Grange Park Opera’s exquisite Theatre in the Woods turns receiving house for a work only previously seen in concert performance at Moscow’s Kolobov Novaya Opera Theatre where British-born Jan Latham-Koenig has been chief conductor since 2011.
The librettist is Marita Phillips, English, though of Russian decent and with ancestral connections to the opera’s main protagonists. Composer Konstantin Boyarsky, who left Russia as a teenager, is more familiar as a principal violist at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The mix is reflected in the way the English-language text is peppered with Pushkin settings in the original Russian. Surtitles are provided throughout.
The project is expertly served by the 134-member company. Costumes are elegantly in period, sets and projections functional, the chorus outstanding. Leading the eight principals is a Yorkshireman, tenor Peter Auty, nothing if not committed in the title role, albeit the only singer without a Russian accent.
The real problems lie with the piece itself. Intended to chronicle the fraught relationship between the great Russian poet and Tsar Nicholas I, it is at best a cartoon, succinct but superficial, bereft of psychological or political resonance.
If the libretto is thin and awkward, the music is worse with the motoric Prokofiev-like style of the opening quickly softened by a choral entry straight out of Les Miserables. The rest operates on the level of excitable commercial music with dated orientalism and unearned uplift the order of the day. One number, Listen to Your Inspiration has Andrew Lloyd Webber-ish memorability but we are worlds away from Rachmaninov’s Aleko which the company takes to the Cheltenham Festival.