Even if you’ve never seen a full-length Russian opera, if you regularly listen to classical music radio stations, or go to concerts, you’ll almost certainly have heard excerpts – overtures and orchestral suites that are enduringly popular for their passionate Slavic melodies painted with an exotic orchestral palette, bursting with life and invariably loud. But these are just a taster of the thrilling world of Russian opera, and if you get a chance, its well worth sampling the full package.

As with other art forms, Russian opera only really found itself a national voice in the early 19th century. For the previous hundred years, following Peter the Great’s westernising reforms, Russian writers, artists and musicians on the whole produced pale imitations of European art, particularly Italian, and the upper classes mostly spoke French. After Russia’s victory over Napoleon, there was a huge resurgence in national pride, everyone started speaking Russian again, and artists began to look to their own country, their rich folklore, their landscape and their turbulent history for inspiration. Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin (1799-1837), generally regarded as the “father of Russian literature”, moulded Russian into an elegant literary language but also infused his fiction with a distinctively Russian outlook.

Anna Netrebko (Tatyana) in Eugene Onegin © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Anna Netrebko (Tatyana) in Eugene Onegin
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

There’s an argument for calling Pushkin the “father of Russian opera” too, for his fiction provided the basic material for much of the great 19th century repertoire, beginning with Glinka’s setting of his fairytale poem Ruslan and Ludmila, first performed in 1842. Probably the most popular is Tchaikovsky’s version of Pushkin’s much loved verse novel Eugene Onegin (1879) and it’s notable that by the time Tchaikovsky set it, the novel was so deeply embedded into Russian culture that Tchaikovsky needed only to set it as “lyrical scenes”, picking highlights from the story, knowing that his audience would be able to fill in the gaps. Tchaikovsky’s lavish melodies and richly dramatic orchestration adds an emotional punch to the dryly ironic tone of Pushkin’s original poem: you can read the novel with a wry smile and a raised eyebrow, but the opera goes straight to the heart. Tchaikovsky’s other major Pushkin setting is The Queen of Spades (1887): Pushkin’s elegant and spooky short story, with its vicious ending, transfers marvellously well to the operatic stage and the majestic title role of the proud old lady tricked into giving up her gambling secret is a gift for dramatic mezzos. Pushkin also provided Rachmaninov with material for two of his three one-act operas – Aleko (based on “The Gypsies”) and The Miserly Knight.

Josephine Barstow (The Countess) in The Queen of Spades © Bill Cooper | Opera North
Josephine Barstow (The Countess) in The Queen of Spades
© Bill Cooper | Opera North

Russia’s violent and colourful history and folklore provided another rich seam of material for opera composers seeking to forge a national cultural identity – again often with a helping hand from Pushkin. His blank-verse play Boris Godunov is a Shakespearean-style tragedy depicting the fall of a 16th century ruler who makes terribly wrong decisions under the pressures of power and war. Mussorgsky’s operatic version is an epic work that combines impressive chorus scenes with close psychological scrutiny and it ends with my favourite moment in Russian opera, a heart-wrenching lament for Russia’s eternally tragic history “Flow bitter tears”.

Borodin’s Prince Igor goes back to a medieval Russian manuscript, and is perhaps best known for the “Polotsvian Dances”, often performed as a standalone piece. My own fascination with Russia began in childhood with Russian fairy tales, always fiercer, darker and more colourful, often featuring brave, resourceful female figures who were always so much more interesting than simpering princesses with peas in their beds. Rimsky-Korsakov’s imaginative orchestration seems made for these stories, and some of his best-known operas draw on Russian folklore - Sadko, The Snow Maiden, and The Golden Cockerel.

The three strands of Pushkin, history and folklore that form the basis of 19th-century Russian opera unravelled with the upheaval of war, revolution and, for many composers, emigration. Stravinsky’s mostly drew on Western European themes for his operas - Oedipus Rex (with chorus text in Latin), The Rake’s Progress (Auden), and Rachmaninov took Francesca da Rimini from the story in Dante’s Inferno. The 20th century composers who stuck with Russian themes looked beyond Pushkin for literary inspiration. Prokofiev tried his hand at setting Tolstoy’s sprawling epic War and Peace – Alex Ross calls it a “a successful stab at an impossible job” and with The Gambler, was one of the few composers to attempt to transpose Dostoevsky to the opera-house. Prokofiev’s best-known opera though follows the fairy-tale tradition, albeit from an Italian source. The Love for Three Oranges is sharp and surreal, involving princesses who have been turned into oranges, with a spiky score full of Prokofiev’s signature off-kilter melodies to match the whimsical storyline.

The Love for Three Oranges © Hans van den Bogaard | Dutch National Opera
The Love for Three Oranges
© Hans van den Bogaard | Dutch National Opera

The most notorious Russian opera is undoubtedly Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, a simple tale of lust, adultery and murder, but although this could easily describe any number of classic grand operas from the entire European repertoire, the banal small-town setting of “Lady Macbeth” strips away any misplaced glamour, leaving a nasty, brutal story. The opera was received well to begin with, but in 1936, Stalin attended a performance and walked out, and an anonymous article on the front page of Pravda described it as “muddle instead of music”. From then on, the opera was banned in the Soviet Union and Shostakovich had to put himself through tortuous attempts to reconcile his artistic voice and his urgent need for political rehabilitation – the end result being the ambiguous Fifth Symphony which he called “a Soviet artist's creative response to justified criticism”.

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District © Beth Bergman | Metropolitan Opera
Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District
© Beth Bergman | Metropolitan Opera

Russian operas present plenty of challenges to directors and singers. The historical and fairy-tale operas are long and elaborate, requiring large sets and choruses, and big voices with plenty of stamina: there are the notoriously low Russian bass parts of course, and scenes such as Tatyana’s letter writing in Eugene Onegin or the Countess’s dying confession in Queen of Spades demand that a solitary singer holds the audience captive for a considerable length of time. The unfamiliar language is a challenge too, although once you’ve mastered the scary-looking consonant clusters, the round Italianate vowels make Russian a joy to sing and to listen to.

 

With thanks to Dr Philip Bullock for his assistance.

 

See where to catch Russian opera next season by clicking on the links below:

Eugene Onegin

The Queen of Spades

The Miserly Knight

Boris Godunov

The Rake's Progress

The Love for Three Oranges

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District