The Revival of Serov's Opera "Rogneda". A New Production of "A Life for the Tsar"

Tchaikovsky Research
(Redirected from TH 263)

The Revival of Serov's opera "Rogneda". A New Production of "A Life for the Tsar" (Возобновленная «Рогнеда» опера Серова. Новая постановка «Жизнь за Цария») (TH 263 ; ČW 527) [1] was Tchaikovsky's first music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 5 September 1872 [O.S.], signed only with the initials "B.L.".

This article contains ironic remarks about the Italian Opera Company's tyranny over the hearts and pockets of Muscovite theatre-goers; an appraisal of Serov as an operatic composer who lacked true creative gifts but who nevertheless had a good eye for what worked well on the stage; some valuable remarks which testify to Tchaikovsky's special admiration for Glinka's A Life for the Tsar, interspersed with criticisms against the Imperial Theatre Directorate's wanton neglect of Russian operas.


Completed by 5/17 September 1872 (date of publication). Reviewing a performance of Serov's opera Rogneda on 27 August/8 September 1872 at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, and a new production of Glinka's A Life for the Tsar in the same theatre on 30 August/11 September 1872.

English translation

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The Revival of Serov's Opera "Rogneda"

Every year, after the Dormition Fast [1], our Russian Opera Company begins its intensive efforts to advertise its ephemeral existence. The posters keep announcing the revival of this or that Russian opera, warming the cockles of patriots' hearts and causing the public to rush to the theatre. Amidst the continuous rehearsals the singers are hardly able to attend to their domestic obligations, and there is everywhere a flurry of bustling activity. However, as soon as the Italian nightingales arrive, it is as if our national opera had never even existed. Where but yesterday Madame Honoré [2] was outdoing herself in eagerness, today we find the graceful La Patti trilling like a nightingale; on the stage whose boards, the day before, were straining under the weight of Mr Radonezhsky's [3] heavy steps, the figure, so alluring for our ladies, of some Signor Nicolini [4] now makes its appearance, and all that tawdry glitter which accompanied the short-lived blossoming of our native opera sinks into the darkness of oblivion.

Something similar happens in a manor-house when the master and mistress go out [5]. As soon as the chaise has driven off, the servants emerge from their living quarters, from the maid's room and the kitchen, in order to take immediate possession of the stately rooms which are still saturated with their lordships' perfumes and scents. The valet attires himself in his master's dressing-gown and, lighting up one of the cigars left behind by his lordship, makes himself comfortable on the plush divan. The lady's maid promenades up and down the drawing-room and sprinkles some of her ladyship's eau de cologne on her hands. In short, everyone tries to make use of their lordships' brief absence, so as to sweeten his or her imagination, even if only for a short time, with the comforts enjoyed by the rightful owners. But no sooner does the trundling of the wheels of the returning carriage make itself heard in the distance, than the inhabitants of the remote corners of the house have all instantly disappeared.

With this analogy I do not wish to say anything that might offend the singers of the Russian Opera Company, for I know better than anyone else how to appreciate their fine qualities. The only purpose of my comparison is to point out, with a heavy heart, the role which an unjust fate has meted out to our artists.

But all this notwithstanding, it is still the case that in the course of one week the Directorate of Imperial Theatres managed to stage for us two remarkable works from the Russian repertoire. Thus, last Sunday (27 August) we were treated to an opera which is a real favourite with audiences in our two capitals: Serov's [6] Rogneda. The reason for the enduring success of Rogneda and its secure position in the Russian repertoire lies not so much in any fine musical qualities which it might contain, as, rather, in the subtle reckoning on glaring effects which informed the author when he composed his opera.

The late Serov was only to a very small degree endowed with the gift of creative originality. He embarked on his career as a composer when he was already at that stage of life in which men of even greater talent quite frequently find themselves waning in their powers, and what drove him to compose was not the inner impulse of a true creative artist, but, rather, the fact that, having, over the course of many years, studied with a critical eye the whole realm of musical literature, he managed to completely master the technical apparatus of the composer's craft and saw the opportunity to make headway swiftly and easily in the field of composition.

Indeed, a talented musician with such a remarkable intelligence, with such a huge stock of knowledge and universal erudition as possessed by Serov, has a very good chance of winning the sympathy of the public. For in all countries and nations the latter is not very demanding as far as aesthetics are concerned: it likes outwardly impressive effects, stark contrasts, and is quite indifferent towards manifestations of profound and original talent if these are not presented in a picturesque and dazzling fashion.

Now we must do justice to Serov, for he really did know how to please the public, and if his opera suffers from a lack of melodic inspiration, a coarse decorativeness in its harmony and instrumentation, the absence of any organic unity between the individual numbers, and from recitatives which completely fail to meet the requirements of convincing and truthful declamation, who would deny that the famous composer admirably succeeded in packing his opera with all kinds of effects?! Wandering minstrel-clowns [skomorokhi] dressed up as geese and bears, real horses and dogs on the stage, the moving episode of Ruald's death, the Grand Prince's dream which actually comes to life, the ear-deafening gongs of a Chinese tam-tam—all this is the result of a deliberate attempt on Serov's part to mask the poverty of his creative imagination with bombastic stage effects.

