsky-Korsakov opera into glorious spectacle
Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic
Saturday, June 29, 2002
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle.


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If Cecil B. DeMille had taken it into his head to create a big-budget extravaganza on Russian-pagan themes with a score by Wagner and a host of visual and sound effects, the result might be something like Rimsky-Korsakov's opera "Mlada."

Then again, it might not.

The remarkable thing about "Mlada" -- one of many remarkable things about it -- is the way the opera sounds like 50 other pieces and yet remains dazzlingly itself. In Thursday night's thrilling performance by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, the first of three that bring the Symphony's Russian Festival to a triumphant close, those echoes went rolling and ricocheting all around Davies Symphony Hall amid the evidence of Rimsky's capacious imagination.

"Over the top" only begins to describe this four-act Barnumesque spectacular. In scene after scene, Rimsky keeps pulling orchestral and theatrical coups out of his bag of tricks, until the listener is as tickled by the composer's hyperactive need to amaze as by the music itself.

There are folk dances of all sizes, descriptions and ethnicities. There are limpid solo arias and tumultuous crowd scenes. There are celestial scenes adorned with lush string writing and the caloric swirling of three harps. There is a brass-driven march of armor-clad noblemen, a wordless chorus of departed spirits, an infernal chorus singing through their noses and a final cataclysmic deluge a la "Gotterdammerung."

And that's not to mention the ghostly glissandos of the pan pipes.

For all its instrumental vitality and melodic beauty, it isn't hard to guess why "Mlada" has had limited success at holding the stage since its 1892 premiere in St. Petersburg. It's a dramatically flaccid construction in which the story line -- about a wicked princess who murders her romantic rival on her wedding night in a vain hope of winning the groom for herself -- is treated with cavalier indifference as a pretext for the splashy set pieces.

The killing, in fact, has taken place before the opera begins, leaving the ghost of the slain Princess Mlada to appear as a ballerina traipsing in and out of Prince Yaromir's dreams and prophetic visions. Act 2, which features some of the score's most enchanting music, contributes almost nothing to the overall narrative.

Yet the cumulative splendor of Rimsky's writing banishes any reservations. The sheer inventive energy of the work -- and this was the quality that Thomas' impassioned performance captured above all -- sweeps the listener along willy-nilly.

It helps, too, that much of the music sounds vaguely -- and occasionally explicitly -- familiar. Rimsky wrote "Mlada" under the spell of Wagner's "Ring" cycle, which had just been heard in St. Petersburg for the first time, and the influence of Wagner shows up in the use of pre-Christian mythology as well as specific musical echoes of

"Das Rheingold" and other scores.

"Mlada" in turn exerted a pull on subsequent music. Among the composers who clearly knew and drew on this score are Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Debussy and Ravel (one theme in "The Rite of Spring" is lifted straight from Rimsky's Witches' Sabbath, and "Bolero" seems to have begun life here as a sinuous hoochie-coochie number for the seductive ghost of Cleopatra).

But there's a difference between hearing a melodic theme here and an orchestral effect there and experiencing the wondrous juggernaut in its entirety. The Symphony's vigorous rendition, done in a deftly semi-staged version by director Peter McClintock and choreographer Val Caniparoli, conveyed the piece in all its shimmery glory.

The action was mostly set on a raised platform beneath the terrace at the rear of the Davies Hall stage, with some exciting Sensurround moments from the balconies and an occasional foray into the house itself. Only the principal characters moved around; for the big crowd scenes, the mind's eye had to suffice, helped along by Rimsky's panoramic scoring and some suggestive lighting by Jack Carpenter.

In addition to the orchestra -- whose many standouts included solos by concertmaster Alexander Barantschik and clarinetist Luis Baez -- much of the evening's labor fell to Vance George's Symphony Chorus, which sang superbly from the rambunctious folk settings to the seraphic finale.

Among an almost uniformly excellent cast, Gegam Grigorian shone especially in his Symphony debut as Prince Yaromir, deploying his large, clarion tenor to terrific effect. As Mlada, former San Francisco Ballet principal Evelyn Cisneros was the picture of sylphlike grace, as dreamy an apparition as ever haunted a lover's fervid imagination.

Mezzo-soprano Susanna Poretsky sang valiantly as the evil goddess Morena, bass Tigran Martirossian was a commanding Prince Mstivoy, countertenor Brian Asawa contributed radiant singing as the Czech bard Lumir and baritone Vladimir Glushchak was a potent High Priest. Only the out-of-tune warbling of soprano Ljuba Kazarnovskaya as the homicidal Princess Voislava let down the side.


SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY: The festival concludes with performances of ""Mlada'' at 8 tonight and 7 p.m. tomorrow in Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets: $34-$90. Call (415) 864-6000 or go to

E-mail Joshua Kosman at

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