The Italian Opera: "L'Africaine". "Il Trovatore". Mr Demidov's Benefit. Entertainments at the "Slavyansky Bazaar". Musical Chronicler of "The Citizen"
The Italian Opera: "L'Africaine". "Il Trovatore". Mr Demidov's Benefit. Entertainments at the "Slavyansky Bazaar". Musical Chronicler of "The Citizen" (Итальянская опера: «Африканка». «Трубадур». Бенефис г. Демидова. Забавы «Славяанского базара». Музыкальная хроникер «Гражданина»)  (TH 265 ; ČW 529) was Tchaikovsky's third music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 24 September 1872 [O.S.], signed only with the initials "B.L.".
It contains an interesting appraisal of Meyerbeer strengths and weaknesses as the prime exponent of the Grand Opera style; a discussion of L'Africaine, whose exotic plot Tchaikovsky criticizes, anticipating his later rejection of the Egyptian setting of Verdi's Aida when he was working on Yevgeny Onegin; a summary dismissal of Il Trovatore as "thoroughly banal"; further ironic remarks on the Italian Opera Company's artistic standards; reflections on privately funded initiatives to acquaint the wider public with serious music
Completed by 24 September/6 October 1872 (date of publication). Concerning performances at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow of Meyerbeer's opera L'Africaine (18/30 September 1872), Verdi's Il Trovatore (20 September/ 2 October 1872), Glinka's A Life for the Tsar (19 September/1 October 1872), a 'musico-literary divertissement' held in the Russian Chamber of the Slavyansky Bazaar Hotel on 17/29 September 1872, and a case of plagiarism by Cui of one of Tchaikovsky's reviews.
The Italian Opera: "L'Africaine"
On Monday 18 September, the Italian Opera Company's season began with a performance of Meyerbeer's L'Africaine. Signor Merelli's selection of this opera to acquaint the public with his singers was an unfortunate one. To start with, L'Africaine presents tremendous difficulties, not just as far as the purely vocal aspect of performing it is concerned but in all other respects, too. Not for nothing did Meyerbeer for so many years hesitate to take out from his brief-case the score which he had long ago completed, and, indeed, he died without actually having found a singer whose vocal means would, in his view, be up to the task of performing the role of Selika. Moreover, the score of L'Africaine is also made more complicated by a large number of grand ensemble scenes and by highly difficult recitatives which require long and carefully conducted rehearsals. And, finally, staging the opera necessarily implies huge production costs and requires great artistry.
All these conditions can only be met by such splendid opera-houses as those of Paris, Vienna, Berlin, or Munich, where, apart from excellent singers, large choruses and orchestras, and magnificent décors, there is a well-selected fixed repertoire which is more or less restricted and does not allow for the staging of more than one or at most two new operas in the course of one season. In our theatre, however—where one and the same chorus appears today in a Russian opera, and the following day is forced to serve under the flag of Signor Merelli; where the audience comes to hear not music, but trills, tenors' chest notes, and suchlike vocal delights; where every week Signor Merelli stages a new or revived opera (as otherwise the public would either stay at home or kick up a fuss at the theatre)—it is quite unnecessary to stage such works of the operatic repertoire as L'Africaine. Signor Merelli really ought to limit himself to the all too familiar, but light dishes from the Italian musical trattoria: it would make things easier for him and would also be more pleasant for the audience.
But I think that even if one had at one's disposal both the means and the time that are required for a more or less tolerable rehearsal of Meyerbeer's difficult score, the opera L'Africaine is not of a kind that it would be worth making any sacrifices to get it onto the stage. For this is an opera which in every respect deserves to be called flawed, and it will forever remain a mystery for the whole musical world why Meyerbeer set such great store by it.
Firstly, L'Africaine is based on a very weak libretto—something that is all the more surprising in that Meyerbeer was otherwise so good at choosing scenarios which were worthy of his music. Here we have a quick-witted savage girl who is passionately in love with Vasco da Gama and shows this truly enlightened navigator the route to India—but not only that, with her finger she points out the whole route for him on the map, as if on her native Madagascar she had done nothing but study geography all day long! Now tell me: can a libretto having this dramatic motif as its basis rouse a true composer to write inspired music? This question must obviously be answered in the negative.
