The Kiev Opera. The Fourth Symphony Concert

The Kiev Opera. The Fourth Symphony Concert (Киевская опера. Четвертое симфоническое собрание) [1] (TH 298 ; ČW 563) was Tchaikovsky's thirty-third music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 17 December 1874 [O.S.].

This article contains further bitter remarks about the mercantile spirit that was increasingly driving the productions of the Italian Opera Company in Moscow at the expense of artistic integrity, and even more so to the detriment of native Russian art in the ancient capital; an enthusiastic report on the opera company that had been set up in Kiev on the basis of a private initiative and which provided talented young Russian singers with a great opportunity; Tchaikovsky's critical self-assessment of his own early opera The Oprichnik (1870–72) whose first performance in Kiev, eight months after its premiere in Saint Petersburg, he had just attended; and a remarkable discussion of Glinka's music for the play Prince Kholmsky, which, according to Tchaikovsky, revealed Glinka to be "one of the greatest symphonists of the century", even comparable to Beethoven in certain respects.

History

Completed by 17/29 December 1874 (date of publication). Concerning the first performance in Kiev of Tchaikovsky's The Oprichnik on 9/21 December 1874, conducted by Ippolit Altani; productions of Verdi's Il Trovatore and Moniuszko's Halka in Kiev on 6/18 December and 7/19–8/20 December 1874 respectively; and the Russian Musical Society's fourth symphony concert in Moscow on 13/25 December 1874, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein and featuring Glinka's incidental music to the play Prince Kholmsky with Yevlaliya Kadmina as the vocalist in one number, Friedrich Grützmacher's Cello Concerto No. 3 in E minor, Op. 46 (soloist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen), and an unspecified symphony in G major by Haydn.

English translation

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The Kiev Opera

My readers, I hope, will not mind my saying a few words to them today about the state of the Russian opera stage in Kiev, where I have just spent a couple of days. For I flatter myself with the sweet hope that not all of the Muscovite reading public is exclusively preoccupied with the concerns of our Italian Opera, which, by the way, is gradually descending from the sphere of art into the realm of commercial speculation and will soon, to my great satisfaction, disappear beyond the bounds of my competence as a music critic.

Indeed, after visiting the theatre in Kiev, where I had the chance to enjoy opera in the true sense of that word, I felt more keenly than ever before the humiliating situation in which Russian musical art is placed by the speculations of the Italian Opera, which, under the protective wing of the Theatres' Directorate, has made a cosy and warm nest for itself in Moscow. Never before have I realised so clearly to what extent it does not befit a music specialist to speak with any degree of seriousness about the exploits of some Italian impresario on the stage of the Imperial Theatre in the Russian capital.

Let that rogue carry on collecting his opulent tribute from Moscow for as long as our city harbours within its walls a contingent of the public which readily swallows the bait of such big names as Madames Patti and Nilsson! Let these theatre-goers be regaled on a daily basis with opera performances in which a worn-out chorus can barely make itself heard and is even drowned out by the pathetic scraping of an orchestra whose size and strength are quite inadequate for the dimensions and acoustics of the theatre! Let them marvel at the unrehearsed and shambolic productions of such operas as La Traviata, La Sonnambula, and all the other dishes from the Italian musical trattoria (of which everyone is surely sick and tired by now) [2] that only just manage to be pieced together on the stage of that theatre! Let all this be listened to, discussed, and reviewed without the least sign of protest, may our inveterate Italomanes continue their endless disputes about the merits of this or that star in the Italian company—for I personally refuse to take any part whatsoever in this whole business.

Incidentally, given that Madame Patti, that truly great Italian artiste, moved to Saint Petersburg quite a while ago, that Madame Nilsson (who as a singer is titillating, but far from great!) is on her way to Paris, and M. Naudin [3], too, is about to leave us soon, there is nothing really to talk about. It is only where the repertoire is varied and interesting, where performances are distinguished by a strong ensemble spirit, where stagings have been carefully thought through and the scenery is lavish and elegant, where one senses in the overall approach to opera not just a mercantile striving for easy profit, but actually the pursuit of serious artistic goals—it is only there that the music critic will always find ample material for a discussion with the reader.

That, however, is not the case with us: here, on the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre it is the spirit of commercial speculation that reigns supreme—a spirit which has nothing to do with the interests of art. I am willing every now and then to inform the reader about the course of this speculation in the most succinct terms, which I intend to borrow from the jargon used in the business pages of our newspapers, but what I am not prepared to do is to provide a running chronicle of events there.

