Russian Opera Arias, Vol. 1
Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky is best known abroad for hisorchestral music. In the opera house only two works are in regular internationalrepertoire, Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, both based on Pushkin.
The second of these, first staged at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg in1890, has a libretto devised by the composer and his brother Modest. It is, inessence, a horror story, in the manner later favoured by Edgar Allan Poe, atale of monomania, leading to murder and suicide. It is spring and in a squarein the Summer Garden, where children play and nursemaids take care of theircharges, two officers discuss the strange behaviour of Hermann, who watchesthem gambling but never plays. Hermann and Count Tomsky enter, the latterseeking the cause of Hermann's melancholy. Hermann explains, in an arioso, howhe has fallen in love with a girl whose name, even, he does not know (Ya imeniyeyo nye znayu). They saunter off, returning to greet their friend PrinceYeletsky and congratulate him on his engagement. The Countess enters, with her granddaughterLisa, Yeletsky's betrothed, but also the object of Hermann's affections. In aquintet they all express their own feelings, the Countess and Lisa anxious atHermann's behaviour, Hermann aghast at the old Countess, Yeletsky puzzled atLisa's attitude and Tomsky anxious for his friend. As the ladies move away,Tomsky tells his friends the story of the Countess, who, as a young woman in Paris,had been saved from gambling losses by the revelation of the winning threecards, to be used to restore her fortunes, provided she never played again. Itis said that the Countess, who has revealed the secret twice, will die by thehand of the third person, who will force the secret from her.
On the balcony outside her room Lisa has mixed feelingsabout Yeletsky, her musings interrupted by the appearance of Hermann, below. Heseeks her forgiveness in an arioso (Prosti, nyebesnoye sozdan'ye),interrupted by the voice of the Countess telling Lisa to go to bed. This turnsHermann's thoughts again to the story of the three cards.
At a ball Hermann learns from Lisa how to reach thebedroom of the Countess, as he makes his way to hers. In the old woman'sbedroom he watches as she prepares for the night then rouses her, pleading at firstto learn the secret and then threatening her with a revolver. The Countess diesof shock and Lisa, hearing the noise, enters, now angry at Hermann's action, revealing,it seems, his plan to use her as a means of access to the Countess and thesecret of her wealth.
At his barracks Hermann, now conscience-stricken,receives a note from Lisa, offering forgiveness and seeking a midnight meeting.
The ghost of the Countess appears and unwillingly reveals the secret of thethree cards, Three, Seven and Ace, bidding him marry Lisa. She waits anxiouslyfor Hermann by the river embankment, comforted by his declaration of love, whenhe eventually arrives, but distraught when he leaves her for the gaming-house. Leftalone, she throws herself into the river and drowns. In the gaming-house Hermannplays against Yeletsky, staking forty thousand rubles, winning with his threeand his seven. Life, it seems to him, is only a game (Chto nasha zhizn'? Igra!).
At his final stake, however, he is confronted, now in clear madness, not by thewinning ace but by the Queen of Spades, seeming to regard him with the face ofthe Countess.
Frantic, he stabs himself and dies.
While Tchaikovsky, trained at the first Russian Conservatory,in St Petersburg, and for some time on the teaching staff of the MoscowConservatory, represented a relatively cosmopolitan tendency in Russian musicof the nineteenth century, Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov belonged to thegroup of five nationalist composers originally led by Balakirev, four of them,at least, originally amateurs. His fifteen operas have fared indifferently intheatres outside Russia, where they remain novelties rather than standardrepertoire. Mayskaya Noch' (May Night), with a libretto by the composerbased on a Ukrainian story by Nikolay Gogol, was first staged in St Petersburgin 1880. The work makes considerable use of folk-song and opens with anoverture that is a popular concert item. The plot concerns the various attemptsby Levko to outwit his father, the village headman, who has attempted to wooLevko's beloved Hanna. Levko plays various tricks on him and is eventuallyhelped to marry Hanna by the intervention of a water-nymph, to whose aid he hascome and who gives him a letter allegedly from the local commissar commandingan immediate wedding. Levko's first song is heard at his entry, accompanied byhis bandura (Solnishko nizko), a folk-song to his beloved Hanna. Hissecond song is heard near the opening of the third act, in which the water-nymphsappear, dancing and asking his help to discover the wicked step-mother who islurks among them. It is night and Levko, again accompanied by his bandura, singsof Hanna, wishing her sweet sleep (Spi, maya krasavitsa, sladka spi).
Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, its libretto by the composerand Shilovsky, based on Push kin, had its first student performance at the MaliyTheatre in Moscow in 1879, followed by staging at the Bolshoy two years later.
The composition came at the time of Tchaikovsky's brief and disastrousmarriage, completed in Switzerland, where he took refuge in its aftermath. In thegarden of the Larin country estate the daughters of the house, Olga andTatyana, are greeted by Lensky and his friend Onegin. Tatyana, attracted tohim, walks off with Onegin, while Lensky sings of his love for Olga (Ya lyublyuvas, Ol'ga). Alone in her bedroom that night Tatyana writes a letter toOnegin, telling him that she loves him. In the morning she asks her nurse tosee that it is given to him. She waits in the garden for his reply, but when hecomes he tells her that he can only feel brotherly love for her, an answer thatleaves her silent. In a brightly lit room in the Larin's house Tatyana'sname-day is being celebrated. There is a waltz, and Onegin, in boredom, danceswith Olga, provoking Lensky's jealousy and challenge to a duel. In the winterdawn Lensky waits for Onegin, who is late. His second goes in search of Oneginand Lensky sings his farewell to Olga (Kuda, kuda vi udalilis?). InsultinglyOnegin appears with his valet as his second and in the duel kills Lensky, anoutcome that brings immediate remorse, Years later Onegin returns from self-imposedexile and sees Tatyana again, now married to his old friend Prince Gremin.
There is a ball, at which a Polonaise and an Ecossaise are playedfor the dancers, The Prince tells Onegin of his great love for Tatyana, and nowOnegin realises that he too is in love with her Later he confronts her, forcingher to admit her love for him, She refuses, however, to desert her husband and rushesfrom the room, leaving Onegin in solitary desolation.
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky, one of the five nationalistcomposers, the so-called Mighty Handful, left much unfinished at his relativelyearly death in 1881. For his planned opera Sorochinskaya yarmarka (SorochintsyFair) he had resort, like Rimsky-Korsakov, to Gogol, and started work in 1874.
The unfinished work