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8.554843 - RUSSIAN OPERA ARIAS, Vol. 1
English 

Vladimir Grishko

Vladimir Grishko

Russian Opera Arias, Vol. 1

 

Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky is best known abroad for his orchestral music. In the opera house only two works are in regular international repertoire, Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, both based on Pushkin. The second of these, first staged at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg in 1890, has a libretto devised by the composer and his brother Modest. It is, in essence, a horror story, in the manner later favoured by Edgar Allan Poe, a tale of monomania, leading to murder and suicide. It is spring and in a square in the Summer Garden, where children play and nursemaids take care of their charges, two officers discuss the strange behaviour of Hermann, who watches them gambling but never plays. Hermann and Count Tomsky enter, the latter seeking the cause of Hermann's melancholy. Hermann explains, in an arioso, how he has fallen in love with a girl whose name, even, he does not know (Ya imeni yeyo nye znayu). They saunter off, returning to greet their friend Prince Yeletsky and congratulate him on his engagement. The Countess enters, with her granddaughter Lisa, Yeletsky's betrothed, but also the object of Hermann's affections. In a quintet they all express their own feelings, the Countess and Lisa anxious at Hermann's behaviour, Hermann aghast at the old Countess, Yeletsky puzzled at Lisa's attitude and Tomsky anxious for his friend. As the ladies move away, Tomsky tells his friends the story of the Countess, who, as a young woman in Paris, had been saved from gambling losses by the revelation of the winning three cards, to be used to restore her fortunes, provided she never played again. It is said that the Countess, who has revealed the secret twice, will die by the hand of the third person, who will force the secret from her.

 

On the balcony outside her room Lisa has mixed feelings about Yeletsky, her musings interrupted by the appearance of Hermann, below. He seeks her forgiveness in an arioso (Prosti, nyebesnoye sozdan'ye), interrupted by the voice of the Countess telling Lisa to go to bed. This turns Hermann's thoughts again to the story of the three cards.

 

At a ball Hermann learns from Lisa how to reach the bedroom of the Countess, as he makes his way to hers. In the old woman's bedroom he watches as she prepares for the night then rouses her, pleading at first to learn the secret and then threatening her with a revolver. The Countess dies of shock and Lisa, hearing the noise, enters, now angry at Hermann's action, revealing, it seems, his plan to use her as a means of access to the Countess and the secret of her wealth.

 

At his barracks Hermann, now conscience-stricken, receives a note from Lisa, offering forgiveness and seeking a midnight meeting. The ghost of the Countess appears and unwillingly reveals the secret of the three cards, Three, Seven and Ace, bidding him marry Lisa. She waits anxiously for Hermann by the river embankment, comforted by his declaration of love, when he eventually arrives, but distraught when he leaves her for the gaming-house. Left alone, she throws herself into the river and drowns. In the gaming-house Hermann plays against Yeletsky, staking forty thousand rubles, winning with his three and his seven. Life, it seems to him, is only a game (Chto nasha zhizn'? Igra!). At his final stake, however, he is confronted, now in clear madness, not by the winning ace but by the Queen of Spades, seeming to regard him with the face of the Countess.

Frantic, he stabs himself and dies.

 

While Tchaikovsky, trained at the first Russian Conservatory, in St Petersburg, and for some time on the teaching staff of the Moscow Conservatory, represented a relatively cosmopolitan tendency in Russian music of the nineteenth century, Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov belonged to the group of five nationalist composers originally led by Balakirev, four of them, at least, originally amateurs. His fifteen operas have fared indifferently in theatres outside Russia, where they remain novelties rather than standard repertoire. Mayskaya Noch' (May Night), with a libretto by the composer based on a Ukrainian story by Nikolay Gogol, was first staged in St Petersburg in 1880. The work makes considerable use of folk-song and opens with an overture that is a popular concert item. The plot concerns the various attempts by Levko to outwit his father, the village headman, who has attempted to woo Levko's beloved Hanna. Levko plays various tricks on him and is eventually helped to marry Hanna by the intervention of a water-nymph, to whose aid he has come and who gives him a letter allegedly from the local commissar commanding an immediate wedding. Levko's first song is heard at his entry, accompanied by his bandura (Solnishko nizko), a folk-song to his beloved Hanna. His second song is heard near the opening of the third act, in which the water-nymphs appear, dancing and asking his help to discover the wicked step-mother who is lurks among them. It is night and Levko, again accompanied by his bandura, sings of Hanna, wishing her sweet sleep (Spi, maya krasavitsa, sladka spi).

