The story of Prokofiev's return to the Soviet Union in the 1930's is a sad and sorry one, welcomed back into the fold as a prodigal son(a great propaganda coup) he found himself at the height of Stalin's purges - in fact the intended director for the premiere of 'Semyon Kotko',Vsevolod Meyerhold, vanished just as Prokofiev finished the opera - much later it came to light he had been shot. So this is Prokofiev's attempt at an idealogically acceptable Soviet-Realist opera - a far cry in subject matter from his earlier operatic endeavours (many of which have been recorded by Gergiev and the Kirov in this superb series)- Dostoyevsky, Commedia dell'arte, Symbolist religious-sexual obsession - none of which would have stood a chance in the USSR at the time - mind you they didn't do too well in the West either. Prokofiev's operas are in fact much better than their rather patchy stage history would suggest.
So, what is this opera like? - bearing in mind that it was written in this all-pervading atmosphere of fear, and that Prokofiev badly needed an idealogical success with the authorities - 'Romeo and Juliet' written 3 years previously had failed (hard to credit!), and only 'Peter and the Wolf' had pleased. Well, the great thing about Prokofiev's music is that his personality imprints itself on every page, and while the music is uneven and at times even banal, it is always fascinating to have the chance to hear a work that has almost disappeared, by a major composer. The story concerns a demobilised soldier (Semyon Kotko - sung by tenor Viktor Lutsiuk with an appealing timbre that only occasionally shows hint of strain)returning to his village in the Ukraine after 4 years absence - this is 1918 and even though the revolutionary Red Army has made peace with Germany, there are still scattered German units that oppose the Red Army and have formed alliances with 'reactionary' Ukrainian nationalists against the communists. Semyon's fiancee, Sonya, has a father, Tkachenko - sung with a wonderful snarl and sense of character by Kirov veteran Gennady Bezzubenkov) who sides with the Germans and the opera tells the story of the conflict - involving public hangings and at the end of the third act (of five) the burning of the village by the Germans. This is why the opera disappeared so quickly: the opera was premiered in 1940 - and in WW2 the Soviets had a short-lived pact with Germany, so Semyon Kotko's anti-German bias was suddenly non acceptable.
The opera is very well paced - the first two acts are mainly a kind of village comedy - then the brutal events of the third act (much the best) change the focus to real tragedy - unfortunately the opera then goes off the rails with the Soviet partisans hiding out and effecting a contrived happy ending with the Red Army victorious. You can sense Prokofiev struggling to keep involved, particularly in the latter stages. The characters are all cardboard cut-outs, and such passages as Semyon explaining to the partisans about different types of guns, and the false uplift of revolutionary ideals at the end bring forth music so perfunctory as to make you wonder if there is an element of send up. However there is some vintage lyrical writing (redolent of Romeo and Juliet) - go to the prelude or the opening of the 3rd act - and this latter act is a tremendous achievement, including the lament of a girl driven mad by publicly witnessing her boyfriend being hanged which is obsessively harrowing and memorable. Prokofiev brings this back at the end of the act when the village burns and turns it into an epic, terrifying climax - it's really worth hearing this scene!
The recording is taken from a series of concert performances in Vienna, the sound is vivid, mellow and only occasionally a little boomy - the big climaxes of the third act are undoubtedly thrilling, both emotionally and and for sonic impact. Not all of the singing is beautiful, but that's not the point, Gergiev and his forces bring out all the drama and variety of this strange piece, and even play the obviously contrived moments to the hilt.
Whether you can dissociate all this from the very suspect idealogy is another matter. One may smile at the naivete of the piece, but this smile is wiped right off when the historical truth of what the Soviets did to the Ukraine (hopelessly whitewashed in the opera - though it is unlikely that the creators knew any of this) is revealed - read the excellent notes accompanying this recording. However you do wonder if we would be listening to this piece now if it were the work of a German composer returning to his homeland to be of use to the state in the 1930's..........