The point, though, is that in Meyerbeer one should distinguish the two quite opposite sides of his artistic nature. In his person were combined both a prodigiously gifted musician and a slavish servant of the whims of the aesthetically coarse multitude. Such obeisance to the vulgar instincts of the French boulevard public quite frequently led astray this artist of genius, but nowhere did he place so huge an offering on the altar of vulgarity as in L'Africaine.
For all the mighty and brilliant inspiration which this splendid composer possessed in such abundance, his genius and all his huge experience were not sufficient to fashion into artistic form the scant material provided by the plot of L'Africaine. There is not a single passage in the whole opera I could point to which would be able to stand even the remotest comparison with the beautiful music of Les Huguenots and Le Prophète. It goes without saying that Meyerbeer's remarkable technical skill makes itself felt everywhere even in L'Africaine, but all this is no more than rouge or ceruse on the face of a faded beauty.
The only parts of the opera which I can point to as being worth serious attention are the dances and some of the choruses in Act IV, where the composer, with a few bold strokes of his pen, managed to successfully convey the wild gaiety and primitive fanaticism of this so alien to us world of African savages . As for the famous Prelude (for strings in unison) in Act V, this is in fact no more than a striking orchestral effect which wraps in blindingly dazzling colours a quite ordinary melody that has nothing original about it at all.
But as I already had occasion to observe when discussing Rogneda , the majority of the public prefers—in music as in painting—the colouring to the overall design and will readily forgive a lack of inspiration as long as it is masked by eye-catching effects. The Parisian reviewers have praised to the skies these few bars—which, as they put it, were dictated by some higher celestial force—and, as a result, wherever L'Africaine is performed the audience, stirred up by all this hearsay about the opera, simply can't wait to hear the famous unison, and, so as not to fall behind Paris, gives vent to its enthusiasm with stormy applause and "da capo" cries, and leaves the theatre under the impression of this Prelude's imaginary beauty.
For this performance of L'Africaine Signor Merelli presented to the Moscow public three principal singers who had not sung here before: Mme Urban (dramatic soprano), Mme Duval (lyric soprano), and M. Naudin (first tenor) . The first of these singers is quite good, but it does seem to me that her talent is little above average. In the difficult part of Selika Mme Urban displayed a still fresh and quite strong voice, a not very imposing outward appearance, and rather modest acting abilities. Her coloratura technique did not seem fully developed to me, and, indeed, the qualities of Mme Urban are on the whole better defined by negation: she was not particularly outstanding, but nor did she produce an unfavourable impression. However, I will only be able to make a more thorough judgement about the merits and faults of this singer once I have heard her in a number of roles. The part of Selika is just too exceptional, both in terms of its demands on vocal technique and in terms of the character to be represented, for it to allow a singer to show herself to advantage in all respects.
The other soprano, Mme Duval, made a more agreeable impression on me, for her voice is by no means lacking in charm and she has a most comely appearance. The latter fact will certainly be a strong counter-weight to this singer's deficiencies, if any should reveal themselves, although, as I will discuss further below, Mme Duvals performance two days later as Leonore in Il Trovatore merely served to strengthen my favourable opinion about her, and it was the same with the public.
M. Naudin asked for the audience's understanding because of a sudden bout of illness he had been struck with, and for that reason the critics too should blunt their arrows. To me it seemed that M. Naudin is a quite extraordinary singer, and if he really was ill that evening, then I cannot but do justice to the amazing artistry with which M. Naudin, despite being unable to produce a single chest tone, nevertheless contrived, by means of various tricks, to carry through his part tolerably enough that he was not favoured with any hissing from the upper reaches of the theatre who are as imprudent in giving vent to their disapproval as they are in lavishing their most enthusiastic praises.
Now it only remains to clear up the following: was M. Naudin really struck down by a sudden illness, or should his lack of voice be ascribed to the fact that, as I know from reliable sources, already back in 1847 he was making successful appearances in one of the best opera-houses of Italy—that, consequently, much water has flowed under the bridge since then, that many are the singers who have appeared and sunk into the waters of oblivion, and that, after all, twenty-five years in a singer's career is a sufficiently long period for chronic illnesses to develop (though these may, of course, break out suddenly)? But let us wait, though: time will resolve all these doubts.
