About this Recording
8.111078-80 - GLINKA: Ivan Susanin (A Life for the Tsar) (Mikhailov, Spiller, Melik-Pashayev) (1947, 1950)

Mikhail Glinka (1804 -1857)
Ivan Susanin (A Life for the Tsar)

Mikhail Glinka, the founder of the Russian nationalist school of opera, was the first Russian composer to have his works accepted outside Russia itself. Berlioz admired his compositions and Liszt used them as the basis for several of his piano transcriptions. The son of a wealthy landowner, he was educated in St Petersburg, where he took piano lessons from John Field, and also studied the violin and music theory. In addition his uncle ran an orchestra manned by serfs and this made a great impression upon him. To satisfy his father he worked within the Ministry of Communications from 1824 to 1828, but not having to earn a living, and keen to devote himself to music, he gave up this employment. During this period he also served an apprenticeship with an opera company and as a result came into contact with the operas of Rossini. He travelled within Western Europe between 1830 and 1833, and continued to study music, receiving tuition in Milan, where he met both Bellini and Donizetti, and Berlin. Following the death of his father he returned to Russia, settled in St Petersburg, and married in 1835. By now he was a professional and cosmopolitan musician, familiar with the music of contemporaries such as Grétry, Méhul, and Cherubini as well as Beethoven. Ivan Susanin or A Life for the Tsar, a landmark in the history of Russian opera, was produced in 1836 and was an immediate success with its winning combination of a patriotic plot and nationalist music. Domestic problems, leading eventually to his separation from his wife in 1841, delayed the production of his second opera, Ruslan and Ludmilla, which finally appeared in 1842. Glinka then returned to travelling: he visited France and Spain in 1844, Poland in 1848, and France once more between 1852 and 1854. He died while on a visit to Berlin.

The title of Ivan Susanin was changed to A Life for the Tsar before the opera’s first performance, with the Tsar himself accepting Glinka’s dedication in return for this adjustment. The original title was restored when the work was revived at Moscow’s Bolshoy Theatre in 1939, in a version which eliminated all mention of the Romanov dynasty. Following the collapse of the Communist government in 1989 the original libretto has been restored to general circulation. By effectively laying the foundations of the Russian nationalist school of opera, this magnificent work has great historical significance, in addition to being a fine composition in its own right. The setting is Russia in 1613. Following the death of Boris Godunov, Russia is subject to attacks from marauding Poles. The daughter of the peasant Ivan Susanin, Antonida, is in love with Sobinin, but her father will not allow them to marry until a new Tsar is safely on the throne, despite reassurances from Sobinin that the young Tsar, Mikhail Romanov, has already been popularly elected. Ivan Susanin’s adopted orphan, Vanya, fears that the invading Poles will soon arrive in their search for the new Tsar, who is studying in a monastery, but Susanin assures him that none will betray the young Romanov. Following the arrival of the Poles, Ivan Susanin is forced to take them to their prey, but instead he leads them into the forest, while Sobinin leads a group of men to warn the Tsar of the dangers awaiting him, thus enabling him to escape capture. When the Poles learn what Ivan has done they kill him, but the Tsar, and so Russia, is safe. An epilogue celebrates the coronation of the Tsar as well as the sacrifice of Ivan Susanin.

The four acts of this account of Ivan Susanin were recorded by the forces of the Bolshoy Theatre, Moscow, under the direction of Alexander Melik-Pashayev, in 1947, six years before the death of Stalin, and therefore used the version deleting all references to the Russian monarchy. The Epilogue was recorded three years later, in 1950, with one of the Bolshoy’s staunchest staff conductors Vasili Nebolsin, at the helm. Alexander Melik-Pashayev (1905-64) joined the Bolshoy Theatre, Moscow, in 1931, after studying with Nikolay Tcherepnin and Alexander Gauk and leading the Tblisi Opera. He replaced Nikolay Golovanov as the Bolshoy’s chief conductor in 1953, and did much to extend its repertoire with both new works and operas from the western canon. As with his predecessors Samosud and Golovanov, his reign came to an unexpected end in 1962, when he was summarily replaced by Evgeny Svetlanov. He died two years later. Vasili Nebolsin (1898-1958) studied violin and composition in Moscow, and started his career as a conductor in 1918, joining the Bolshoy in this capacity in 1922. His repertoire included works by Wagner and Bizet as well as by Russian composers, and he also composed and conducted symphony concerts. He was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1950. The title rôle of the opera is taken by Maxim Mikhailov (1893-1971), who was born into a peasant family and sang in the choir of his village church. He entered a monastery after working as a labourer, and developed a reputation as a church singer (he held the position of deacon) both in concert and on the radio. In 1932 he joined the Bolshoy Theatre, and during the next 24 years sang many of the principal bass parts. He became strongly identified with the rôle of Ivan Susanin, which he performed over four hundred times. He also appeared in Sergey Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible.

Natalia Spiller (1909-1995), who takes the part of Antonida, studied at the Kiev Conservatory, and made her stage début at Samara in 1934. Within a year she was called to the Bolshoy in Moscow, where she remained for more than thirty years, singing a broad range of lyric-dramatic rôles in both the Russian and Western repertoire. She was especially admired as a singer by Stalin and sang frequently at the Kremlin. She was awarded several national prizes before her retirement from the stage, after which she taught at the Gnessin Institute in Moscow from 1950 to 1976. Yelizaveta Antonova (1904-?), who sings the part of Vanya, was born and studied in St Petersburg. From 1924 to 1929 she was a member of the chorus of the Bolshoy Theatre. She then turned to singing in concert, and established herself as one of Russia’s foremost contraltos. She returned to the Bolshoy as a soloist in 1934, and stayed there for twenty years, singing predominantly Russian repertoire while also appearing as Fricka in The Ring and as Leonore in Fidelio. The rôle of Sobinin is taken by the tenor Georgi Nelepp (1904-1957). He studied in Leningrad and made his début as Lensky with the Kirov Opera in 1930. He remained with this company until 1944, when he moved to the Bolshoy in Moscow. With his highly expressive and intense singing he was a popular exponent of many of the principal tenor rôles in the company’s repertoire, and he also appeared in numerous complete opera recordings. Among the smaller parts, the rôle of Sigismund III is taken by Fyodor Svetlanov, the father of the conductor and sometime music director of the Bolshoy Opera, Evgeny Svetlanov.

David Patmore

Close the window