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Russian Opera
February 14, 2007 13:39


Russian Opera on the World Stage

Opera coming to Russia - 18th century

Opera before Glinka - 19th century

Glinka Mikhail Ivanovich

Dargomyzhsky Alexander Sergeevich

Musorgsky Modest Petrovich

Rimsky-Korsakov Nikolay Andreevich

Tchaikovsky Pyotr Ilyich

Stravinsky and Prokofiev

Prokofiev Sergey Sergeevich

Shostakovich Dmitry Dmitrievich

Soviet Opera

Russian Opera on the World Stage


Russian opera is on a par with Italian, German and French operas in terms of their worldwide significance. This is mainly due to the range of operas created in the second half of the 19th century and certain operas of the 20th century. Among the most popular operas on the world stage of the late 20th - early 21st cc are Boris Godunov by Musorgsky, Pikovaya Dama/Queen of Spades and Evgeny Onegin by Tchaikovsky, Knyaz Igor / Prince Igor by Borodin, and Zolotoi Petushok / Golden Cockerel by Rimsky-Korsakov, all dating back to the 19th century. Out of the 20th century's operas stand out Fiery Angel (Ognenny Angel) by Prokofiev and Lady McBeth of Mzensk District by Shostakovitch. It goes without saying that the treasures of the national opera are not limited to the mentioned compositions.

Opera coming to Russia (18th century)

Opera was one of the first West European genres adopted by the Russian stage. Already in the 1730s there appeared Court Italian Opera with Italian musicians composing for it and take place first public performances. Operas came to be staged also in serf theatres of rich Russian landlords. M.M.Sokolovsky composed the first Russian opera titled Miller - Sorcerer, Trickster and Matchmaker in 1779 after the story by A.O.Ablesimov. It was a comedy of every day life with music and singing scenes, which brought about a number of popular works of this genre of early comic opera. Two works by Dmitry Bortnaynsky (1751 - 1825), the most prominent composer of that time were written in the genre of opera serial (The Falcon of Ser Federigo (1786) and Syn-Sopernik / Son-Rival (1787). Interesting were experiments in the genres of melodrama and music for drama plays.

Opera before Glinka - 19th century

The following century saw the growing popularity of the opera genre in Russia. Opera was at the summit of aspirations with the Russian composers of the 19th century. Even those of them who never completed a single opera (for example, M. Balakirev and A. Lyadov) had thought for years over some opera projects. The grounds for that seem to be quite clear. First of all, opera was the genre that gave a chance to 'speak the language of the masses', according to Tchaikovsky. Secondly, opera enabled to highlight artistically important ideological, historical and psychological issues that were of interest to the Russian people of that time. Finally, young creative people were longing for genres that would combine music, literature, scenic movement and painting. Besides there was already formed a certain opera tradition of the 18th c. to base upon.

In the early 19th century court and private theatres gave place to the monopoly of the state theatres, centred in Moscow and St.-Petersburg. Both the capitals of Russia enjoyed rich cultural life, with Russian ballet blossoming. Along with Russian theatre troupes there existed French, German and Italian drama and opera companies. Italian non-repertory theatre turned to be the most popular with the public. Tchaikovsky who was also a musical critic had to stand up for a decent position of Moscow Russian opera in a row with the Italian one. Musorgsky in his opera Rayok/Little Paradise mocked at the passion of St.-Petersburg public for fashionable Italian singers.

Glinka Mikhail Ivanovich (1804 - 1857)


Glinka was the first to find such a profound and powerful expression for the Russian character in music. He holds a prominent place in history as the founder of Russian classical music and national opera. In spite of the music before Glinka the phenomenon of his genius still seems a miracle. The basic features of his gift combine deep intellectualism and subtle artistry. Glinka aspires to create 'Big Russian Opera' as a high tragic genre. His Zhizn za Tsarya/Life for the Tzar (1836) is a solemn opera with a mighty choral basis, which was in accord with the national cultural tradition and in many ways predetermined the further development of Russian opera.


The other title of the opera is Ivan Susanin, after the name of the legendary peasant who saved the little tzar of Russia from Polish invaders at the cost of his own life. For the first time a common peasant becomes the hero of a serious work of art and the authentic Russian song sounds in a serious opera. Glinka's novel approach met misunderstanding and hostile attitude of the high society. Among rapturous admirers of this opera was Alexander Pushkin, whose fairy poem Ruslan and Ludmila inspired Glinka for creation of his second opera of the same name. The two great contemporaries had something in common: the creations of both of them combine wonderful harmony with penetrating and daring thought. Slavic epos, colorful oriental scenes and Finnish tunes make up the world of the enchanting fairy opera Ruslan and Ludmila (1842).


