The Italian Opera. Russian Quartet Debut

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The Italian Opera. Russian Quartet Debut (Итальянская опера. Дебют русского квартета) [1] (TH 294 ; ČW 559) was Tchaikovsky's twenty-ninth music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 26 October 1874 [O.S.].

This article contains a lively and amusing account of the ever growing greed for profit of the management of the Italian Opera Company in Moscow, and a prediction that its days might now be numbered; further laments on how both Russian opera and ballet had suffered throughout all this period; a confession by Tchaikovsky of his life-long admiration for the "classical Italian art of singing" but criticisms about the way Italian opera had developed into a mere purveyor of catchy tunes and a vehicle for virtuoso singers with no sense of ensemble or dramatic truth; a dispiriting comparison of Moscow with the great music centres of Europe; a very interesting discussion of Rossini's Stabat Mater, which Tchaikovsky attacks as "childishly naïve" sacred music, whilst also praising some of its sections; an objective appraisal of the famous Austrian soprano Gabrielle Krauss; critical observations about Enrico Bevignani's conducting of Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3, "this colossus amongst all overtures" (already enthusiastically discussed in TH 269); and a very favourable review of the Russian Quartet's debut concert in Moscow and, in particular, their performance of Schumann's String Quartet No. 3, which Tchaikovsky finds very moving and poetic.

History

Completed by 29 October/10 November 1874 (date of publication). Reviewing the following events:

  • "A Grand Farewell Concert by Mme Gabrielle Krauss" at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre on 15/27 October 1874, conducted by Enrico Bevignani and featuring excerpts from Rossini's Stabat Mater, an aria from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro and Leonore's recitative and aria from Act I of Beethoven's Fidelio sung by Gabrielle Krauss, the duet between Susanna and the Countess: "Sull'aria…" from Act III of Le nozze di Figaro, and Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3 in C major;
  • A performance of Bellini's La Sonnambula by the Italian Opera Company at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre on 19/31 Ocbober 1874, starring Adelina Patti as Amina;
  • The Russian Musical Society's 1st chamber music concert in Moscow on 20 October/1 November 1874, which featured the "Russian Quartet" (Panov, Leonov, Yegorov, and Aleksandr Kuznetsov) playing Schumann's String Quartet No. 3 in A major, Op. 41, No. 3 and Tchaikovsky's String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 11, as well as a performance of Beethoven's Piano Trio No. 7 in B-flat major, Op. 97 ("Archduke Trio") by Nikolay Rubinstein (pianist), Panov (violinist), and Aleksandr Kuznetsov (cellist).

English translation

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English text copyright © 2009 Luis Sundkvist.
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The Italian Opera

My readers will of course remember the sad fate which befell the greedy old fisherman's wife in Pushkin's delightful Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish [2].

Having obtained a new trough, thanks to the kind little fish which was obliged to serve her husband, the old woman then wanted to have a new hut, and when she got that, she insisted on having a manor-house with a country estate. And so, in the same measure as she saw her whims being fulfilled, the greediness of the fisherman's wife kept growing and growing in a continual crescendo until finally, when she really did overreach herself (she asked to be made the Empress of the Sea!), she found herself back in her little old hut with the broken trough.

Something quite similar to this unenviable fate—that is to this prosperity which keeps on increasing in geometric progression until it finally reaches the outer limits of what is possible, and, as a result of the foolish desire to step over these limits, is on the verge of crashing down in irresistible free fall into an abyss of nothingness—something similar, I say, is happening now to the Italian Opera Company before our very eyes.

Six years ago, the Italian Opera enterprise, personified by the impresario Merelli [3], managed to catch a little golden fish—the Directorate of the Imperial Theatres. Within a mere three weeks the little fish had obtained for its captor a new trough and a new hut. Signor Merelli's eyes flared up and his pulse began to race: he wanted to have more, and the following season the Italian Opera stayed with us not for three weeks but for a whole three months.