As for Signor Costa, who has been engaged to take on the roles which Signor Bossi sung so conscientiously (I cannot fail to avail myself of this opportunity to remember kindly Signor Bossi), I will just say about him that he is no more than the most ordinary mediocrity. That is, I should also add that Signor Costa hadn't learnt his part properly at all. The same applies to Messieurs Ragauer and Marianini, who, it is true, were performing just third-rate roles, but who proved themselves to be first-rate musical dunces.
With regard to Signor Graziani , who sang the role of the wild slave Nelusko, I would like to observe that this skilful singer gave us a performance full of his usual mannerisms, but which nevertheless caused quite an impression, even though his vocal means have declined considerably. Moreover, Signor Graziani put a lot of effort into his acting—if, that is, one can call acting these contortions to which our singer resorted in order to represent more convincingly for us this savage who is so ready to sacrifice himself for his beloved.
On the whole, as is always the case with our Italian Opera Company, the overall impression was such as to be unthinkable in any other major city. But our venerable capital is quite indifferent to the negligence with which it is treated by the Theatre Administration, and for the pleasure of being able to hear, if only once, Mesdames Patti and Nilsson, it is willing not only to put up with all the outrages committed under Merelli's management but actually even to pay huge sums of money.
After L'Africaine we were treated, on the same stage, to the thoroughly banal Il Trovatore, which everyone has heard enough of already to have their teeth set on edge by it. This opera was staged with that delightfully brazen carelessness which the audiences in our Bolshoi Theatre have long since become accustomed to. This time the public was presented with three new artists, each one of them remarkable in his or her way: the contralto Stella Bonheure, the tenor Bolis, and the baritone Mazzioli.
Mme Stella Bonheure, despite the poetic aura of the words which make up her name, does not seem to have been born under a particularly lucky star. Either I am strongly mistaken, or this "lucky star" will very soon vanish off the horizon of Moscow. The fact that Mme Bonheure, in this début of hers, did not sustain an ignominious fiasco, I can only account for by inferring that the audience was simply at a loss as to what to think: were the wild howling of this singer and her crazy jumps across the stage perhaps after all a highly realistic representation of the gypsy type of Azucena, which was the part Mme Bonheure had in this opera?! Now she would, with the shrillest of voices, let out some high note which resembled the cry of a huge owl, now she would wheeze out a low, almost bass sound which made one's flesh creep, and all this out of tune with the orchestral accompaniment, with an extremely unclear intonation, in a most savage and bizarre manner—in fact, just like the gypsy matron in the 'Eldorado' Tavern whom the fumes of vodka have made quite intoxicated and at the point when the whole chorus of gypsies, doing their best to please the carousing merchant's sons, bawl wildly:
"Ekh, Nastasya, ekh, Nastasya,
[Eh, Nastasya, eh, Nastasya,
open the gate!]
The tenor M. Bolis reminds me a lot of the former Moscow singer Mr Setov , both in the timbre of his voice and in the way he has of producing his tones. The same muffled sounds, the same unnatural straining of his chest and throat muscles—but unfortunately he doesn't have those qualities which made Setov famous, that is, the latter's excellent declamation and consistency as an actor. Manrico's first, off-stage serenade, and also the opening andante of his Act III aria, he managed to sing tolerably well, but in the famous stretta "Di quella pira…" he had no sooner attempted the high C (and that he did completely out of tune!) than the poor fellow fell through altogether. The goddess of retribution, sitting up there with the gods , responded immediately to his miscarried note by firing down a few vigorous whistles.
The baritone Signor Mazzioli has a voice which is devoid of all charm, and, to make things worse, he is as unreliable in his intonation as Mme Bonheure. He had no success whatsoever.
The sole ray of hope among these new members of the Italian Opera Company has so far turned out to be Mme Duval. In the thankless role of Ines in L'Africaine this attractive singer didn't have the opportunity to show all her splendid qualities to advantage. In the more important role of Leonore, however, Mme Duval was able to build a solid foundation to her high repute in Moscow. A beautiful, still young voice, a faultlessly true intonation, an extremely polished coloratura technique, graceful simplicity as an actress, warmth and expressiveness—such are the qualities of this new prima donna, who, I am sure of it, is destined to become the favourite of our public—which is something I wish for her with all my heart.