I am very glad, by the way, that I can currently pass on to readers the news of a steep plunge in the shares of the Italian operatic enterprise. The concert which took place on Sunday, the 8th of December, generated but meagre ticket sales [4]; M. Naudin's benefit performance barely managed to fill half the auditorium [5]; and Signor Cotogni's [6] own benefit performance even had to be cancelled because of insufficient takings—in short, at the Italian Opera things are slack, as the stock exchange reports put it when referring to such commodities as tallow, leather, potash, and grain. I have, though, digressed enough from the Kiev Opera, which is the subject I actually wanted to discuss with my readers.

So, as I was saying, I spent a few days in Kiev and familiarized myself with the local opera there. The management of the Kiev Opera is headed by Mr Setov [7], a highly talented singer and actor who in his time achieved great successes on the principal opera stages of Saint Petersburgand Moscow, subsequently worked as the chief stage-manager in both capitals, and who finally, in recent years, has been teaching singing and acting at the Theatre Academy in Saint Petersburg [8]. It is only from the start of this year that Mr Setov has also become an impresario at the Kiev Municipal Theatre, and, truly, it is amazing how much energy, artistic and technical skill, and expertise he has displayed in raising his enterprise in so short a period to such a high level, that only the Russian Opera in Saint Petersburg—even if the latter has in recent times lost much of its previous splendour, though it is still admirably managed—can successfully brook comparison with the Kiev Opera.

Mr Setov can draw on a very rich supply of singers. Amongst the female members of his troupe, the following are particularly noteworthy: Madames Ilyina [9], Massini [10], Lyutsenko [11], Puskova [12], and Makhina [13]. And amongst the male singers: Messrs Orlov [14] (whose absence is being so sorely felt at the Saint PetersburgOpera!), Stravinsky [15], Lyarov [16], Sokolov [17], and Andreyevsky. Moreover, Mr Setov has engaged Madame Menshikova [18] as a guest artist at the Kiev Opera for the current season, and Madame Lavrovskaya is also expected to arrive there soon, as he has managed to draw up a contract with her, too.

The orchestra is conducted by one of the best pupils to graduate from the Saint PetersburgConservatory during the years of A. Rubinstein's directorship—namely by Mr Altani. The stage-manager at the Kiev Opera is Mr Karatygin, who worked at the Russian Opera in Saint Petersburg in this same capacity for many years. Mr Setov also has at his disposal a splendidly organised chorus, a fine ballet troupe, several stage designers—in short, everything that is essential to the outfit of a proper opera stage. As for the costumes, those are taken care of by Madame Setova, and this department has risen to such perfection under her supervision that, as far as elegance, sumptuousness, and historical fidelity are concerned, the costumes of the Kiev Opera are in no way inferior to those that are sewn in Saint Petersburg and surpass by far those we get to see in Moscow.

Mr Setov sticks to the sensible principle of staging just a small number of operas, but ensuring that these are produced as well as possible. Indeed, is it not preferable to hear a few carefully rehearsed operas, staged splendidly and performed by singers who not only have fine voices but also know their parts properly, three times in a row, say, than to get to see one performance in each case of a huge number of operas that are presented to the public in a slipshod, anyhow manner, with no feeling for ensemble, just so that the theatre's repertoire can flaunt a whole page filled with the titles of Italian operatic wares, as is the norm here in Moscow?!

Since the start of the opera season in early September just six operas have been staged at Kiev, namely: A Life for the Tsar (which has already had 17 performances!), Faust, Linda di Chamounix, Il Trovatore, Halka, and The Oprichnik. During my short stay in Kiev I was able to see the following productions:Il Trovatore, Halka, and The Oprichnik. In the first of these three operas I heard the well-known Madame Menshikova, whose voice has lost none of its freshness; the no less famous Mr Orlov, with his phenomenal voice and acting (which since this singer left Moscow has become quite unrecognisable, so greatly has it improved); Madame Ilyina, a singer with a tremendous, strong, and yet at the same time incredibly pleasant mezzo-soprano voice; the baritone Mr Sokolov, a young man of great natural gifts and promise; and the bass Mr Lyarov, whose rich and mighty voice has no equal in the whole of Russia apart from Mr Vasilyev [19] at the Mariinsky Theatre.

In Halka the leading roles were performed by Madame Menshikova and Mr Orlov. In this lovely opera I especially liked the chorus, which, thanks to the efforts of the conductor Mr Altani and his assistant Mr Heckel, has achieved an incredible degree of perfection. In Moscow we have never heard anything like it. I also got to see Mr Setov's very good ballet troupe in Act III of this opera.

Now, though, I hope that my readers will permit me to dwell a little longer on the production of The Oprichnik, which had its premiere there on Monday, the 9th of December.