I shall not tire my readers with a description of how the ambitions of Signor Merelli and the speculators who took his place kept increasing all the time—for that is something which is still fresh in people's minds. Especially the ambitions of these later adventurers, who did at least have this in their favour: namely, that as far as the public is concerned their names remain shrouded in impenetrable mystery, whereas Signor Merelli openly stood at the helm of this enterprise and conscientiously swallowed all the bitter pills which were always handed to him by the press, and sometimes by the public too.

Nor shall I weary my readers by recounting how from one season-ticket covering the whole season we suddenly got to two such tickets, and then from two to four; how the standard ticket prices, from being quite reasonable, became expensive, and then quite simply out of all proportion; or how instead of three weeks the Italian Opera started to stay here for seven months in a row, gradually and systematically driving out the Russian Opera from the Bolshoi Theatre, so that in recent years our native company has sunk to a state of utter collapse—all this is fresh in people's minds.

But now here we have a new phase in the offensive of this Italian enterprise—a phase which is analogous to that of the old woman in the aforesaid fairy-tale when, having already been made Tsarina on dry land, she decided that she also wanted to be the Empress in the rippling depths of the ocean! Thus, having banished the Russian Opera from the Bolshoi Theatre and done its utmost to hamper the ballet, the management of the Italian Opera has devised a new means for making money quickly: it has decided to organise "Italian concerts" on Tuesdays. Truly, one can only wonder at the modesty and moderation of its aims!

After all, why not also give concerts in the Maly Theatre or set up a subsidiary of the Italian Opera there? True, a good dramatic troupe has found a home in this theatre, but what use is it anyway?! And, indeed, what consideration need one show for the Russian nonsense acted out by Messrs Shumsky [4] and Samarin, by Mmes Vasilyeva [5], Fedotova, etc., when the public is being given the chance to hear the singing of Messrs Emmini and Soporti, as well as Mmes Tommasi and Talaszcy?! [6]

Let these Russian actors take a rest for the time being and stay at home! Then, when our dear Italian guests leave us again in spring-time, the dramatic troupe can be allowed back onstage—especially since it is receiving a state salary and is necessary for the sake of appearances, just as the ballet and Russian Opera are also maintained for the sake of appearances and now and then remind us of their existence.

And now that we're at it, one could also make a fortune by renting the Solodovnikov Theatre or the Hühne Circus, and even by rigging up some booths during Shrove-tide from which the martial sounds of a Verdi orchestra could then resound over the peaceful Maiden's Field [7]. On nice sunny days it wouldn't be a bad idea either to organise horse parades and processions which could stop at the most important squares of our city and give open-air performances of mass scenes from La Traviata and Il Trovatore, including perhaps the singing of some individual arias, duets, and ensembles. Of course, the orchestra and choruses, which are already quite weakened and worn-out as things stand, would lose all their members to exhaustion and hypothermia, but is it really worth paying attention to such trifles?! Besides, all the inhabitants of Moscow would have to pay this poll-tax, so to speak—and if everyone pays his bit, the proprietor of the Italian Opera will end up with a warm and comfortable shirt [8].

Thus—or almost thus—reasoned the supreme powers in the Italian Opera, which, like the last Japanese Mikado [9], conceal themselves in the unattainable heights of their divine greatness and zealously count the proceeds from their four season-ticket series, whilst devising all the time new means for enriching themselves quickly. However, things turned out differently.

The little fish didn't let itself be caught this time, and the farewell concert of (supposedly) Mme Krauss [10] did not attract anyone apart from the employees of the theatre, their wives, children, relatives, and good friends. The public as such was conspicuous by its absence. I shall not conceal from my readers that this fact gladdened me greatly and revived in me a multitude of hopes which had almost faded away entirely. Yes, on seeing the empty auditorium of the Bolshoi Theatre during this concert it seemed to me that I could make out the dawn of a new renaissance of the Russian Opera.

