Review: ‘Ruslan and Lyudmila’

It's taken an absurdly long time for Glinka's 1842 opera to locate itself within standard U.S. repertory. That waiting period may well be over with the delicious production -- reconstructively patterned after a famous 1904 one -- that Lofti Mansouri and Thierry Bosquet have mounted for San Francisco Opera. A delight from start to finish, this first complete U.S. "Ruslan and Lyudmila" already looks the hit of SFO's fledgling 62nd season.

It’s taken an absurdly long time for Glinka’s 1842 opera to locate itself within standard U.S. repertory. That waiting period may well be over with the delicious production — reconstructively patterned after a famous 1904 one — that Lofti Mansouri and Thierry Bosquet have mounted for San Francisco Opera. A delight from start to finish, this first complete U.S. “Ruslan and Lyudmila” already looks the hit of SFO’s fledgling 62nd season.

Coming after the signicant yet formative exercise of “A Life for the Tsar,” Glinka’s “magic opera” secured his (and Russia’s) import on a Euro-dominated 19 th-century operatic map. Yet its libretto — written by committee after source author Pushkin’s death — is wayward and weird even by fairy-tale standards. Thankfully, what once appeared a major flaw now seems charmingly eccentric, anticipating later surrealist trends in Russian literature.

The fascinating score follows suit, wandering in several different directions. When heroine Lyudmila (the beautiful, and beautiful-sounding Russian soprano Anna Netrebko) mysteriously vanishes from an engagement party, three suitors attempt her rescue — and their quests divide along musical as well as moral and fantastical lines.

Stalwart fiance Ruslan (Jeffrey Wells) sings Glinka’s most dully noble themes. Elena Zaremba, in the trouser role of Eastern prince Ratmir, inhabits restless, melancholy passages that presage Romantic currents. Comic boisterousness rules the day whenever wonderful bass Vladimir Ognovenko appears as cowardly knight Farlaf.

Eccentrically orchestrated, the score mixes Russian folk idioms with contemporary European flavors. A vivid, rushing overture (reprised at evening’s close) is “Ruslan’s” one widely known excerpt. All pieces are gorgeously realized by cast and SFO orchestra under guest conductor Valery Gergiev. (Only Vladimir Atlantov’s “good-hearted wizard” Finn strikes sour notes with his blunt , booming interpretation.)

Yet musical values often take a back seat to sheer spectacle. Storybook designs in overdrive delightfully visualize such “miraculous sights” as a flying “evil dwarf” and giant decapitated singing head. Reconstructed 1904 costumes — some 450 of them — and sets are ornate as Faberge eggs. Thirty dancers (executing the long but lovely interludes Michel Fokine choreographed in 1917), eight mimes, 98 chorus members and 53 supernumeraries fill out a massive but agile stage picture.

The results are like a Wagnerian Loony Tune. Though the resources demanded are daunting, this SFO/Kirov Opera co-production should ease Glinka’s masterpiece into Western operatic rep at long last. It’s giddy, if overdue, discovery.

The proverbial kitchen sink does not, finally, make an appearance in “Splash II.” But little else under the sun is excluded from producer Jeff Kutash’s gaga revue, which opened this summer at the Riviera after the first edition (launched in ’85) survived critical drubbings to run just over a decade.

This isn’t the ever-upscaling Las Vegas’ most costly, ornate or high-profile stage package.But it mix of old-school kitsch, awe-inspiring novelty and relative wit may well constitute the hippest current trip on the Strip. These 90 minutes offer vertiginous spinnage through a very ’90 Vegas sensibility both vulgar and visionary. Even MTV habitues will emerge with circuits overloaded.

Esther Williams might flee culture-shocked from this $ 5 million spectacle, one so cluttered with ideas that its ostensible aquatic theme is often dry-docked for long stretches. (Still, there’s enough H20 here to require raincoat distribution among front-section patrons.) After laser-projected opening credits, a canned voice announces we’re about to embark on a luxury cruise submarine voyage to exotic lands. So, “Das Boot” meets “Flashdance”? Sorta.