Glinka was one of the first Russian authors to solve the issue of scenic musical speech. As for music scenes composed by him in traditional solo, ensemble and choir forms they turned so original and abounding with new intonations that earlier associations with Italian or any other patterns were lef t behind.

In Life for the Tzar Glinka overcame the mixture of styles characteristic of the Russian opera before him, when genre scenes were 'Russian styled', lyric arias were in the 'Italian way' and drama parts were 'French' or 'German'. Lots of Russian musicians of the next generations gave their due to this heroic opera, yet preferring Glinka's second opera Rouslan and Lyudmila, which came to underlie a separate trend followed by Rimsky-Korsakov and A.P.Borodin. The opera recreates the old Russian spirit, as well as authentic Orient in its various aspects, both 'sweet' and 'redoubtable' and original fantasy, putting Glinka in a row with his most outstanding contemporaries - Berlioz and Wagner.

Glinka composed around 80 romances, songs, arias and other music pieces. Works of art by Glinka and Dargomyzhsky make the first stage in the history of Russian classical music.

Dargomyzhsky Alexander Sergeevich (1813-1869)


Dargomyzhsky started his activity of a composer quite young. It happened in the second half of the 1830s, when inspired by Glinka's Life for the Tzar he set about writing music to the French libretto of Esmeralda by Victor Hugo.

The second opera by Dragomyzhsky was also composed after Pushkin's poem. It was opera Rusalka / Mermaid (staged in 1856), in which the author turned to his time rather than to the old days, with the language of the opera close to the contemporary musical life. Unlike Glinka's sophisticated instrumentation the orchestra of Dargomyzhsky is modest; beautiful folk choirs follow the national tradition and the major dramatic essence is focused on solo parts and splendid ensembles. Colorful palette of tunes combines Russian elements with those typical of some other Slavic peoples.

Dargomyzhsky's last opera Kamenny Gost / Stone Guest (staged in 1872 after Pushkin's poem) is an experimental work in quite a new genre ofopera dialogue. The composer dispenses with developed vocal forms such as aria and symphonized orchestra. As a result the opera is unusually exquisite: even the shortest melodic phrase in it acquires its own powerful expressiveness.

Musorgsky Modest Petrovich (1839-1881)


Operas and other genres related to voicing make up the major part of Musorgsky's music heritage: as a youth he started writing music with an opera (unperformed opera Islander after Victor Hugo) and left two operas (Khovanshchina and Sorochinskaya Fair (Sorochinskaya Yarmarka)) unfinished after his death.

In 1856 Musorgsky got acquainted with Dargomyzhsky and joined the circle of young musicians, which later made up the creative society known as the Mighty Five. Opera of the Mighty Five has certain typical features uniting such different composers as Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin. They all showed the preference for Russian subjects, especially historical, fairy and mythological ones. They paid great attention to the true-to-life elaboration of the plot, to the phonetics and semantics of the word and to the vocal element in general. Folk choir scenes play a significant part in their operas.

The first big work of the young Musorgsky was opera Salambo (after G. Flober, 1866), in which he created an original image of the East, Russian and Biblical rather than the exotic Punic Orient. His other early opera Zhenitba/Marriage after Gogol belonged to the opposite 'anti-romantic' trend. According to the composer, that 'sketch for a chamber testing' developed the line of Dragomyzhsky's Stone Guest pointing it up with the use of a real contemporary plot and prose instead of poetry.


Musorgsky created two monumental musical dramas - Boris Godunov (1871-72) and Khovanshchina (completed by Rimsky-Korsakov in 1883, after Musorgsky's death). Boris Godunov is based on Pushkin's tragedy of the same name, with some significant additions by the composer. In his interpretation of Pushkin's work Musorgsky focuses on the drama of 'crime and punishment', obviously under the influence of Dostoevsky's novel Crime and Punishment written at about the same time with the opera Boris Godunov. The opera oversteps any opera canons - both in terms of the intensity of drama and sharp toungue and in its treatment of the historic plot.

In Khovanshchina Musorgsky aimed to create, as he said, 'a sensible and justified' melody, that would be based on song, as alternative to melodies of an instrumental origin like in a classical aria. He created a structure based on strophes and subjected to free variation. It played a great role in determining the form of opera, which retaining its fluidity of action included many more accomplished, 'rounded' scenes, both solo and choir ones.