I am only afraid of one thing: namely, that Signor Merelli might overwork his marvellous prima donna. Mme Duval was singing on Monday, she was on the stage again on Wednesday, and she also sang on Thursday and Sunday—to perform, in the course of one week, the role of Ines twice and those of Leonore and Gilda in Rigoletto once each, would be enough to utterly exhaust any young and healthy singer. But Signor Merelli bears equally hard on his singers and on the public, collecting his dues from the one and the other—in kind from the former, and in the form of banknotes from the latter 
Mr Demidov's Benefit
Somehow squeezed in between these two first events in the Italian Opera Company's calendar for this season, we were also treated to Mr Demidov's  benefit performance, for which he chose A Life for the Tsar, with a new singer in the role of Vanya: Mme Yengalycheva . Having transformed herself from Elvira Angela into a mere Russian woman, Mme Engalycheva did not seem to have benefited much by this metamorphosis. She retained her phenomenally beautiful voice, but at the same time everything else which has so far been preventing this young singer from becoming a serious artist. We saw the same extravagant flaunting of her chest notes, the same lack of prudence in the way she puts her vocal means to use, the same childishly careless acting. In Act III Mme Engalycheva fired off at once all her ammunition and left the audience flabbergasted with the beauty of her voice, but in the Epilogue she was simply below all criticism: her voice refused to obey her any more, and the way she performed the orphan Vanya's song: "Akh, ne mne bednomu" [It wasn't, alas, to me that…] was pure caricature.
Entertainments at the "Slavyansky Bazaar"
Earlier this year a magnificent new concert hall opened in Moscow: it is part of the Slavyansky Bazaar Hotel and has been decorated entirely in the Russian style, fully justifying the name which has been given to it: the Russkaya Palata [Russian Chamber]. Judging from what this hall has been used for so far, the owner  of the magnificent building in which it is housed intends it to serve as a venue for evening events which are useful and agreeable at the same time—the need for which was sorely felt by people more demanding than those who content themselves with the routine of our club and family soirées, where dismal singing alternates with the telling of equally dismal stories or boring lectures, followed by ear-deafening music and dancing.
The soirées at the Slavyansky Bazaar, in contrast, have sought to be different—from the very day of this new venue's inauguration, and this is something for which we can only be grateful to its founder. He set himself the praiseworthy task of satisfying a need which really did exist, and did not spare any expense in order to achieve this purpose. Whatever one's thoughts about the reasons why the lectures with which this venue opened its doors were not quite so successful, the point is that the founder really did do everything that was in his power and which depended directly on him. In these lectures he brought together everything that Moscow had to offer for the realization of this idea of his. It was sufficient to attend just one of these events for one to become convinced that this was no speculation or the idle whim of someone who fancied himself in the role of a Maecenas—that, on the contrary, a very serious idea underlies these gatherings, for the realization of which the initiator of these soirées has had to make quite a few sacrifices and overcome a number of obstacles.
During the previous season of soirées at the Slavyansky Bazaar it was the scholarly element which predominated, but for the current season a series of musical and literary 'zabavy'[divertissements or amusements] has been planned, in which it seems that the musical element will predominate. That is why I felt it incumbent upon me, in my capacity as music chronicler, to visit the Slavyansky Bazaar last Sunday for the first scheduled musico-literary 'zabava' [divertissement].
In this designation for what is normally just referred to as a musical or literary soirée one can clearly see the desire to offer something special, something that goes beyond the habitual and is meant to distinguish these events at the Slavyansky Bazaar from musical soirées at clubs and elsewhere—in other words, something that places a far greater responsibility on their initiator than that which is incurred by a club or a private person who invites the public to a merry social gathering. I therefore consider it legitimate to be somewhat demanding in my attitude to the Slavyansky Bazaar's soirées, driven as I am by the desire to see them stand on that serious footing with regard to music which we are entitled to expect of an initiative that has been undertaken not for profit-seeking purposes.
Let us make it clear first of all that neither music, nor literature, nor any other form of art, in the true sense of that word, exist for the sake of mere diversion. As every gymnasium pupil knows, they serve far deeper needs of human society than the ordinary thirst for recreation and light entertainment. For the latter purpose there are circuses, acrobatic shows of all kinds, magicians' tricks, ventriloquists, giants, cabarets with their ribald songs and suchlike more or less entertaining spectacles.
