Manhattan School of Music 2017-18 Review – The Snow Maiden: Juliana Levinson & Castmates Deliver Rousing Showcase of Rimsky-Korsakov Gem

By Jennifer Pyron

Audience members enjoyed a rare performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Snow Maiden,” in English, over the weekend.  Translated by Alasdair Middleton for Opera North’s 2017 production, this opera was said to possibly be Rimsky-Korsakov’s best contemporary opera. 

In addition to its popularity in Russia, this specific opera contains remarkably poignant folklike melodies that gave life to the overall culture and complex nature of mythological characters combined with mankind. There is also a unified theme of man in correlation to nature and how the changing of seasons can also symbolize the passing of time, most especially the coming-of-age for a young human. 

The composer set his own libretto, drawn from Alexander Ostrovsky’s 1873 play about the Snow Maiden.  It is also said that Stravinsky’s father Fyodor sang the role of King Frost in the original production and further inspired Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” Knowing all of this heightened excitement for the experience of this unique performance.

Maestro At The Top Of His Game

As the lights dimmed in the Alan M. And Joan Taub Ades Theater, Maestro Jorge Parodi exuded a clear connection and passion towards the opening music that carried all throughout the opera. One could feel the excitement and tenderness of each note that the MSM musicians played, in coordination with Parodi’s delicate pulse and intuitive awareness. He is notably an outstanding conductor, so to watch him live in action was pure bliss. The flute, clarinet, violin, cello and oboe soloists also played in sync with Parodi and really raised the bar of the overall production. The music was profoundly moving.

Solid Cast All Around

Gabriella Will, as Spirit of the Woods, had a warmly poignant timbre as she sang in the prologue, noting the change of season. Her rich voice was then met with Fairy Spring, played by Makila Redrick, who created a palpable joy and enthusiasm in her tone that brightened the stage. Both did an excellent job from start to finish. Andrew Henry also displayed a jovial and authoritative air as King, while his singing carried over the audience and remained clearly focused in every phrase.

When the Snow Maiden, played by Juliana Levinson, entered and sang her opening phrase, one could feel the audience smile together in awe of her.  She was perfect in this role. Her natural persona and grace brought the Snow Maiden to life and truly showcased her exquisite voice. Every time Levinson stretched into a high note, her vocal colors displayed an array of brilliance.  There was never a note that left her body without intention and purpose in order to deliver a transformative experience.  Levinson left everyone in wonder and in love with her.

Lell, the Snow Maiden’s first love, was performed by Virginia Reed. This particular pants role required a certain tenderness met with conviction in order to balance out the Snow Maiden’s helpless infatuation. Reed was a solid fit for Lell, as she showed great instinctual skills while acting. The audience could feel the innocent stirrings between Lell and Snow Maiden, which added to the underlying angst of young love. Reed’s voice matched well with Rimsky-Korsakov’s folklike compositions and her natural tone felt like an organic fit for the role all around.

Other Stars in the Making

While Lell is whisked away by some other girls, leaving the Snow Maiden distraught, Mónica Conesa as Kupava, sympathizes with her. Conesa sang with experience and guidance to start and was able to quickly change her tone to carry a more excited song when talking about her fiancé Mizgir. She sang fearlessly and with maturity in this role, which made her character believable and honest to the audience. When Mizgir came on stage and immediately fell in love with the Snow Maiden, one could feel Kupava’s heart break and her rage boil. Conesa expressed all of these emotions very well through her singing, which left the audience wondering if Mizgir was a good fit as her lover.  One could connect back to the deeper theme of love with her anguish, and when the chorus joined her, it was stunning to hear and see.  The chorus flourished on top of the soloists and heightened the developing emotional connection that the audience felt in this moment.

In Act two, at the palace of Tsar Berendey, the chorus sings their praises and the audience is introduced to Joseph Andrew Yu as Tsar and Bermata, his Russian noble, played by Matthias Villwock. Yu smiled in affection at the chorus and his gentle voice immediately softened the listener’s hearts. As the audience listened to Mizgir, played by Zuhao Zhang, protest his love for the Snow Maiden, they watched for Tsar Berendey’s reaction and awaited his blessings.  Zhang pleaded in his singing as he asked the Tsar for a chance to win over the Snow Maiden and whole-heartedly expressed his intentions to marry her.

In a forest clearing, Act three is lively and robust with the opera chorus singing about a feast and dance.  Each singer had bright eyes of happiness and a unified delightful tone.  One wanted to join them in dance too as they sang Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Linden Tree.” However, the tone clearly changed when Mizgir unabashedly declared his love to the Snow Maiden and attempted to physically force her to feel his deep desire. Zhang sang with conviction and fortitude in this scene. Levinson was naturally frightened by his character and ran off terrified, only to stumble upon Lell and Kupava innocently falling in love. It was in this moment that the audience felt a shift in their heart towards the Snow Maiden and began to connect with her on a human level.  Levinson’s reactions in character were innate and she never wavered in her portrayal.

During the last scene, the audience was left with Rimsky-Korsakov’s most enchanted music, as the Snow Maiden sang about her discoveries in love and how the burning sun was melting her.  Levinson’s voice, in this moment, was ethereal and floated into the audience as her character’s life ended.  Everyone was also left in shock when Mizgir threw himself into the lake. But the end did not dwell on death for long, as the chorus euphorically entered back in and drew the opera to close with their wonderful tone and message of love. 

Rimsky-Korsakov’s desire to create this opera using his imaginative composition and signature orchestral creations told a story that was clearly and superbly brought to life by MSM’s cast and orchestra. 


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