Rimsky-Korsakov Nikolay Andreevich (1844 - 1908)


Rimsky-Korsakov was an outstanding composer, music teacher, public figure and conductor. In 1861 he joined Balkirev's circle The Mighty Five, which had a great influence on formation of aesthetic views and the personality of Rimsky-Korsakov. Lots of genres make up his musical heritage, however his greatest achievements are connected with opera. Opera runs all through his life: from 1868 when he sets about to his first opera (Pskovityanka) to 1907 when he completes his last opera Zolotoy Petushok / Golden Cockerel. All his 15 operas are exclusive and different from each other in genre and style. Even in his fairy operas there is a great variety: Snegurochka/Snow Maid (1882) is a 'spring fairy tale', Skazka o Tzare Saltane/Tale about Tzar Saltan (1900) is 'just a tale', Kashchey Bessmertny/ Kashchey the Immortal (1902) is 'an autumn tale' and Zolotoy Petushok / Golden Cockerel (1907) is a 'tale acted out'. The list can be continued: Pskovityanka (1873) is 'an opera - chronicle', Mlada (1892) is an opera - ballet, Noch pered Rozhdestvom/Christmas Eve (1895) is a 'Christmas true story', Sadko (1897) is a Russian epic opera, Mozart and Salieri (1898) is 'a chamber drama' and Tale about Invisible Kitezh Town and Maid Fevronia (1904) is 'a lithurgic drama'.

In fact Rimsky-Korsakov became the reformer of opera genre, but within his own creations and without declaring any theoretical mottos. This reform was based on the already existing patterns of Russian opera school (mainly on Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmila and aesthetic principles of the Mighty Five), on folk creativity in its various manifestations and on the oldest forms of human thought, such as myth, epos and fairy tale.


The typical feature of Rimsky-Korsakov's 'mythological' operas referring to the Slavic cult of the Sun (A Night in May, Christmas Eve, Mlada, and fairy operas) is the 'multi-world' existence: the actions are set in two or more 'worlds' or realms, such as those of people, natural elements and their personifications, pagan gods, etc., all they speaking their own music language.

Though operas by Rimsky-Korsakov were regularly performed in the 19th century they got estimated at their true worth only in the early 20th century, during the Silver Age, which appeared more in accord with the creations of this foremost composer.

Tchaikovsky Pyotr Ilyich (1840-1893)


Just like Rimsky-Korsakov and Musorgsky, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was bent upon opera genre all his life. His first opera Voevode (1869) after A.N.Ostrovsky falls on the very beginning of his independent creative activity. His last opera Iolanta premiered less than a year before his death.

In his operas Tchaikovsky turns to a great variety of subjects and themes: historical (Oprichnik, 1872; Orleanskaya Deva/ Maid of Orlean, 1879; Mazepa, 1883), comic (Kuznets Vacula/Blacksmith Vacula, 1874; and Cherevichki, 1885), lyric and tragic (Charodeika /The Enchantress, 1887; Queen of Spades, 1890). According to the theme each of the operas has a peculiar colouring. Nevertheless, whatever subject or plot Tchaikovsky chose all of them acquired psychological and personality-centered meaning in his interpretation. He was comparatively not much interested in local colouring, setting and time of action - he is famous first of all as the creator of lyrical music drama. Just like the Mighty Five members, Tchaikovsky was not limited to a single opera concept and freely resorted to all known forms.

The musical and theatrical heritage of Tchaikovsky can be separated into three periods: the early Moscow period (1868 - 1877) with such operas as Voevode, Oprichnik, Vacula the Blacksmith, Evgeny Onegin and Swan Lake; the middle period (till the end of the 1880s) with three great tragic operas: Maid of Orlean, Mazepa and Charodeika; and the last one, with Pikovaya Dama/Queen of Spades, Iolanta and the ballets Sleeping Beauty and Nut Cracker.

Stravinsky and Prokofiev

The Silber Age saw the appearance of the first operas by two prominent Russian composers of the 20th century - Igor Fiodorovich Stravinsky (1882-1971) and Sergey Sergeevich Prokofiev (1891-1953). But if Stravinsky concerned himself with opera genre only during his 'Russian period' (formally finished in the late 1920s) for Prokofiev opera remained the leading genre till the end of his life.

