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PROKOFIEV: The Story of a Real Man – Soloists, Chorus and Orch. of the USSR State Academic Bolshoi Th./Mark Ermler – Melodiya (2 CDs)

SERGEI PROKOFIEV: The Story of a Real Man – Soloists, Chorus and Orch. of the USSR State Academic Bolshoi Th./ Mark Ermler – Melodiya MEL CD10-02353, 112:29 (2 CDs) [Distr. by Naxos] (8/14/15) ***:

Boris Polevoy wrote the novel “The Story of a Real Man” just several months before an aging Prokofiev was so taken with the plot that he declared “I dedicate my new opera based on the plot of Boris Polevoy’s deeply stirring The Story of a Real Man to Soviet man and his boundless courage.”

Just that quote from the composer as well as the not too subtle title about a real man – a true life downed Soviet fighter pilot who the Russian people, typified by Polevoy, saw as a real man – tells us all we need to know.

This is in some ways a late typical Prokofiev with bouncing string lines and strong brass and percussion writing. It is also, in many ways, a propaganda piece – intentionally written as such or not.

The opening, stirring and so ‘Russian’ chorus about “a young oaklet grew in the grove” sets the stage for things just a bit pompous and over the top. The opera begins with the pilot, Alexei, dragging himself out of the cockpit of his fallen plane. He cannot walk and is later taken to a hospital where his legs are amputated. Alexei exhibits a brief scene of self-pity wherein he fears that his love Olga will not care for him any more. The Commissar, who is conveniently in the same hospital, admonishes Alexei with the reminder, “But you are a Soviet man!”

Later Alexei reunites with Olga and even returns to flying combat missions, legless. The closing scene has a background chorus of soldiers marching to defend Stalingrad amid more para-patriotic music. Among the very capable cast; in particular theater star of the time Evgeny Kibkalo as Alexei, there are spoken lines for a young boy whose main purpose seems to be to tell Alexei how awful the Nazis are but that the Russians are advancing and even how much the lad admires Alexei in spite of his injuries. You get the idea.

It is important to remember that this was Prokofiev’s last opera written by a man whose appreciable talents were always supported by State theater and he no doubt felt relief in the courage and determination of his country (even under the new guard) in defeating the huge threat of Hitler. Musically, this work is in somewhat the same vein and tone as Alexander Nevsky and Ivan, the Terrible.

We could make a strong case for this not being Prokofiev’s strongest work; for it is not. However, it is still mostly engaging and drags only a little in spots. Bolshoi never got around to recording this lost curiosity until 1961 for Melodiya and the vinyl LPs have been remastered for CDs.

While I have never heard the LP before or this piece this is still well worth having; in particular for people who truly like Prokofiev’s music. I myself like most of it a great deal. The Story of a Real Man is just what it says, presently melodramatically; very ‘stagey’, propaganda to be sure, but with plenty of good moments. Kudos to Melodiya and to Naxos for making this available to us. A complete libretto would have been helpful but the fairly simple “speech-y” plot is easy to absorb. Recommended!

—Daniel Coombs

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