In my mind's eye I beheld in the distant future our Little Mother Moscow, who had finally ceased to be like some fantastic Golconda [11], where any rogue could turn up, stuff his pockets, smirk to himself about the good-natured gullibility of the locals, and then head home again with his booty—I saw Moscow, which had at last become a real European city, the centre of a large civilized country which looked after its native art and sought out serious aesthetic pleasures, rather than the deceptive phantom of an art which conceals under the outward glitter of fashion its own complete insignificance.

If the reader should see in what I have said above the delusion of a jingoistic patriot, who stubbornly prefers bad local produce, just because it comes from his own country, to all the good things that are imported from abroad, then he is quite mistaken. For I count myself amongst the most sincere admirers of the classical art of singing, which can boast in its ranks such brilliant representatives as, say, Mmes Patti and Penco [12], Messrs Naudin [13], Rota, etc. Such artists, since they are guardians and bearers of the classical traditions of the Italian art of singing, not only give one great pleasure, but are also indisputably of great use as role models for the singers of all countries and contribute to the development of aesthetic sensibility in the public. My hostility is directed only at the exclusiveness with which attempts are being made in our city to put the cult of vocal virtuosity onto an unattainable pedestal—a cult that is based on the purely material delectation of the auditory nerves through beauty of sound, and which, given its huge proliferation, threatens to supplant genuine artistic interests (these of course being directly tied to the flourishing of our national culture).

It is a well-known fact that the Italian Opera, by virtue of its very raison d'être, is still very far removed indeed from serving artistic purposes: it is in fact no more than a pretext for virtuoso showmanship, a canvas, as it were, in which Mme Patti can embroider her trills and Signor Masini [14] give forth his high chest notes, which are the supreme delight of the majority of our Italomanes. Nobody seeks true musical beauties in Italian opera; nobody expects from it a strict concordance of music and text, an artistic representation of the protagonists' various characters, harmonic richness and beauty of orchestral accompaniment, colourful instrumentation, truthfulness of declamation, or formal elegance and roundedness—all that is asked of Italian opera are catchy, mainly dance-like themes, which give the singers a splendid opportunity to display their vocal qualities and skill. That is why the success and enormous proliferation of the Italian repertoire depend exclusively on the performers.

Remove from the posters announcing tickets for a new season the names of La Patti and Nilsson, and you will see how this colossal soap-bubble, with its four season-ticket series, its long catalogue of prima donnas, tenors, and baritones, its huge repertoire in which not a single one of the cheap popular dishes from the Italian compositional trattoria that everyone is quite fed up with has been left out—you will see, I say, this whole soap-bubble burst in the twinkling of an eye! If the Italian Opera Company visited us only now and then or if, as is the case in Saint Petersburg, it were housed in its own separate theatre, then I would gladly reconcile myself to it, just as I reconcile myself to the proliferation everywhere in Russia of the works of Offenbach and Lecocq [15], in which, as is also the case with Italian opera, one certainly cannot deny all those qualities that, without demanding serious attention and aesthetic maturity from the listener, are nevertheless apt to afford the latter an agreeable, momentary tickling of the ear, which he of course then imagines to be aesthetic pleasure.

But when I reflect on how not only such music centres as Saint Petersburg, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, but also cities like Brussels, Munich, Darmstadt, Weimar, Mannheim, Cologne, and Stuttgart, have splendidly administrated national opera-houses; when I think of how the citizens of Kiev, Odessa, and Kharkov are able to hear excellent performances of Ruslan and Lyudmila, Rusalka, Rogneda, and Judith, whereas we in the heart of Russia still have to make do with such old chestnuts asLucia di Lammermoor and Il Trovatore, I simply cannot bring myself to feel any sympathy for that commercial enterprise which disposes unchecked of our city's only opera stage, banishes from the latter the great works of Russian masters, corrupts the public's tastes by engendering in it an exclusive adoration of the sensual side of art, and nips in the bud any aesthetic appreciation that was developing amongst our musically otherwise very sensitive population.

