Russian Opera



As part of the BBC's focus on opera in 2010, Donald Macleod explores the rich tradition of Russian opera, from Glinka to Schnittke.

Opera began in Italy and that's where Russia got it from too; a string of Italians from Ristori to Cimarosa staged productions in St Petersburg and thereby planted the seeds from which Russia's own operatic tradition eventually sprang.

That first sapling appeared in 1836 with Mikhail Glinka's A Life for the Tsar, universally regarded as the first 'real' Russian opera.

In The Stone Guest, Alexander Dargomïzhsky continued the move away from the Italian tradition with his naturalistic approach to text-setting, which removed the distinction between aria and recitative.

Mussorgsky took part in early private run-throughs of Dargomïzhsky's work and was so impressed that he decided to try his hand at the same kind of thing; the result was The Marriage, his first opera and an important milestone on the way to his masterpiece, Boris Godunov.

Donald Macleod focuses on the beginnings of Russia's opera tradition.


Donald Macleod continues his exploration of the rich tradition of Russian opera from Glinka to Schnittke with a look at Musorgsky and Tchaikovsky, the two late-19th-century titans whose work still forms the core of the repertoire.

It's hard to imagine two more different musical personalities.

Musorgsky was largely self-taught, a true musical radical whose credo was artistic 'truth'; Tchaikovsky, the product of a Western-oriented conservatoire training, was concerned less with truth than with beauty.

Musorgsky worked on his opera Khovanshchina for nine years, leaving it unfinished on his death; Tchaikovsky wrote The Queen of Spades in 44 days of white-hot inspiration.

Like many of his contemporaries, Tchaikovsky regarded Musorgsky's work as brilliant but flawed, but he nonetheless recognized a major talent, writing that Musorgsky "flaunts his illiteracy, takes pride in his ignorance, mucks along anyhow.

Yet for all his ugliness, Musorgsky does speak to us in a new language.

It may not be beautiful, but it is fresh." Musorgsky's masterpiece, Boris Godunov, is still fresh today.

It's a disturbing and profoundly moving psychological study of a deeply troubled individual, played out against the broad canvas of the miserable plight of the oppressed masses and set to some of the most thrilling music ever written.

Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin is likewise a psychological study - of a man who comes to regret the path his life has taken.

Donald Macleod focuses on the operas of Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky.


Donald Macleod continues his exploration of the rich tradition of Russian opera from Glinka to Schnittke with a look at three members of the so-called 'Mighty Handful' - César Cui, Alexander Borodin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Borodin was a professor of chemistry who delved into such recherché areas of investigation as the nucleophilic displacement of chlorine by fluorine in benzenecarbonyl chloride.

Little wonder that his labours on his opera Prince Igor occupied his spare moments for the best part of 20 years, but even that wasn't enough time for him to complete the work, which had to be painstakingly assembled and orchestrated from the composer's chaotic sketches by Rimsky-Korsakov and his young apprentice, Alexander Glazunov.

César Cui, little-known today, also had a day job other than music - he was a respected authority on military engineering, whose Concise Textbook of Field Fortifications ran to nine editions.

His opera A Feast in Time of Plague was rather less popular, but it's nonetheless interesting to hear an extract from this rarely performed work.

Rimsky-Korsakov started his adult life as a sailor but took up the offer of a professorial post at the St Petersburg Conservatory in his late 20s.

Over a long career he composed 15 operas, few of which are performed today outside of Russia.

Based on a medieval Russian folk tale, Sadko is in Rimsky's epic vein.

By contrast, Kashchey the Immortal is a one-act fairy-tale opera with a ravishing score.

Donald Macleod focuses on the work of Cesar Cui, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov.


Donald Macleod continues his exploration of the rich tradition of Russian opera from Glinka to Schnittke with a musical conservative - Sergei Rachmaninov - and a pair of progressives - Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev.

One of only three operas completed by Rachmaninov, The Miserly Knight sets one of Pushkin's four Little Tragedies, in a tradition stretching back to Alexander Darghomïzhsky's The Stone Guest.

Stravinsky's opera The Nightingale is an attractive but rather strange work.

Stravinsky wrote the first act in 1909, then broke off to fulfil what turned out to be a trio of ballet commissions, for The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring.

When he returned to The Nightingale in 1914 - with the incentive of a fat commission fee from the Moscow Free Theatre - his style had undergone a radical transformation.

It had changed again by 1922 when he started work on his next opera, Mavra, which stands at the beginning of his neo-classical phase.

After a somewhat shaky start - the composer compared the critics at the New York première to a "pack of dogs let out from behind the gate to bite my trousers to shreds" - Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges has gone on to become one of his best-loved works, a delightfully absurd confection in which a hypochondriac prince finds the love of his life inside an enchanted orange - and why not.

Donald Macleod focuses on the work of Rachmaninov, Stravinsky and Prokofiev.

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Donald Macleod concludes his exploration of a century-and-a-half of Russian opera with works by Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Schnittke.

Shostakovich's first opera, The Nose, is a tartly satirical piece based on a short story by Gogol in which a St Petersburg bureaucrat wakes up one morning to find his nose missing from his face; it turns out that the plucky little organ has taken on a life of its own, and is parading around town in the costume of a State Councillor.

Even if it wasn't quite clear precisely who was being satirized, The Nose put the Soviet authorities' noses severely out of joint, and the first production was abruptly dropped after only 16 performances.

Shostakovich's next opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, was first of all a huge success - then, in a deft spot of Stalinist revisionism, an abject failure.

The failure kicked in when Stalin finally got round to attending a performance of the opera, almost two years after its Leningrad première; the great dictator didn't like what he was seeing and hearing, and a now notorious denunciation of the composer followed in the press: "Muddle instead of music!" Prokofiev spent the last 11 years of his life working on his magnificent operatic presentation of Tolstoy's War and Peace, but by this point in his career the composer was irretrievably out of favour with the authorities and several of those 11 years were spent jumping through hoops to try and create an 'acceptable' version of the score.

There's little doubt that Stalin would have found Alfred Schnittke's Life with an Idiot, written in the dying days of the Soviet Union, wholly unacceptable.

The 'idiot' of the title is Vova, a heavily satirized representation of Lenin, capable of uttering just one sound: "Ekh!".

Donald Macleod explores works by Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Schnittke.