First destination is Shangri-La, where ice-skating duo Troy Goldstein and Sharon Carz execute risky-looking maneuvers on a small rink. Next up, Clint Carvallo sends his trained birds — including one cockatoo that pogos to Bob Seger — into the audience for some scary-funny tricks. The geographical tour goes haywire as the show’s terrif 21-head dance troupe encapsulates all ’70s disco culture in a hurricane number that’s the night’s choreographic/postmode-n peak.

This segues into more conventional but equally fast-paced salutes to Prince, M.C. Hammer, Paula Abdul, Madonna and Janet Jackson, each lip-synched by an impersonator. Staking claim to hard contemporary relevance, the course then steers toward urban ghetto hell, pausing for some gasp-worthy breakdance moves (by the Dragon Masters) before delivering a “live” drive-by shooting to a KLF rap tune. Slain performers then rise, fists in air, to shout “Violence is not the answer!”

“Splash II” does not lack for chutzpah.

Joe Trammel performs his very hep comedy act, which is rather like a non-drag Lipsynka crunching all baby-boomer pop culture (from “Flipper” to “Forrest Gump”) into 10 dizzy mimetic-slapstick minutes. He’s brilliant.

Afterward, the scrim rises anew on Harley Girl-centerfold grindings, setting the heavy metal ambience for genuinely harrowing stunts by Anderson’s Power Riders: These daredevils climatically weave their four, count ’em, four motorcycles within a cramped Globe of Death.

“World’s Fastest Juggler” Wally Eastwood serves the show’s hardest time, making light of his entreact role, admittedly, while scoring with an amiable stage demeanor and gimmicks like playing “Yesterday” via keyboard-bounced balls. Of “Splash II’s” less-than-P.C. elements, however, he bears the brunt, Japan-bashing jokes target Vegas’ redneck tourist constituency — even if Japanese tourists, at the performance attended, seemed to delight in these putdowns.

Eastwood’s long stay allows setup of a final yowsa extravagance, though it’s not entirely worth the trouble. The final destination, Atlantis, is revealed at last as the most rotely T&A-oriented Vegas version: Rockettes-meet-“Starlight Express” kitsch in which topless babes indulge heterosexual lesbian fantasies in a tank water-ballet. “Splash II” is an unnatural Wonder of the World. Vid projections, laser lighting, flames and lotsa water — especially among fountains on a circular thrust runway — accentuate fanciful contributions from costumer Beaver Bauer and uncredited set designers. Pop chart gadfly Joe Esposito is the featured singer; his fellow M.C. is Amazonian lead femme dancer Delia Sheppard.

The whole package is sharp, even when individual elements stray toward traditional Vegas bimboism or xenophobia. “Splash II” is an All-American look-see that would’ve made Flo Ziegfeld proud. It’s amusing excesses easily shame the more prurient and puerile ones on display in the current Vegas-set pic “Show Girls.”

Ruslan and Lyudmila


SAN FRANCISCO A San Francisco Opera presentation, in association with Kirov Opera, of an opera in five acts by Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka. Libretto by Glinka with K. Bakhturin, A. Shakhovskoi, V. Shirkov, M. Gedeonov, N. Kukolnik and N. Markevich, based on a poem by Alexander Pushkin. Design, Lotfi Mansouri, re-created by Thierry Bosquet, after the original design by Alexander Golovin and Konstatin Korovin. Conductor, Valery Gergiev.


Lighting, Thomas J. Munn; choreography, Alexander Shavrov, based on the original work by Michel Fokine; stagemanager, Theresa Ganley; fights, Larry Henderson. Artistic director, Mansouri. Opened, reviewed Sept. 9, 1995, at War Memorial Opera House; 3,252 seats; $ 135 top. Running time: 4 HOURS.


Cast: Yuri Marusin (Bayan), Elena Zaremba (Ratmir), Vladimir Ognovenko (Farlaf), Gabor Andrasy (Svetozar), Jeffrey Wells (Ruslan), Anna Netrebko (Lyudmila), Vladimir Atlantov (Finn), Catherine Cook (Naina), Gennadi Bezubenkov (Voice of the Giant Head), Valentina Tsidipova (Gorislava), Michael Lee Gogin (Chernomor).
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