Anyway, I must return to the supposed farewell concert by Mme Krauss. Whilst, on the one hand, I am glad about the weakening of the Italomania cult, which manifested itself in the emptiness of the auditorium at this concert, I am, on the other hand, sorry that Mme Krauss had to be the victim of this new tendency. She suffered, of course, a loss not in the financial sense—because I am not so naïve as to believe what was written on the posters in this attempt to ensure that the suspicion of inordinate greediness did not fall on the sick head of the entrepreneur, but rather on the quite healthy one of the artiste who was merely serving the latter's ends. No, her loss came rather in the form of a blow to her natural ambition as a first-rate singer, who is not at all accustomed to squander her art on an empty auditorium, in front of a depressing row of vacant boxes.

Besides, the programme for this concert was very enticing indeed: suffice it to say that, apart from Rossini's Stabat Mater and a small aria by Donizetti, the poster featured exclusively the names of Mozart, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn. Does this poster, which failed to draw anyone to the theatre, not serve as striking proof of the fact that the Italian Opera is not meant to satisfy a demand for good music, but rather various needs which have nothing whatsoever to do with art?!

Rossini's Stabat Mater was the first attempt by this composer to refute the view which had established itself in the minds of most music critics—namely, that his music was unable to convey religious emotions. It was, however, a task which was beyond the powers of Rossini's talent. A great master in the realm of comic opera, cold and stilted in opera seria, he comes across as childishly naïve in his sacred music. His Stabat Mater is like the attempt of a little boy to play the part of an adult. True, beautiful melodies and stylistic brilliance do not forsake Rossini even here, but, on the other hand, how amusing it is to hear the dainty four-part polka which he composed to the words: "Sancta Mater dolorosa"!

The best sections of this failed work are without doubt the solo quartet [16], which for some reason was not performed at this concert, and the aria "Inflammatus", which Mme Krauss sang very well. I should, however, note that those who had the fortune to hear this aria in the profoundly inspired interpretation of the late Charlotta Marchisio [17], can never be satisfied by any other rendering. It is impossible to convey in words the staggering impression which that singer of genius caused with this aria. There are simply no words to describe the passionate fervour and intensity which she put into her interpretation.

Mme Krauss, of course, does not have even a tenth of that sacred fire which filled the heart of Charlotta Marchisio, but her performance did show technical mastery, confidence, intelligence, and understanding. She displayed all these qualities in even greater splendour in her arias from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro and Beethoven's Fidelio. The latter was sung by Mme Krauss in German, so that for the first time I was able to hear her in her native language. It was only then that I understood why her somewhat ponderous virtuosity did not seem to me to be quite suited for the role of Norma, which I heard her sing in Naples this spring, and for the other roles in which I have seen her in Moscow alongside Messrs Naudin and Rota.

She is first and foremost a German singer. An excess of vibrato and a slight hissing in her articulation of consonants, absolute accuracy of intonation and rhythm, but alas! the lack of impulsive spontaneity, a certain artificiality in her representation of passion which betrays a reflective attitude towards the music she is interpreting, and yet, in spite of all this, clear signs of a highly developed musicality and thoughtfulness—here we have that combination of qualities which secures for Mme Krauss a prominent position amongst the most renowned German singers, but which at the same time hampers her success on the Italian stage.

I should also like to mention the charming performance by Mmes Zmeroski (why not simply call this singer, who is evidently Polish by birth, by her real name: Szmerowska?) and Tommasi of a duet from Le nozze di Figaro.

Mme Zmeroski has a golden voice, which bodes very well for the future, especially if one also takes into account her excellent coloratura technique, which she showed to great effect in an aria from Semiramide that is literally bursting with scales, fiorituras, cadenzas, and trills—in short, with all the dazzling tricks of vocal gymnastics! Messrs Naudin and Jamet also gave very successful performances.