Prokofiev Sergey Sergeevich (1891-1953)


Prokofiev composed his first opera Maddalena in 1911 when he was ninteen. The opera acquired acclaim only after the composer's death. This first attempt forestalled the creation of Igrok / Gambler (1915, after Dostoevsky), one of the best operas of the 20th century. This artistically perfect musical realization of the novel by the great writer was never performed in composer's lifetime and has entered theatre repertoires only nowadays.


Hard was the destiny of another bright creation by young Prokofiev, the big tragic opera Fiery Angel (Ognenny Angel) (1928, after the novel of the same name by Valery Bryusov). It was first performed only in 1984, in Perm and Tashkent; in the West it got acclaim not long ago. The opera Love for Three Oranges (1919, after C.Gozzi), a merry spectacle in the form of the Italian mask theatre preceding the Fiery Angel turned much luckier.

Other four operas by Prokofiev are connected with the Soviet period of his life: the first of them, Semen Kotko (1940, after V.Kataev) and the last one, Story of a Real Man (1948, after Boris Polevoy) cannot be referred to his highest achievements, though they undoubtedly stand out against other operas 'on modern themes' of that period. His two other operas, Duenya or Obruchenie v Monastyre / Affiance in Monastery (1940, after Sheridan) staged in 1946 and War and Peace (Voina i Mir) (1941 - 1943, after Leo Tolstoy) are genuine masterpieces. Duenya is perhaps the best comic opera of the 20th century, which brings together traditions of Western buffoon opera and the lyricism of the Russian opera classics.

War and Peace (Voina i Mir) is no doubt the last great Russian epic opera, crowning the line of the Russian music theatre, originating in Life for the Tzar by Glinka. During Prokofiev's life the opera was perform only partly and in a concert form instead of opera.

Shostakovich Dmitry Dmitrievich (1906 - 1975)


Not less hardships fell upon the two operas by Shostakovich: Nose (1929, after Gogol) and Lady McBeth of Mzensk District (1932, after Leskov). Nose, an extremely bright and sharp creation, which became very popular in Russia and in the West in the late 20th century, is stylistically related to expressionistic theatre and based on bitter parody at times verging on biting satire.

Lady McBeth which premiered with a great success was subjected to scathing criticism in a pro-official newspaper article under the title Muddle instead of Music (1934) which had immense adverse influence on life of Shostakovich and the Soviet music of that time. Shostakovich had to expose the second version of the opera to substantial mitigation, both in terms of drama and music style. As a result, the opera acquired a form in some ways close to the classical Russian opera but lost its integrity.

Soviet Opera

The issue of opera was rather pungent throughout all the Soviet period of Russian musical culture. Opera was considered one of the most democratic and at the same time ideological genres, so the authorities used to stimulate the composers to work in this sphere and totally control it.

In the 1920s - 1930s opera enjoyed blossoming: in Moscow and Leningrad there appeared superb productions of the classical repertoire as well as novel Western operas. Leading stage directors, beginning from Stanislavsky and Meierkhold indulged in experiments with music theatre. However, the achievements of this period were lost in many respects. The epoch of experiments in opera theatre was cut short in the early 1930s.

The mid 1930s saw the appearance of the concept of the so-called 'song opera' as 'apprehensible to the common people'. The paragon of such opera was Tikhi Don / Quiet Don (1935, after the novel by Sholokhov) by I.I.Dzerzhinsky (1909-1978). Popular at that time operas In Storm (1939) by T.N.Khrennikov (born in 1913) and Taras' Family (1950) by D.D.Kabalevsky (1904-1987) referred to the same type of opera.

However at the same time there appeared also some well-turned 'normal' operas, such as Taming of the Shrew (1957) by V.Y.Shebalin (1902-1963) and Decembrists (1953) by Y.A.Shaporin (1887-1966).

The 1960s witnessed certain revival of opera theatre, with a variety of hybrid genres coming to the fore: opera-ballet, opera-oratorio, etc. Chamber opera and mono-opera earlier forgotten return to the stage.

In the 1960s - 1990s many authors turned to the opera genre. Among composers successfully working in this genre one can name R.K.Shchedrin (born in 1932), A.P.Petrov (born in 1930), S.M.Slonimsky (born in 1932), N.N.Karetnikov (1930-1994) and E.V.Denisov (1929-1996). However, the leading position of this genre in Russian music culture was not recovered. Contemporary operas, both Russian and foreign rarely appear in the playbills of big opera theatres.


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