I said earlier that Serov, in addition to his undeniable, albeit mediocre talent, also possessed huge experience, remarkable intelligence, and wide-ranging erudition. That is in fact why in Rogneda we sometimes come across moments of considerable musical beauty, like the rare oases in a desert, as it were. Among such numbers I include the pagan sacrificial chorus of Act II, the charming song of Iziaslav, Rogneda's ballad, and the splendid hymn with which the opera concludes.

As for those parts of the opera which are especially popular with the public, it is again the case here that, as often happens in the public appreciation of works of art, these parts, as far as their intrinsic value is concerned, stand in inverse proportion to the success which they produce. Thus, the duet between Ruald and the old pilgrim, for example, is an imitation of the most commonplace Italian duet. The celebrated Act III depends for its success on the beautiful timbre of the a cappella chorus (without orchestral accompaniment) , on the one hand, and, on the other, on that truly moving spirit of Christian faith and compassion with which the scene of Ruald's death is permeated.

This performance of the opera had clearly had some hard work put into it, but it was also not without its flaws, and in some places there was even downright chaos. Rogneda was sung by Madame Honoré, a seasoned artist who had diligently studied her part, and even if her acting lacked inner fire she was able to put on a strong dose of pathos which managed to electrify the audience on Sunday. In the quiet cantabile passages, where she was not required to yell high-pitched head tones or chest notes, Madame Honoré was a complete disaster. It seems that she has irretrievably lost certain tones in her middle register (C, C-sharp, D, E-flat, E). It was interesting and sad at the same time to observe the various tricks which this venerable singer used to try to conceal from the audience this serious deficiency of tones in her voice. I should add that she succeeded in this with great artistry, which of course made me very glad. For Madame Honoré's contract is not due to expire for a long time yet, and when instead of just five missing notes all the registers of her voice come to dazzle by their absence, it will take an incredible amount of cunning, audacity, and skill on her part to make the audience imagine, in the course of several hours, that they are listening to sounds which no one is actually producing.

The part of Izyaslava was sung by a certain Madame Scuderi, who God knows where she came from. I have never seen anything more lamentable on the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre. A tiny, muffled little voice, unclear intonation, insufficient command of her lines, and on top of all that the complete absence of any attempt at acting. By the way, in the duet of Act V Madame Scuderi got into such a muddle that she also confused Madame Honoré, who had otherwise shown herself to be in perfect command of her role, and the result was a quite unexpected contrapuntal interlacing of their voices which the composer had certainly not reckoned with, and which went unnoticed by most listeners only thanks to Serov's thick and loud orchestration.

I do not understand why the Directorate of Theatres took this lovely role away from Madame Shchepina, who used to perform it before, and who has a pleasing appearance, a fine voice, and musicality as well.

The male singers in the cast of Rogneda caused a very favourable impression. Mr Dodonov tackled with great success the difficult role of Ruald, which Serov evidently wrote with the high chest notes of Mr Nikolsky [7] in mind. Mr Dodonov has a fine diction and considerable taste in his ability to phrase. Unfortunately, nature did not equip him with a high chest register—something that is, of course, essential in order for a tenor to achieve complete success.

Messieurs Radonezhsky and Demidov gave solid performances in every respect, putting a lot of effort into their roles. In Act III the excellent and still fresh voice of Mr Demidov sounded wonderfully. As for Mr Radonezhsky, he was on such good form that evening, that he even acted quite well, which I would never have expected from him. If I also add that the orchestra and choruses, which over the summer have had time to recover and replenish their strength, fulfilled their tasks at least conscientiously, then I am sure my readers will agree that, bearing in mind the generally quite lamentable situation in which fate, or, rather, the Directorate of Theatres has placed our Russian Opera Company, it is not unreasonable of me to call this revival of Rogneda quite successful.

A New Production of "A Life for the Tsar"

Four days after Rogneda, the same company treated us to a performance of A Life for the Tsar. I had myself very great expectations of this revival of the first and best Russian opera which had been announced quite a while ago. It had been rumoured that the decorations and costumes would be incredibly luxurious, and this also raised expectations as far as the musical side of the production was concerned—namely, that the opera would be studied afresh and rehearsed to such an extent that even the most exacting connoisseurs would find in this eagerly awaited performance the realization of their ideals.

These expectations were not fully justified. The costumes were indeed new and so sumptuous that, with the exception of Vanya's rather idyllic peasant [8] costume in Act III, nothing better could be desired. The scenery surrounding the choruses was also convincing, and in the arrangement and choreography of the crowd scenes one could see the director's diligent efforts to give us a realistic representation of the conditions of that historic time and place.

But from the musical point of view, this performance of A Life for the Tsar must be recognised as a considerable failure. It is curious that this time all the blunders and discrepancies came from a quarter from which we generally least expect them to come—namely, from the orchestra.

