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8.554844 - RUSSIAN OPERA ARIAS, Vol. 2
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Vladimir Grishko

Vladimir Grishko

Russian Opera Arias, Vol. 2

The nineteenth century saw the flowering of Russian nationalism in the arts, above all in opera, where composers could explore essentially Russian subject matter together with music that had its roots in national tradition. Among the group of five contemporary nationalist composers, described by their mentor, the polymath Vladimir Stasov as the Mighty Handful, Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov eventually assumed a leading position, using his gradually acquired technical knowledge both in his own music and in the revision of works by his colleagues Mussorgsky and Borodin, after their relatively early deaths.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s sixth opera, Sadko, was completed in 1896 and first staged in Moscow two years later. The libretto by the composer was derived from traditional heroic ballads and is set first in Novgorod. Sadko, a psaltery player and singer, offends the gathering of Novgorod merchants. Leaving them he wanders by the shore of Lake Ilmen, where the swans he sees on the lake are transformed into the daughters of the Sea King. He is rewarded by the Sea King’s daughter, Princess Volkhova, who tells him he will catch three golden fish, the source of his future success, after various adventures. These include a visit to the realm of the Sea King and marriage to Princess Volkhova, before she is finally transformed into a river and Sadko, now a rich man, can return to his wife. 1 The Introduction suggests the calm sea, 2 while Sadko’s Melismatic Song is sung as Sadko wanders alone by Lake Ilmen in the second scene of the opera, his music drawing the enchanted swans to him.

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky represents a more cosmopolitan form of Russian musical nationalism. His opera Cherevichki (The Slippers) was first staged in Moscow in 1887. It is based on the earlier Kuznets Vakula (Vakula the Smith) of 1876, with a plot derived from Gogol’s Christmas Eve. The blacksmith Vakula’s mother, the witch Solokha, helps the Devil steal the moon. One after another village worthies call at Solokha’s house in the dark, to be hidden in sacks, which Vakula takes outside, when he returns home. His beloved Oxana teases him, demanding the Tsaritsa’s shoes, if she is to marry him. Vakula contemplates suicide, ready to drown himself. 4 He laments his fate, as he carries the last sack, from which the Devil suddenly emerges, and is forced by Vakula to help him in his quest. 3 In the palace a group of cossacks, seeking an audience, dance to entertain the company, and Vakula, granted his strange request, is transported home by the Devil, now to marry Oxana.

Aleko, with a libretto derived from Pushkin, was a set graduation text for Arensky’s composition pupils at the Moscow Conservatory in 1892. Rachmaninov’s setting won him a gold medal and the highest distinction, publication, and, in 1893, performance at the Bolshoy Theatre. Aleko has taken refuge from society to make his home with the gypsies, living with the gypsy girl Zemfira, mother of his child. Her old father tells the sad story of the loss of his own wife, who ran away with another man. 5 The gypsies dance, in an attempt to restore their spirits. While everyone is asleep, Zemfira arranges to meet a young gypsy, with whom she is in love. She reveals her feelings to Aleko, who meditates revenge. 6 The young gypsy is heard singing of his love, now consummated with Zemfira, but as they are about to part they are surprised by Aleko, who kills them both. Finally Aleko is banished from the community.

Dargomïzhsky based his opera Rusalka on a poem by Pushkin. It was given its first performance in St Petersburg in 1856 and deals with the miller’s daughter Natasha, who, jilted by her lover, the Prince, leaps into the River Dnepr to become queen of the water-nymphs, a rusalka. The Prince’s wedding to his new bride is disturbed by the sound of a wailing voice. Twelve years later the Prince is often away from home, waiting by the banks of the Dnepr. 7 In a recitative and aria he remembers his past happiness with Natasha. The miller, now mad in his grief, approaches the Prince, who is sorry for him, but arouses the man’s anger. In the final act of the opera the rusalki dance. Natasha is in her palace under the water, with her daughter, ready to tell the Prince about herself and her mother. In the last scene the Princess and her confidante are unable to prevent the Prince leaping into the water, there to rejoin his first love. 8 The Gypsy Dance is taken from the second act.