The reader, I hazard to say, may not be entirely unacquainted with my very close personal relationship to this lyric-dramatic work, and perhaps it is precisely because of this intimacy that I can detect in it such a huge number of flaws, both from the musical point of view and, in particular, from that of its scenic qualities, as even the most spiteful and ill-intentioned critics would probably be unable to spot. That is why during my journey to Kiev I was beset by doubts as to whether a provincial stage could successfully cope with an opera which is musically difficult and thankless in terms of scenic effect. The fact that The Oprichnik did not suffer a fiasco back then when it was performed in Saint Petersburg for the first time, I ascribed to the magic of our capital's stage with all its splendid technical facilities.

However, all my misgivings proved to be unfounded. I can confidently assert that, with the exception of the scenery and the orchestra—which, though it has many fine musicians in its ranks and is led by a very good conductor, nevertheless, as a result of its insufficient volume and also the lack of balance between the strings and the wind section, can simply just not bear comparison with Mr Nápravník's magnificent orchestra—with the exception, that is, of these so important factors for the success of an operatic production, the staging of The Oprichnik in Kiev is at any rate not inferior to that in Saint Petersburg. If in our capital the leading roles were entrusted to splendid artists, whose talent and skill the author is obliged to for the fact that his opera did not fall flat, the allocation of the roles in Kiev left nothing to be desired either.

To begin with, Mr Orlov, who, thanks to his exceptional vocal means, is perhaps the only singer capable of tackling the difficult and ineffectively written part of Andrey, sang in Kiev just as admirably, sonorously, and warmly as he did back then in Saint Petersburg. Madame Massini (Natalya) performed her role with remarkable passion, intelligence, and sensitivity. Madame Ilyina displayed in the part of the Boiarynia Morozova both a powerful and astonishingly beautiful voice and a strong dramatic flair.

Mr Stravinsky, being a young singer who has only just started his career, cannot of course be compared to such an experienced first-rate artist as Mr Melnikov [20], but still his fine voice and lively acting pushed the not particularly meaty and rather thankless role of Prince Viazminsky well and truly into the spotlight. The role of the young oprichnik Basmanov was entrusted to Madame Puskova, who is a favourite with Kievan audiences, and to whom the author must be deeply grateful for the fact that, by agreeing to undertake this minor role, her appearance alone in the cast list contributed to the overall sense of ensemble. Even in the insignificant role of Basmanov this young singer managed to find an opportunity to shine thanks to the beauty of her strong and powerful contralto voice.

As for the overall musical quality of the performance, the control of the tempi, and clarity of nuancing as a whole and in the details, that really did leave nothing to be desired. One cannot but be amazed at how, in spite of the limited numerical strength of his orchestra, the conductor Mr Altani, whose talent and energy above all were the main factor behind the success of the ensemble, managed to emerge victorious from this challenge of performing a score that had been designed with the vast orchestral resources of our two capitals' opera-houses in mind.

The scenery was new and very handsome. Of course, one cannot possibly expect a private opera-house, especially one that has only just been inaugurated, to be able to compete in this respect with the magnificent production facilities of the Mariinsky Theatre, and it would be dishonest of me were I to claim that the décors in Kiev were not in any way inferior to those in Saint Petersburg. All the same, though, they did not at all impair the overall aesthetic effect of the performance. The costumes I have already spoken about: indeed, it is only at the foremost opera-houses of Europe that I have ever seen such lavishness, such opulence and at the same time such careful attention to historical accuracy [21].

I hope readers will forgive me for having permitted myself to take up so much of their time and attention in giving such a detailed account of what I heard on the Kievan stage. I decided to discuss here this production of The Oprichnik in Kiev not out of any authorial vanity (though composers are indeed sometimes so naïve as to imagine that the public is as interested as they are in the fate of their musical creations!), but rather out of the wish to give those amongst my readers who take a greater interest in the dissemination and thriving of our native art than in the trills of Madame Marimon or the affected poses of M. Capoul [22], an idea of just how much more preferable private enterprise is in the sphere of art to a bureaucratic opera management.

I should like a small section of the reading public at least to feel embarrassed for the way in which Moscow has been cut off from participation in the forward movement of Russian art by the Theatres' Directorate, which hands over itself, Russian artists, and the Russian public unconditionally into the clutches of those rapacious birds of prey that swoop down on us from overseas and, after filling their bellies, ravaging our country, and exhausting its fertile soil, fly away even sneering at us.

By the way, things have become rather slack with Madame Marimon, M. Capoul e tutti quanti! Demand is falling! Well, then, bon voyage!