 

Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, its libretto by the composer and Shilovsky, based on Push kin, had its first student performance at the Maliy Theatre in Moscow in 1879, followed by staging at the Bolshoy two years later. The composition came at the time of Tchaikovsky's brief and disastrous marriage, completed in Switzerland, where he took refuge in its aftermath. In the garden of the Larin country estate the daughters of the house, Olga and Tatyana, are greeted by Lensky and his friend Onegin. Tatyana, attracted to him, walks off with Onegin, while Lensky sings of his love for Olga (Ya lyublyu vas, Ol'ga). Alone in her bedroom that night Tatyana writes a letter to Onegin, telling him that she loves him. In the morning she asks her nurse to see that it is given to him. She waits in the garden for his reply, but when he comes he tells her that he can only feel brotherly love for her, an answer that leaves her silent. In a brightly lit room in the Larin's house Tatyana's name-day is being celebrated. There is a waltz, and Onegin, in boredom, dances with Olga, provoking Lensky's jealousy and challenge to a duel. In the winter dawn Lensky waits for Onegin, who is late. His second goes in search of Onegin and Lensky sings his farewell to Olga (Kuda, kuda vi udalilis?). Insultingly Onegin appears with his valet as his second and in the duel kills Lensky, an outcome that brings immediate remorse, Years later Onegin returns from self-imposed exile and sees Tatyana again, now married to his old friend Prince Gremin. There is a ball, at which a Polonaise and an Ecossaise are played for the dancers, The Prince tells Onegin of his great love for Tatyana, and now Onegin realises that he too is in love with her Later he confronts her, forcing her to admit her love for him, She refuses, however, to desert her husband and rushes from the room, leaving Onegin in solitary desolation.

 

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky, one of the five nationalist composers, the so-called Mighty Handful, left much unfinished at his relatively early death in 1881. For his planned opera Sorochinskaya yarmarka (Sorochintsy Fair) he had resort, like Rimsky-Korsakov, to Gogol, and started work in 1874. The unfinished work received the subsequent attention of a number of composers and consequently exists in various versions. The best known extract from the opera is the ending of the first act, a Gopak, a lively Ukrainian dance, transferred in a revision of the work by Nikolay Tcherepnin to the end of the whole opera. The young peasant Grits'ko flirts with old Cherevik's daughter Parasya in the first scene at the fair. While her father eventually approves of their marriage, Parasya's step-mother is strongly opposed to it, leaving Grits'ko to lament in a dumka that Mussorgsky himself may have intended for the third act. The action revolves round the gypsy's tale of the mysterious appearance of the Devil in the village, with a pig's snout, seeking the sleeve of a red jacket, pawned but never recovered. Cherevik is induced to agree again to the match of Grits'ko and his daughter, persuaded by a seeming appearance of the Devil, engineered by the gypsy, in collusion with Grits'ko, and it is the gypsy who finally deals with any opposition from Parasya's step-mother.

 

Rimsky-Korsakov later recalled his approval of his pupil Anton Stepanovich Agency’s setting of passages from Ostrovsky's verse drama Voyevoda, ili Son na Volge (The Provincial Governor, or A Dream on the Volga) in 1882. Arensky later completed the opera, in collaboration with Ostrovsky, a work very much in line with nationalist aspirations of the time. His next opera was Rafael, based on an imagined incident in the life of the painter Raphael. The work, first staged by a student cast in Moscow in 1894, has the subtitle Musical Scenes from the Renaissance and the libretto is by A.A.Krykov. The painter is accused by the jealous Cardinal Bibiena of an illicit relationship with his model, Fornarina. Raphael justifies his reputation in a painting of the Madonna, for which Fornarina has posed, a work of such purity that there can be no doubt about his own chaste intentions. The best known excerpt from the opera is an Italian popular song, sung off-stage in a scene between Raphael and Fornarina, which is to be interrupted by the entry of the Cardinal as the couple embrace. The Italian folk-song of love, Strast'yu I negoyu serdtse trepeshchet (My heart quivers with passion) reflects the feelings of Raphael and Fornarina.

 

Keith Anderson

 

 

 

 

 


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