The first of the nationalist composers was Mikhail Glinka, an older contemporary of Dargomïzhsky. His Ruslan and Lyudmila, first heard in St Petersburg in 1842, is based on a narrative poem by Pushkin. A magic opera, it follows the fate of Lyudmila, daughter of the Grand Prince of Kiev, betrothed to the knight Ruslan. She is abducted first by the evil sorcerer, the dwarf Chernomor, pursued by Ruslan, the Varangian prince Farlaf and the Khazar prince Ratmir, intent on rescuing her and winning her hand and territory from her father. Farlaf seizes her, but is finally defeated by Ruslan, with the help of Ratmir. The story finds an obvious place for the exoticism that became a feature of Russian music. 9 In the first act the bard Bayan sings of the future trials and the love of Ruslan and Lyudmila.

Glinka’s heroic tragedy A Life for the Tsar was the first nationalist Russian opera, staged in St Petersburg in 1836. Set in Russia and Poland in 1613, it centres on the heroic exploits of Ivan Susanin in the aftermath of the defeat of Boris Godunov by the so-called false Dmitry, with Polish support. 0 The second act of the opera features a ball given by the leader of the Polish detachment, at which a polonaise and a krakowiak are danced. The peasant Susanin succeeds in diverting the Polish forces, in pursuit of the newly elected Tsar, Mikhail Romanov, leading them astray until the young Tsar has been able to escape. ! In the fourth act Sobinin, who is to marry Susanin’s daughter, leads a band of peasants in the forest at night. Susanin is finally successful in his protection of the Tsar, but is killed for it, his heroism to be remembered by the Tsar and by future generations.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Tsarskaya nevesta (The Tsar’s Bride) had its first performance in Moscow in 1899, staged, like the earlier Sadko, by the Mamontov Private Russian Opera Company. Set in the time of Ivan the Terrible, its plot is fictional. Marfa is to marry the young nobleman Ivan Sergeyevich Lïkov, but the designs of the oprichnik Gryaznoy and the Tsar’s choice of Marfa as his bride, coupled with the machinations of Gryaznoy’s discarded mistress Lyubasha, lead to the poisoning of Marfa, who goes out of her mind, the execution of Lïkov and the imprisonment of Gryaznoy. @ In his Act I arioso Lïkov describes to the company, at a banquet at Gryaznoy’s house, the marvellous things he has seen during his travels in Germany. # In his Act III aria, an insertion at the request of the singer Sekar-Rozhansky after the first performance, Lïkov is relieved to hear that the Tsar’s choice has seemingly not fallen on Marfa, his joy soon to be lost when news comes that Marfa, now poisoned by Gryaznoy’s supposed love-potion, replaced by the jealous Lyubasha, is to be the Tsar’s bride.

$ Based on the tragedy by Schiller and other works, Tchaikovsky’s Orleanskaya deva (The Maid of Orleans) was first mounted in St Petersburg in 1881. The opera is an imaginative account of the career of Joan of Arc, adding a necessary element of human frailty in her momentary love for the Burgundian knight Lionel. Her divine vocation prevails and the opera ends with her death. The entr’acte between the first and second acts echoes her hymn of thanksgiving at news of the death of the English commander, Salisbury.

Tchaikovsky’s opera Iolanta was first staged in St Petersburg in 1892 together with the new ballet, Nutcracker. With a libretto by his brother Modest, based on a play by the Danish writer Henrik Hertz, the opera tells of Iolanta, the blind daughter of René, King of Provence. A Moorish physician advises the King that his daughter must be made aware of her plight before she can be cured. Vaudémont, a Burgundian knight, and Robert, Duke of Burgundy, find themselves lost in the garden of King René’s palace, the latter anxious to escape from his engagement to Iolanta. %Vaudémont, in a Romance added for the lyric-dramatic tenor Nikolay Figner, declares his intention to find a woman of complete purity. They find Iolanta sleeping in the garden, and Vaudémont falls at once in love with her. She is now to be cured of her blindness and united in happiness with Vaudémont.

There is a clearly exotic element in Borodin’s opera Prince Igor, originally revised and completed by Rimsky-Korsakov and the young Glazunov after Borodin’s death, and first given in St Petersburg in 1890. Prince Igor and his son Vladimir are captured by the Polovtsians and entertained by their leader, Khan Konchak. It is eventually arranged that Igor and his son shall be released, & but Vladimir is now in love with the Khan’s daughter, whom he meets in secret. ^ In the third act the Polovtsian Khan Gzak returns to the encampment with Russian prisoners, to the sound of a march. Prince Igor, now persuaded to an agreement, is set free, leaving Vladimir with his chosen bride.

Keith Anderson


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