First of all, there is no way that the system for economizing on staff which the Inspector of Music is applying in our theatre can be called rational. You see, this wise administrator prefers to save the so-called opera orchestra with its outstanding musicians for performances of Italian opera, where, to use Wagner's phrase, the orchestra is no more than a guitar magnified into colossal dimensions. And for such an opera as A Life for the Tsar, with its ideally graceful, extraordinarily fine and poetical instrumentation, we must instead make do with the ballet orchestra, which, though it does have some competent musicians, is nevertheless trained to rattle and trumpet away the banal inventions of Messieurs Pugni [9], Minkus [10] and their like.

A second reason for this fiasco, as I see it, is that the majority of the orchestra's musicians must have turned up at the theatre straight after having been at some birthday party and not quite in full possession of their mental faculties yet. I cannot otherwise explain to myself how they could attend to their artistic obligations with such unforgivable carelessness. The wind instruments, in particular, distinguished themselves in this regard, and from their group I would like to single out the first clarinet, who ruined the wonderful B-flat episode in the Krakowiak, and the tenor trombone, who, with unflinching perseverance kept producing some unimaginable sounds which, in the ears of our theatre-goers, produced an effect of terrifying cacophony.

I cannot lump the blame for this lamentable performance on the honourable conductor, Mr Shramek[11], who simply couldn't do anything to check his unbridled horde and just limited himself to shaking his head reproachfully and hissing quietly. I must also add that this time Mr Shramek chose tempi which were livelier and more suitable for the work than on earlier occasions: it is clear that he has sought to correct his habitual mistake of dragging out the tempi far too much.

As for the principal singers, apart from Mr Radonezhsky, who this time sang very wearily and with that melancholy tone which is characteristic of him, I cannot but commend them for their efforts and artistry. Mrs Aleksandrova, whose voice is of course no longer what it used to be, nevertheless sang wonderfully and faultlessly, with strong and genuine feeling. Mr Dodonov is making veritable progress: I was amazed at how he found the strength to contend so triumphantly with the difficulties inherent in the part of Sobinin. His intonation was crystal-clear this time—a quality which Mr Dodonov had not shown before.

Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for the attractive Madame Eybozhenko [12]. The voice of this young singer is beautiful, fresh, and sonorous; her acting is unaffected and her stage presence graceful; but it is a mystery to me how, despite having graduated from the Conservatory, Madame Eybozhenko pays such little attention to keeping in rhythm and following the orchestra. This negligence was the reason why, in the epilogue, during the trio "Akh, ne mne bednomu" [It wasn't, alas, to me that…], Madame Eybozhenko sang the wonderful phrase "no kriki vragov razdavalis' nad nim" [but the cries of the enemy were already resounding over him] so out of tune that it visibly jarred on the audience, and it was this detail which prevented our singer from obtaining a complete success, even though it was quite considerable all the same.

By way of conclusion, I feel it is my duty, in the name of all the admirers of Glinka, our composer of genius, to thank the Directorate of Theatres for having included some numbers which were omitted in previous performances. I am thinking in particular of the fine performance of the excellent chorus "My na rabotu v les" [We are going to the forest to work].

"B. L."

Notes and References

  1. 1.0 1.1 A fast prescribed by the Russian Orthodox Church calendar for two weeks in August to commemorate the Dormition (or Assumption) of the Virgin Mary.
  2. Irina Ivanovna Honoré (née Pilsudskaya; 1838–1917), Russian contralto, married to the French pianist and composer Leon Honoré.
  3. Platon Radonezhsky (1827–1881), Russian bass-baritone.
  4. Ernest Nicolini (1834–1898), Italian tenor who often appeared with Adelina Patti on the Russian stage in the 1870s and later became her second husband.
  5. The remainder of this paragraph was omitted from the republication of this article in the Soviet collected edition of Tchaikovsky's writings—П. И. Чайковский. Полное собрание сочинений, том II (1953, edited by Vasily Yakovlev)—but restored here by way of P. Tschaikowsky. Musikalische Essays und Erinnerungen (2000, edited by Ernst Kuhn).
  6. Aleksandr Serov (1820–1871), Russian operatic composer and music critic. See also TH 264.
  7. Fyodor Nikolsky (1829–1898), a well-known Russian 'Heldentenor'.
  8. Tchaikovsky uses the adjective «пейзанский» (from the French: paysan), which was used pejoratively to refer to the Arcadian representations of rural and pastoral life in Western European art — translator's note.
  9. Cesare Pugni (1802–1870), Italian composer who was appointed ballet composer in Saint Petersburg in 1851 and composed the music for 312 ballets, including La Fille du Pharaon (1862) and parts of Le Corsaire.
  10. Aloisius Ludwig Minkus (1826–1917), Austrian composer, official ballet composer of the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre (1864–71), then of the Saint Petersburg Mariinsky Theatre (1872–1886); he wrote the music for Petipa's Don Quixote (1869), La bajadère (1877), and also parts of the music for Paquita (1881).
  11. Ivan Osipovich Shramek (= Josef Šramek; 1815–1874), Czech composer who settled in Russia in 1861 and worked as conductor at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre. After his death Tchaikovsky wrote an obituary on him (see article TH 293) — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  12. Zinayda Eybozhenko, Russian contralto.