Now, surely the management of the Slavyansky Bazaar is not working from the assumption that Beethoven, Glinka, Shakespeare and Gogol created their immortal works for the entertainment of idle or pleasure-seeking people? In such a case the painting showing a number of famous Slavic composers which adorns one of the main walls of the concert-hall , and likewise the portraits of our best Russian writers arranged on the walls between the windows, would silently protest against such an attitude to art. I can assure the initiator of these evenings that not just the great artists whose portraits hang on the walls of the Slavyansky Bazaar, but also humble mortals like the Archpriest Turchaninov  and other such 'luminaries' of art, who have been placed in the same painting as Glinka and thereby elevated to the rank of celebrities, could never have imagined that their works would serve the purpose of mere diversion.
Furthermore, I think that the term 'zababa' [divertissement or amusement] will also encourage the propensity of our Moscow wits for coming up with new puns. Indeed, in the course of the Slavyansky Bazaar's first such event I heard several people make the following play upon words, which may well soon become a popular saying: "zababa eta vovse ne zabavna!" [there's nothing amusing about this amusement!]
But what if it occurs to some ill-intentioned visitor of the Slavyansky Bazaar, as he watches the literary and musical efforts of the artists taking part in these soirées, to look for his amusement not in the direct sense of this word, that is not in the sense of the entertaining nature of the work being performed, but, rather, in the more or less crude blunders made by the musicians, singers, and readers?
This critical attitude towards the Slavyansky Bazaar on the part of the public, provoked by the unusual denomination of 'zabava' [amusement], is certainly not going to help this new enterprise at all.
All being said, there were quite a few amusing things in this first such event at the Slavyansky Bazaar. Highly amusing, for example, was the miniature orchestra which accompanied Mr Dodonov as he sang an aria from Moniuszko's Halka and which came up with such curious combinations of chords which the poor composer, of course, could never have dreamt of. Amusing, too, was the unknown young man who conducted the miniature orchestra, waving his hands randomly up and down, with an earnestness that was very funny to watch, and made all the more impressive by the dazzlingly white gloves he was wearing. No less amusing was Mme Engalycheva, who swept briskly into the concert-hall as if she were looking for somebody and then equally briskly sang that awfully hackneyed song: "Prosti na vechnuiu razluku" [Farewell as we separate forever], whereby she also mangled her text, as in the following verse:
"Byt' mozhet byt' vinovna ia!"
[Maybe I maybe [sic] am the one to blame!]
Also amusing was the fair Mme Liubina, who squeaked her way through two little songs.
But most amusing of all was a certain gentleman, who, after sitting down at a small table on which two traditional taper candles had been lit, proceeded, with a mysterious look about him as if he were about to reveal an important state secret to the audience, to not so much read, as whisper out to us Gogol's Notes of a Madman. What I found particularly strange was that this evidently quite well-known reciter, notwithstanding the fact that he had the book wide open in front of him, took the liberty of giving us the content of Gogol's work in his own words, as it were. For example, he said the following words: "Луна делается в Гамбурге и весьма прескверно делается!" [The moon is made in Hamburg, and made extremely badly at that!] . This marvellous extremely badly, which our venerable reciter foisted here on the clerk Poprishchin , who, as we all know, was a master of style, goes even beyond the boundaries of amusingness!
Moscow is so lacking in entertainments that an initiative of this kind, that is the organising of literary and musical soirées with well-designed programmes, deserves every possible encouragement. But a silver ruble is quite a significant entrance fee, and it makes the visitor all the more demanding in that, to all extents and appearances, the Slavyansky Bazaar really does want to distinguish itself for the better from other establishments of this sort.
