Tchaikovsky's 'The Enchantress' - New rarely heard opera and other works

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday May 7, 2024
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Asmik Grigorian in Oper Frankfurt's production of 'The Enchantress' (photo: Medici TV)
Asmik Grigorian in Oper Frankfurt's production of 'The Enchantress' (photo: Medici TV)

One of the peskier questions in the classical music world: Does lesser-known mean lesser? In short: Is repertory obscurity deserved, or in any case earned? New recordings of seldom-heard music by one Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, as familiar a composer as could be, say, no.

Tchaikovsky has long been a victim of his own success. Who could imagine ballet music without "Swan Lake," opera without "Eugene Onegin," symphonies without the "Pathetique," the piano concerto without Van Cliburn, or Christmas without "The Nutcracker"? But, as has the critical establishment, we're already veering off course here.

There must be something wrong, it's surmised, with music that's that well known and tirelessly adored by the public. The conundrum: If the public is so smart, why do some pieces fall by the wayside, at least at the box office?

One could cite the brilliance of the string quartets, rarely heard in recital these days, or the songs, which at least stand half a chance. But, as is the case with the music of the prolific Camille Saint-Saëns, too much of it deemed prolix, musicians themselves love the music of Tchaikovsky, and they know a thing or two. We should listen to them, and here we shall.

The meanings of charm
There are reasons we see a few of Tchaikovsky's other operas more often than "The Enchantress," one of the glories of his late years (1887), which the composer, later widely acknowledged as homosexual, thought one of his best.

Sure, the operas that hold the stage today have a swifter, clearer, and more emotionally devastating dramatic arcs, but if there's anything that keeps "The Enchantress" waiting in the wings, un-enchantingly, it's its ambition to include everything.

But a new video of Oper Frankfurt's 2022 captivating production of "The Enchantress" (Naxos) adds, not subtracts, from the work's profligate offerings, more often than not to good advantage and even enhancing its sometimes latent drama.

Then, too, it stars Asmik Grigorian as Natasya the Enchantress, sealing the deal on the darker meanings of the word "charm."

These days Grigorian could sell out the house singing "Happy Birthday" in a hundred languages. But, as always with her, it seems, here she is the living, breathing, and not infrequently devastating enhancement of enchantment.

The untangled web
The story is less tangled than in many an opera. A prince falls in love with an innkeeper, Natasya; this bothers pretty much everyone else; the prince's son sets out to avenge his father, only to fall in love with Natasya himself; Natasya dies in the princeling's arms.

True, some of the "at first sight" love in the piece seems abrupt even for the wiles of romantic feeling. Everyone gets what they seem to deserve except the beloved (by all but the Princess and Mamirov, her clerical partner in hate) Natasya, adored as "Kuma" by her fans (and the Prince) and deplored using the same nickname by the bad guys and gals.

The opera's title suggests that it might be a fairy tale, but it's more grim than Grimm. The Frankfurt production, by Vasily Barkhataov, superbly conducted by Valentin Uryupin, and sung to something approaching perfection by the ensemble cast, is set in what might be called a universal present.

In the first act, Natasya vapes (as we Grigorian lovers fret), the Princess does Pilates with her daughter in Barbie pink, and Yuri, the young prince, hangs out in Adidas gym clothes carrying barrels of protein supplement, and the Prince confides his secret love to a real dog he doesn't have to shoot.

This being a German production, totemic animals of the stuffed variety appear pretty much everywhere (see the DVD box cover and production photo), but they can easily be seen past.

Once you look beyond the production's overall gaudiness and its often fetching surprises, what emerges is a cast of individuals sharply drawn, down to the last chorister. When they lift their skirts, the dancing girls at Kuma's tavern turn out to be hot male dancers.

Perhaps only Tchaikovsky could have provided dance music this beguiling (but these guys are dolls in their own right). Paisy, for example (the wonderfully repulsive Michael McCowen), an obsequious fundy who, in this production, is a conflation of two characters in the original, is recognizable and even sympathetic, as evangelicals in opera seldom are. You almost get to like him, or at least don't flinch more than you're supposed to whenever he reappears.

Composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky  

Star in a constellation
The thing about artists as brilliant as Grigorian is that not only are they ensemble performers but they also seem to elicit the best from their onstage colleagues. Callas-like, Grigorian eschews gratuitous gestures, acts and sings with searing focus, and is the center of the stage whenever she is on it at all. She's such a compelling presence that we excuse the director for including her, soundlessly, in the second act, where the libretto doesn't place her.

The truth isn't just in her acting, which doesn't ever read like "acting," but in singing with the kind of vocal focus that pierces the opera goer's heart. It's not about mere beauty of sound, but her sound is ravishingly lustrous anyway.

Her stage-mates don't let her down, musically, and every one of them sings as though their lives depend on it. Young Prince Yuri manages an otherwise baffling change of heart. He's initially attracted to Kuma in that way all her devotees are, is convinced to avenge his spiteful mother (there's a disturbing whiff of mother-son incest in the staging, but it helps more than it hurts), and dies, at his father's hand, in full thrall to his now-beloved Kuma. Tenor Alexander Mikhailov vanquishes all improbabilities with a voice as dramatically insinuating as Grigorian's.

Any initial questions about who the real Enchantress is here —several of the characters consider using potions of death as well as love— are resolved in the tragic realization that this ever-transfixing Natasya is as enchanting as the Princess accuses her of being, that is, a witch, but genuine rather than sinister.

While we're in the hood
For no-doubt-about-it enchantment, Tchaikovsky's "Souvenir de Florence," composed in 1890 (after "The Enchantress") is an exuberantly charming string sextet given a bracing reading by the Nash Ensemble (Hyperion). Its name comes from the fact that one of its four movements was composed when Tchaikovsky was in Florence.

Tchaikovsky devotees (and wannabes) will also want to check out the second volume of Chandos's Tchaikovsky's Orchestral Works by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alpesh Chauhan. It's a fine series by any standard, and the repertoire contains pieces you're unlikely to hear in concert, for example "Hamlet," "Fatum," and excerpts from "The Queen of Spades," "The Snow Maiden," and "The Oprichnik."

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, 'The Enchantress,' Oper Frankfurt, DVD, Naxos
Also viewable on-demand at

Tchaikovsky, 'Souvenir de Florence' (with the Korngold sextet), The Nash Ensemble, Hyperion
Tchaikovsky, 'Orchestral Works, Vol. 2,' BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Alpesh Chauhan, conductor, Chandos

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