A matter of heritage – Russian Opera 101

Iain Scott traces the themes
that have defined Russian opera


We delight in discovering more about Russian opera, it is timely to ask two questions: what are the key defining characteristics of this national genre? And which significant milestones in its development should we be aware of?

The question of national characteristics is a sensitive subject. It seems safe to suggest, however, that national identities and geographic consciousness are inextricably bound up in concepts of a people’s history, literature and folklore. Just as being Canadian involves finding a balance between “the true north, strong and free” and the inexorable cultural pull from our neighbor to the south, so Russians have struggled with their “eastern steppe” heritage and the magnetic attraction of western European–or, more specifically, Parisian–values. This dynamic tension, spotlighted in the 18th century under Peter the Great and reinforced under Catherine the Great, found its expression in the 19th century in two opposing cultural and political movements, the “Slavophiles” and the “West-erners.” This tension is the first defining characteristic of Russian opera.

Secondly, it is not an oversimplification to say that the subject matter of most Russian operas falls into two broad categories. The first encompasses gloom-laden representations of significant individuals or events in Russian history–Borodin’s saga of the defeat of Prince Igor, for example, or Mussorgsky’s soul-searing account of the demise of the Old Believers faction of the church in Khovanshchina. The second category presents enchanting, if pessimistic, folk legends, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel or his Snow Maiden. It is also worth noting that no other national school seems to put so great an emphasis on the works of native-born poets and prose novelists–such as Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoevsky–or expects its audience to be so deeply aware of its national literature.

A third key characteristic of Russian opera is the prominence of the deep bass voice, which derives from the pervading influence of the Russian Eastern Orthodox Church. There is hardly a single opera that does not find a place for a principal bass, or which does not incorporate a choral prayer or an unaccompanied liturgical chant, reflecting the modal style of that church.

Chronologically, Russian opera was a late starter. For the first century of opera’s existence, it was banned in Russia, since the Orthodox Church establishment vigorously opposed all western forms of music, even musical notation. After reforms instituted by Peter the Great, operas were introduced, but these were tightly confined to court circles throughout the 18th century, and were almost exclusively Italian, and sometimes French, imports. Not until the end of the 18th century did Catherine the Great build the first opera theatre in her capital, St Petersburg, while the “father of Russian opera” did not emerge until fully three decades into the 19th century.

In the 1830s, Mikhail Glinka led a discussion group, which included the writers Pushkin, Gogol and Vasily Zhukovsky, about the pressing need for a distinctly nationalist composition. Looking for an appropriate subject, they concluded that nothing galvanizes nationalist sentiment more than an invasion. As a result, the first Russian opera was written about the incursion of Polish forces in 1612. This date, they noted, coincided with the establishment of a new Russian dynasty, the Romanovs. Moreover, being exactly 200 years prior to the Napoleonic invasion of 1812 gave the tale further iconic stature. The resulting opera, Glinka’s A Life for the Czar, is about a self-sacrificing peasant who leads the invading Polish forces astray, thus helping the man who will become the first Romanov Tsar escape. Today, this opera has a status in Russia similar to that of Beethoven’s Fidelio in Germany–often used to inaugurate new or refurbished opera houses. When the opera was performed in the 20th century, the ruling Communists renamed the opera after its peasant hero, Ivan Susanin, disapproving of his loyal monarchist motives while applauding his willingness to die for his country.

Today, Glinka’s work sounds more Italian than Russian–and proved to be something of an early snowdrop.

The golden age of Russian opera as we know it did not come into full flower for another 30 or 40 years. It was only in the 1870s and ’80s that Russian operas began to appear in any quantity. During this period, disputes between the eastern and western strains of the Russian cultural consciousness became acute. Russian opera was split between a group of Slavophile composers, the so-called Mighty Five, and a westward-looking faction associated with the two newly founded Conservatories of Music in St Petersburg and Moscow. None of the “Mighty Five” (Mily Balakirev, Cesar Cui, Alexander Borodin, Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov) was a trained musician. They were all self-taught “amateurs,” holding day jobs in public administration, science or the military. Their common vision and purpose, however, were analogous to that of the avant-garde Parisian club of composers known as les Six, or Canada’s Group of Seven landscape painters. The Mighty Five were determined to celebrate the distinct society of Russia, and to reject the pervasive influence of outsiders, particularly from Germany and from Paris. Rimsky-Korsakov, a naval officer, was the most prolific of the group. He not only contributed 19 of his own works but also finished, re-orchestrated and generally championed the works of his colleagues. He is best remembered for his fairy-tale operas, echoing the interest in the supernatural, the unexplained and the fantastic explored by contemporaries E. T. A. Hoffmann in Germany and Edgar Allan Poe in America.

