Popular Composers, Rare Operas: Russian Edition

Written by Stephen J. Trygar
Cover photo by ArtTower from Pixabay

The roots of opera stretch back hundreds of years. Each major cultural hub has at one point claimed that their version of the art form is the truest and greatest version, but in our modern world, these cultural versions have all melded together into one incredible genre. Writers of Italian, French, German, English, Czech, Russian, and American operas share the spotlights together, granted their work is engaging enough to audiences across the world.

Today, I would like to explore just a few rarely performed operas by some of music history’s most celebrated Russian composers. Like all cultural forms of opera, each has their lost or forgotten works. Some have a better chance of being revived than others because their creators are embedded into our history. From Russia’s corner of the world we have Modest Mussorgsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky who each have works that have nudged their way into the standard operatic canon; however, they are not exempt from having pieces fall through the cracks. Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin are among opera’s most performed works, but they often overshadow the output that surrounds them.

Сорочинская ярмарка (The Fair at Sorochyntsi)

Modest Mussorgsky (18391881)

Out of ten operas in his back pocket, Modest Mussorgsky only completed one of them, Boris Godunov. While several operas hold the status of projected, others have either a few numbers or are finished enough or completed by others to be staged without serious injury to the plot.

Portrait of M.P. Musorgsky (1881) by Ilya Repin

The Fair at Sorochyntsi is one of those operas that was deserted before completion, but it was picked up by several other composers (each completing their own version). Beginning work on it in 1874, he abandoned the project in 1880, where it remained unfinished and unperformed until after his death in 1881. Mussorgsky wrote the libretto himself, basing it off of Nikolai Gogal’s short story of the same name. The Fair at Sorochyntsi was worked on in competition with his more successful opera Khovanshchina (an opera also left unfinished and unperformed until completed and edited by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov). The opera’s first completed version was undertaken by Konstantin Saradzhev and premiered on October 8, 1913. Five other known completed versions of the opera are César Cui (premiered in Petrograd’s Theatre of Musical Drama on October 13, 1917), Nikolai Tcherepnin (premiered March 17, 1923 in Monte Carlo), Nikolai Golovanov (January 10, 1925 at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow), Vissarion Shebalin (December 12, 1931 at the Maly Opera Theatre in Leningrad), and Emil Cooper (November 3, 1942 in New York).

Mussorgsky reused several pieces of previously written music for the opera, including the “Market Scene” from Act II of the unfinished opera project Mlada. He would incorporate his unperformed tone poem Night on Bald Mountain into the opera as a dream sequence despite the fact that such an episode is not part of the original story. My inclusion of this opera into this blog stems from the continued attempt to complete, revise, reorchestrate, and edit the work by several composers. Despite the efforts of these composers, the work still remains hidden from the standard operatic repertoire.

Чародейка (The Enchantress)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (18401893)
Pjotr I. Tschaikowski (1893) by Nikolai Dmitriyevich Kuznetsov

Tchaikovsky’s success as a theatrical composer lies heavily in his ballets; however, his operas Eugene Onegin, The Queen of Spades, and Iolanta bolster this notion from the operatic standpoint. While an incredible storyteller through his music, not all of his favorites were as fortunate as others.

Tchaikovsky’s longest work (clocking in at over 3 hours long), The Enchantress, was conducted by the composer at its premiere on November 1 [OS October 20] at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg. The opera is based on the play of the same name by Ippolit Shpazhinsky, who also revised the play into a libretto for Tchaikovsky to use for his new opera. At the time of it’s composition, Shpazhinsky’s play had seen more performances than any other play staged in Moscow or Saint Petersburg. Tchaikovsky learned of the work when his younger brother Modest introduced him to a particular scene of the play. After much delay in receiving the finished libretto, Tchaikovsky had to make drastic cuts to it due to its massive size. Despite the success of the play, Tchaikovsky’s operatic adaptation was an incredible flop in the eyes of the critics. Audiences felt otherwise, giving ovations throughout its run. Tchaikovsky regarded The Enchantress to be his best opera up to this point, Eugene Onegin included.

My eventual decision for listing The Enchantress in this blog stemmed from the fact that it was the last completed opera before he would write The Queen of Spades and Iolanta, two operas that remain prominent in the operatic repertoire. His high consideration and love of his work led him to believe that it would one day be seen the way he did, but unfortunately that day never came. Its length aside, The Enchantress truly is an incredible opera, and I have taken up the torch of hope that it will one day see more light.

Сказка о царе Салтане (The Tale of Tsar Saltan)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (18441908)

Although he is better known for his orchestral works in the West, Rimsky-Korsakov composed several operas of containing his most complex and orchestrally colorful music. While not often performed in the West, his operas Sadko and The Golden Cockerel, as well as others, are well known by their orchestral excerpts and suites.

Rimsky-Korsakov (1893) by Ilya Repin

The full title of the opera, The Tale of Tsar Saltan, of his Son the Renowned and Mighty Bogatyr Prince Gvidon Saltanovich and the Beautiful Princess-Swan, is taken from the Pushkin poem that the opera is based on. The libretto was written by Vladimir Belsky, who made some minor edits to the plot of the poem in order to make it more suitable for the stage. The opera was premiered on November 3 [OS October 21], 1900 at the Solodovnikov Theatre in Moscow.

Musically The Tale of Tsar Saltan is structured in a through-composed-like manner with a tableau system, much like many of his operas after the 1881 opera The Snow Maiden. While this opera is rarely performed in the West, the Act III orchestral Interlude Flight of the Bumblebee is one of the composer’s most well known works and is often performed on its own. It is because of this I chose this work. The opera, virtually unknown to the opera Western opera world, contains one of the most recognizable pieces of music that has even become part of our modern, popular culture.

Повесть о настоящем человеке (The Story of a Real Man)

Sergei Prokofiev (18911953)
Sergei Prokofiev (1934) by Pyotr Konchalovsky

Notwithstanding his success as a ballet composer and symphonist, Prokofiev’s greatest compositional interest was opera. During his lifetime, his greatest operatic success was the satirical The Love for Three Oranges. His more romantic War and Peace has also seen some modern success, but its size and length deter companies from staging it.

Prokofiev’s final completed opera, The Story of a Real Man, is based on a novel of the same name by Boris Polevoy, and the libretto was written by the composer and Mira Mendelson. It received its premiere on December 3, 1948 to a audience made up of Soviet cultural officials. The opera was intended to rehabilitate his reputation with the Communist authorities, but it was banned and forbidden to the general public until after Prokofiev’s death. The public premiere was received on October 7, 1960 at the Bolshoi Theatre after the political climate slightly diminished.

Soviet cultural officials had been accusing Prokofiev of using formalism, a concept in music theory that a composition’s meaning is determined by its form alone. The failure of The Story of a Real Man would cause Prokofiev to progressivly withdraw from the public life and activities. He would give up chess and devote himself entirely to his own work. Although The Story of a Real Man is not of the same Russian opera tradition that the other three operas are a part of, I thought it was important to list one of Prokofiev’s operas. Although opera was his favorite genre to compose, he had very little overall success with it. In the case of this opera, it is thanks to the Soviet government that its growth was stunted before the public could even determine it’s worth themselves.

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Published by Stephen J. Trygar

I am a musicologist and music historian currently residing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My primary focus is on theatrical music (opera, ballet, and incidental music) and symphonic music.

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