The Fourth Symphony Concert

At the fourth symphony concert of the Russian Musical Society the highlight of the programme was Glinka's music for the tragedy Prince Kholmsky. In this work Glinka appears before us as one of the greatest symphonists of our century.

In Prince Kholmsky there are a lot of features which remind one of Beethoven's style: the same restraint in the means used and a complete absence of striving after outward effects, the same sober beauty of clearly exposed, uncontrived, and truly inspired ideas, the same plasticity of form and cohesion between the individual parts of the work, even those that are most contrasting in terms of character, and, finally, the same inimitable instrumentation, which is free from all affectation and over-refinement, vigorous without having to resort to noise and thunder, and transparent without ever appearing empty or vague in its harmonic design.

With what mastery, for example, does Glinka shape the transition from the Introduction to the Allegro in the overture! What an enchanting effect is produced there by the dissonant augmented triad, which, like an ominous premonition of Kholmsky's future misfortunes, unexpectedly carries the listener away from the warlike and solemn mood of the opening bars and plunges him into the tempestuously sombre Allegro! It is with no less mastery that Glinka links and then merges into one the two principal motifs of the Allegro before finally, after elaborating them comprehensively, he allows them to die away gradually and find their resolution on the concluding tonic chord.

Every one of the subsequent entr'actes is a little painting from the brush of a great artist, a symphonic wonder which is in itself worth a whole legion of long symphonies by second-rate composers. A particularly enchanting effect is that achieved in the entr'acte before Act II which depicts Kholmsky's yearning for love and then the sudden awakening in him of a sense of duty to his fatherland against which his passion must now contend. Here the outermost limits of artistic creation have been reached—before such beauty all one can do is let one's hands sink as one realises the impossibility of ever conveying it in words…

I used the image of sinking hands quite unintentionally, but it does rather seem as if I had been trying to make a pun on the fact that the audience did not applaud at the end of this work. Alas, it was not an overwhelming surge of impressions, it was not a profound realisation of the beauty of Glinka's music that so paralysed the audience—oh no!

The reason for its eloquent silence had to do with something quite the opposite about which I would rather not waste another word, leaving it up to the reader himself to resolve the question as to why there are people—and even vast hordes of people—who are whipped up into a frenzy of enthusiasm by some caricature in the journal Amusement [23] or a salacious chansonette by Lecocq [24], but remain impassively silent in front of a painting by Raphael or at the end of a symphony by Beethoven. Only Ilinishna's little song, the weakest number in this whole incidental music, but nevertheless nicely performed by Madame Kadmina [25], elicited a brief salvo of applause.

It was with no less indifference that the audience received Mr Fitzenhagen's excellent interpretation of a concerto by Grützmacher [26]. And this despite the fact that Mr Fitzenhagen's playing was distinguished by such intelligence, understanding, talent, feeling, and at the same time such magnificent technique.

In the final section of the concert one of Haydn's eighty symphonies was performed—an ancient but still splendid piece of music!