The most original of the group–and the most lastingly influential–was the civil servant and drunkard, Mussorgsky. Most first en-counter him through his gripping series of tableaux illustrating events from the reign of the17th century Tsar, Boris Godunov. Since Boris was the immediate precursor to the Romanovs, Pushkin’s poetic depiction of his role in Russian history is maliciously slanted and pejoratively spin-doctored. In this, it has close parallels to Shakespeare’s unflattering hatchet job on Richard III, the immediate precursor to the reigning Tudors of Shakespeare’s time.

Not all Russian composers, however, felt that a simple rejection of all the West stood for was the defining badge of nationalism. The western Europe-oriented aspect of Russian cultural life was championed by a group of musicians in the two newly founded Conservatories. The most prominent were the piano virtuoso, Anton Rubinstein, and the ballet and symphonic composer, Pyotr Illich Tchaikovsky. They were quite comfortable being Russians who felt part of broader, pan-European traditions. It is noteworthy that the hero of Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin, having killed his best friend, flees to Paris, and that in Queen of Spades, it is in Paris that the old countess had learned her secret of the three cards.

The East vs. West dynamic tension dominated aesthetic discourse in the final decades of the Imperial regime, until the catastrophes of World War I changed everything. For the next six, gloomy decades, Russia would be firmly under the boot of new, proletarian Tsars. In the aftermath of the October Revolution, many composers emigrated to western Europe, the most celebrated being Igor Stravinsky, best known for his contributions to the development of ballet in Paris with two other expatriates, Sergei Diaghilev and Vaslav Nijinsky. Stravinsky’s three major operas raise the question of whether an opera written by a Russian, but having no Russian content, may be called a Russian opera. Stravinsky based The Rake’s Progress, for example, on paintings and etchings by Hogarth. His Oedipus Rex is written on an ancient Greek text and performed in Latin. Le Rossignol is based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale.

While some composers emigrated, others elected to stay. Sergei Prokofiev, another occasional composer of opera, elected to return to the Soviet Union after experiencing the artistic freedom of the West. Perhaps the most celebrated of all Soviet composers–particularly in 2006, his centenary year–is Dimitri Shostakovich. His defining moment came when Stalin unexpectedly took a personal interest in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, charging that the opera was not sufficiently in line with principles of “socialist realism.” This dictatorial intervention still causes discomfort, not so much because it was an intrusion on artistic freedom but because Stalin was championing the cause of the “common man,” demanding that “modern music” should be written in a language that all can readily understand.

The explosion of interest in Russian opera in Europe and North America since the fall of the Soviet Union has been remarkable. Was it only 15 years ago that all things Russian were viewed with circumspection and suspicion? Many of us can remember a time when there were only two Russian operas in the repertory of most western companies: Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin. How the climate has changed!

The timing is propitious. Most leaders in the opera world know the danger of the art form ossifying into museum status, and are sensitive to the imperative of novelty to avoid the danger. Sadly, however, most attempts to extend the standard repertory forwards–to make opera more relevant and contemporary–have been failures. Attempts to extend it backwards have produced somewhat better, but still mixed, results. Renaissance and Baroque works were never intended for, and are rarely successful in, large halls. As a result, opera impresarios are thrilled to discover that there are still rich new seams to be mined from the late 19th century. Russian compositions are close enough to their conservative audiences’ expectations to provide some degree of box-office comfort, and yet sufficiently unknown to count as adventurous programming.

When the Soviet Union fell apart, it created unexpected benefits for western companies. Well-trained singers, conductors and artists from other operatic disciplines–all willing to work for a fraction of the fees demanded by their western counterparts–suddenly became available. The old Soviet Union boasted over 500 state-supported opera companies. Now, reduced subsidies have forced artists to become more entrepreneurial to survive.

The most dramatic example of this is the contrast between the near-demise of the once-great Bolshoi in Moscow and the renaissance of the Mariinski Theatre in St Petersburg. The astonishing energy displayed by latter’s fiery angel, Valery Gergiev, has ensured that his company is the pre-eminent touring company in the world today and the most prolific producer of recordings. His efforts have also considerably deepened and broadened our knowledge of the Russian operatic literature.