Musical Chronicler of "The Citizen"
At the end of my feuilleton article I cannot resist sharing with my readers a piece of news which for me is most flattering, and which for them may not be without interest. A journal The Citizen has been set up by Prince Meshchersky  in Saint Petersburg. In the most recent issue of this journal there was a short article entitled "Chronicle of Moscow's Musical Life" and signed with three asterisks . The unnamed chronicler begins his article with the declaration that he wishes to acquaint readers of The Citizen with the main events of musical life in Moscow, and then sets about this process of divulgation in a most original way, that is he takes my feuilleton article, which was published in issue No. 192 of the Russian Register, and succinctly paraphrases its content, without indicating his source at all, and here and there adding some words of his own (most of them utterly inappropriate)—for example, we are told that Mr Demidov is "a talented autodidact", that Mr Radonezhsky "has a well-polished voice", and that Mrs Aleksandrova "acts with genuine feeling". There are even some phrases lifted word for word out of my article, e.g. "Unfortunately, nature did not equip him (Mr Dodonov) with a high chest register—something that is, of course, essential in order for a tenor to achieve complete success".
So brazen a course of action on the part of this anonymous reviewer shows him to be a most resourceful fellow in the kopeck-a-line way of business, but it is not something which offends me at all. On the contrary, it gladdens me to see that I have quite unexpectedly become the benefactor of the journal The Citizen and of its music chronicler. It is always nice to be a benefactor, especially when it doesn't cost you anything.
Notes and References
- Entitled 'The Italian Opera. "L'Africaine". "Il Trovatore". Mr Demidov's Benefit. The Amusing "Slavonic Bazaar". "Grazhdanin"'s Musical Chronicler' in TH, and 'The Italian Opera. "L'Africaine"—"Il Trovatore"—The Benefit-Night of Mr. Demidov—The Entertainments at Slavjanskij Bazaar—The Musical Chronicler of "Graždanin"' in ČW.
- Compare Tchaikovsky's remarks in letter 716 to Sergey Taneyev, 2/14 January 1878, about how Yevgeny Onegin, on which he was working at the time, would have nothing in common with such grand operas as Aida, in particular, whose Egyptian setting he found it impossible to empathise with — translator's note.
- See article TH 263.
- Emilio Naudin (1823–1890), well-known Italian tenor of French origins — note by Ernst Kuhn.
- Francesco Graziani (1828–1901), Italian baritone — note by Ernst Kuhn.
- Iosif Setov (originally Setthofer, 1826–1894), Russian tenor who also worked as a stage director and impresario — note by Ernst Kuhn.
- i.e. "the gods" in the sense of 'gallery', used here in an attempt to render Tchaikovsky's ironic use of the word 'раёк', which means precisely this part of a theatre but is also the diminutive of «рай» = 'paradise' — translator's note.
- Tchaikovsky is effectively comparing Merelli to the serf-owning landowners of old who could demand that their serfs pay their taxes in cash or by working on their master's fields — translator's note.
- Stepan Demidov (1822–1876), Russian bass.
- Princess Nadezhda Yengalycheva, Russian contralto who used the stage-name of Elvira Angeli in performances of Italian and French operas.
- The Slavyansky Bazaar Hotel was built by the wealthy Moscow merchant Aleksandr Porokhovshchikov (1809–1894) — note by Ernst Kuhn.
- The great Russian painter Ilya Repin (1844–1930) was commissioned by Porokhovshchikov in 1871 to create a monumental painting showing several living and dead Russian, Polish, and Czech composers and musicians. They included Bortnyansky, Glinka, Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Dargomyzhsky, Serov, Anton and Nikolay Rubinstein; Moniuszko and Chopin; Nápravník and Smetana. In his memoirs Repin recounts how Turgenev, who otherwise had great sympathy for the young painter, dismissed this painting as an absurd allegory! — translator's note.
- Pyotr Turchaninov (1779–1856), Russian choir-master, singing teacher, composer, and clergyman, famous for his harmonisations of the old Orthodox liturgical chants. He is also shown in Repin's painting — note by Ernst Kuhn.
- The reciter added the qualifier «весьма» [extremely] before the adverb.
- The first-person narrator of Gogol's story.
- Prince Vladimir Meshchersky (1839–1914), Russian author, memoirist, and publicist. His conservative journalThe Citizen (Гражданин) appeared from 1872 to 1914 and was edited by Dostoyevsky for just over a year (1873–74).
- This article by César Cui (who regularly signed his articles: * * *) appeared in issue No. 20 of The Citizen (dated 18 September 1872 [O.S.] and contained an account of the author's supposedly first-hand impressions of the performance of A Life for the Tsar in Moscow on 5/17 September 1872. In fact, they were almost all paraphrased from Tchaikovsky's article TH 263 about an earlier performance with the same cast.