P. Tchaikovsky.


Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'The Kiev Opera. Fourth Symphony Concert' in TH, and 'The Kiev Opera—The Fourth Symphonic Assembly' in ČW.
  2. See Note 5 in TH 291 for an explanation of this apparently offhand dismissal of these popular operas by Verdi and Bellini, and a reminder that Tchaikovsky's attitude to these great works was in fact rather more complex than it might seem from the above comments — translator's note.
  3. Emilio Naudin (1823–1890), Italian tenor of French origins, whom Tchaikovsky admired greatly.
  4. This "Grand Vocal and Instrumental Concert" organised by the Italian Opera Company took place at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow on 8/20 December 1874 — note by Vasily Yakovlev.
  5. This performance of Bellini's La Sonnambula for the benefit of Emilio Naudin took place at the same theatre on 10/22 December 1874.
  6. Antonio Cotogni (1831–1918), famous Italian baritone, appeared with the Italian Opera Company in Saint Petersburg from 1872 to 1894. A production of Donizetti's Maria di Rohan had been scheduled for his benefit at the Bolshoi on 17/29 December 1874 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  7. Iosif Setov (originally Sethofer, 1826–1894), Russian tenor who also worked as a stage director and impresario — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  8. The Imperial Theatre Academy (Императорское театральное училище) was set up in Saint Petersburg in the 1780s and found a permanent address on Master-Builder Rossi Street (ул. Зодчего Росси) in 1836. During the second half of the nineteenth century it began to concentrate increasingly on training children to become professional ballet dancers (although singing and drama still continued to be taught there), and it came to be known as the Saint Petersburg Imperial Ballet Academy (in Soviet times the Vaganova Ballet Academy)—the foremost classical ballet school in all Europe certainly by the time Marius Petipa started his fruitful collaboration with Tchaikovsky — translator's note.
  9. Marya Ivanovna Ilyina (née Dondukova-Korsakova), Russian mezzo-soprano, début at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg in 1872, later engagements in Kiev and Kazannote by Ernst Kuhn.
  10. Yekaterina Avgustovna Massini (real name: Vedeniapina; 1838–1912), Russian soprano, début at La Scala in Milan in 1866, sang subsequently in Madrid, Lisbon, and Russia — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  11. Lyubov Nikolayevna Lyutsenko (1856–??), Russian-Ukrainian dramatic soprano, débuted in Kiev in 1874, subsequently engaged at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow and the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg; from 1883 to 1885 she toured Austria-Hungary; from 1891 she also worked as a singing teacher, in Kiev to start with, and then in Moscow and Saint Petersburg note by Ernst Kuhn.
  12. Olga Aleksandrovna Puskova (1857–1913), Russian contralto and mezzo-soprano, related to the writer Ivan Turgenev, sang in Kiev and Kharkov, studied with Pauline Viardot-Garcia in Paris in 1877, joined the Imperial Theatres' operatic troupe in 1878. Tchaikovsky created an additional aria for her when she was due to perform the role of Basmanov in the Kiev production of The Oprichnik discussed in this article —note by Ernst Kuhn.
  13. Yuliya Yakovlevna Makhina (1850–1902), Russian soprano, sang at the Kiev Opera from 1874 to 1877, subsequently at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg and the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscownote by Ernst Kuhn.
  14. Dmitry Aleksandrovich Orlov (real name: Kalgin; 1842–1919), Russian Heldentenor, soloist at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg from 1869 to 1886 (except for a spell at the Kiev Opera in 1874). Tchaikovsky, who had a very high opinion of this singer, dedicated the romance As Over the Burning Ashes—No. 2 of the Six Romances, Op. 25—to him in 1875 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  15. Fyodor Ignatyevich Stravinsky (1843–1902), famous Russian bass, sang at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg from 1876, father of the composer Igor Stravinsky.
  16. Aleksandr Andreyevich Lyarov (real name: Gilyarov; 1839–1914), famous Russian bass, débuted in Kiev in 1869, later engagements at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg and the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow; in 1888 he toured Germany, England, and Denmark (singing the role of Susanin in the 1888 Berlin premiere of Glinka's A Life for the Tsar) — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  17. Fyodor Fyodorovich Sokolov (1849–?), Russian tenor, from 1880 engaged at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow and the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburgnote by Ernst Kuhn.
  18. Aleksandra Grigoryevna Menshikova (1840–1902), Russian soprano, sang at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow from 1867 to 1869, and subsequently (until 1880) appeared mainly at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg. She also sang the role of Antonida at the Italian premiere of Glinka's A Life for the Tsar in Milan in 1874 (see TH 289) — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  19. Vladimir Ivanovich Vasilyev (real name: Kirillov; 1828–1900), Russian bass, joined the Saint Petersburg Mariinsky Theatre in 1856, created the role of Pimen at the premiere of Musorgsky's Boris Godunovnote by Ernst Kuhn.
  20. Ivan Aleksandrovich Melnikov (1832–1906), Russian baritone, sang in many of the premieres of Tchaikovsky's operas and was also an impressive first performer of the title roles in Boris Godunov and Prince Igor. Tchaikovsky dedicated I Never Spoke to Her—No. 5 of Six Romances, Op. 25—to Melnikov in 1875 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  21. The sections of this article which dealt with the Kiev production of The Oprichnik were reprinted in the newspaper The Kievan (Киевлянин), 21 December 1874 [O.S.], at the end of an anonymous article entitled 'The Russian Opera in Kiev. "The Oprichnik"' — note by Vasily Yakovlev.
  22. Joseph-Amédée-Victor Capoul (1839–1924), French tenor, engaged for a while at the Opéra-Comique in Parisnote by Ernst Kuhn.
  23. The weekly literary and humoristic journal Amusement (Развлечение) was published in Moscow from 1859 to 1905 and included many satirical vignettes — translator's note.
  24. Alexandre Charles Lecocq (1832–1918), French composer of operettas.
  25. See TH 280 for more information on the mezzo-soprano and actress Yevlaliya Kadmina (1853–1881).
  26. Friedrich Wilhelm Grützmacher (1832–1903), notable German cellist and composer, gave concerts all over Europe and in Russia, where he became friends with Karl Davydov; he was also the teacher of Wilhelm Fitzenhagen.