As for Beethoven's Leonore Overture, this colossus amongst all overtures (I have already discussed it in detail in one of my earlier articles) [18], it was played very drily and colourlessly. Now Signor Bevignani is a splendid opera kapellmeister: in addition to experience and knowledge, he is also endowed with resourcefulness, vivacity, and a remarkable sense of confidence which he is able to impart to the musicians. But in order to conduct a symphony orchestra—especially when it has to perform such a magnificent work as the Leonore Overture—many other qualities are also required, which, unfortunately, neither his Italian nature nor his constant immersion in the sphere of the crudely painted canvasses of the Italian school of music could possibly give to him.

In Beethoven's best works there is such an abundance of super-fine nuances, such a wealth and variety of moods, such sharpness of contrasts, that in order to do full justice to them the conscientiousness, clarity of intonation, and rhythmic precision, which Signor Bevignani is invariably able to command from his orchestra, are insufficient. I would also like to point out that Signor Bevignani is wrong to have the trumpet play its twice repeated solo con sordino. For, as the person sitting next to me at the theatre rightly observed, this makes it sound like a toy trumpet, which is quite inappropriate, since this instrument is meant to symbolize here the triumphant arrival of the governor [19], which leads to the dénouement of the plot.

So that we may finish with the Italian Opera for now, I will just briefly inform readers that on Saturday the 19th, Mme Patti appeared in the role of Amina in La Sonnambula. It goes without saying that the enthusiasm she awakened was as indescribable as is always the case whenever this star of the first magnitude rises over the horizon of our opera stage.

Russian Quartet Debut

Now I shall move on to an account of the first chamber music matinée concert given by Messrs Panov, Leonov, Yegorov, and Kuznetsov. These young artists caused a very favourable impression on the audience. The distinguishing feature of their music-making is their rapport and ensemble spirit. Each one of them comes to the fore only to the extent that it is required by the music they are playing at each point of the work. As for the relative volume of tone, the level of artistic maturity, and the art of objectively conveying the composer's thoughts, this quartet stands out for its rare equilibrium of forces—that is, precisely the quality which a quartet ensemble needs most when playing.

It was very pleasant to hear their graceful, delicate, and thoughtful playing, which was free of any affectation in the nuances, impeccably clear in the details, and both heartfelt and poetic as a whole. These admirable qualities manifested themselves particularly clearly in Schumann's A major string quartet, one of the most difficult in the repertoire, in terms of both technique and the extraordinary richness and kaleidoscopic variety of the moods which alternate in it. There are not that many other works of music which are as appealing and heart-moving as this quartet.

The first movement is a compact, passionate, and song-like Allegro. Then comes a Scherzo, in which the touchingly lamenting main theme is interrupted by stormy and energetic episodes, and after that a dusky but poetic Adagio, which leads on to a sprightly Finale. In order to perform all these so very much contrasting movements, it takes musicians with high aesthetic standards and great artistic maturity. One can say with confidence that, in spite of their youth, the players who make up the "Russian Quartet" have fully made these qualities their own, and that they need not fear comparison with the most famous chamber music ensembles. N. G. Rubinstein then played together with Messrs Panov and Kuznetsov the famous trio in B-flat major by Beethoven. It goes without saying that our renowned pianist here too provoked, as he always does, a veritable tempest of unanimous applause.

P. Tchaikovsky.

Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'The Italian Opera—The Debut of the Russian Quartet' in ČW.
  2. This fairy-tale in verse (Russian title: Сказка о рыбаке и рыбке), written in 1833, is one of those works close to the spirit of Russian folklore which Dostoyevsky had in mind when, in his famous Pushkin speech of 1880, he said that, in contrast to all subsequent Russian writers who came from the gentry class and could not avoid having a somewhat condescending attitude towards the common folk and its traditions, "in Pushkin there is something that genuinely links him to the people, something that one could almost describe as simple-hearted tenderness" («в Пушкине же есть именно что-то сроднившееся с народом взаправду, доходящее в нём почти до какого-то простодушнейшего умиления»). Tchaikovsky's genuine empathy with the people was rather similar to Pushkin's in this sense, as we may see, for example, in his famous description to Nadezhda von Meck of the 'programme' of the Fourth Symphony and how the final movement of this work showed the tormented individual forgetting himself amidst the "festive merriment of ordinary people" — translator's note.
  3. Eugenio Merelli (1825–1882), Italian opera manager, and son of the more famous impresario Bartolomeo Merelli (1794–1879). The younger Merelli's Italian Opera Company started performing at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre on 9/21 September 1868. Tchaikovsky attended this first performance—a staging of Rossini's Otello with Désirée Artôt as Desdemona — note by Vasily Yakovlev.
  4. Sergey Vasilyevich Shumsky (real name: Chesnokov; 1820–1878), famous Russian actor — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  5. Yekaterina Nikolayevna Vasilyeva (née Lavrova; 1829–1877), famous Russian actress.
  6. See TH 292 and TH 291 for Tchaikovsky's damning reviews of the débuts of Talaszcy, Tommasi, and Emmini with the Italian Opera Company.
  7. In the 19th century, the Maiden's Field (Девичье поле) in Moscow was an open field near the famous Novodevichyi Convent where popular festivities and fairs were held. The Hühne Circus was set up in Moscow in 1868 by the German impresario Karl Hühne and soon became one of the most successful circuses in the country — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  8. Tchaikovsky uses a Russian proverb which it is difficult to translate directly into English: «с миру по нитке голому рубашка». Literally, this means that if the whole mir (the traditional Russian village community) pools its resources, so that every household contributes a thread (nitka), then enough material will be obtained to provide a poor peasant with a shirt (rubashka). The closest equivalent in English is perhaps "every little helps" — translator's note.
  9. Kōmei, the 121st Emperor of Japan, who ruled from 1846 to 1867, shunned all contact with foreigners and closed his country to Western influence — translator's note.
  10. Gabrielle Krauss (1842–1906), famous Austrian soprano, début at the Vienna Hofoper at the age of 17, prima donna at the Paris Opéra from 1875 to 1887; a remarkable actress as well as a fine singer, she was known in France, after the great tragic actress, as 'la Rachel chantante' — note by Ernst Kuhn, supplemented by The Oxford Dictionary of Opera.
  11. "An ancient kingdom and city in India, west of Hyderabad. The name is emblematic of great wealth and proverbially famous for its diamonds" — Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable.
  12. Rosina Penco (1823–1894), Italian soprano, first engagements in Italy and Denmark, from 1850 at the royal opera-houses of Berlin and Dresden; in 1853 she created the role of Leonore at the première of Verdi's Il Trovatore, and subsequently sang in many of the leading opera-houses of Europe — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  13. Emilio Naudin (1823–1890), Italian tenor of French origins, whom Tchaikovsky admired greatly —note by Ernst Kuhn.
  14. Angelo Masini (1844–1926), Italian tenor, famous for his virtuoso voice, but Tchaikovsky loathed him for his poor acting. See Nikolay Kashkin, Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1954), p. 201 — translator's note.
  15. Alexandre Charles Lecocq (1832–1918), French composer of operettas.
  16. "Quando corpus morietur", the penultimate a cappella movement of Rossini's Stabat Matertranslator's note.
  17. Charlotta Marchisio (1835–1872), famous Italian soprano, débuted in Madrid in 1856. She subsequently sang with her no less famous sister Barbara Marchisio (contralto) in Italy and the leading opera-houses of London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin etc. From 1869 to 1871 she appeared in Moscow and Saint Petersburgnote by Ernst Kuhn.
  18. See TH 269.
  19. Evidently a slip of the pen by Tchaikovsky, since it is the arrival of Don Fernando, the king's minister who will thwart the evil designs of the governor Don Pizarro, which is announced by the trumpet — translator's note.