Yevlaliya Kadmina

Kadmina as Bertha in Meyerbeer's Le Prophète at Kharkov in 1880

Russian mezzo-soprano and actress (b. 19 September/1 October 1853 in Kaluga; d. 10/22 November 1881 in Kharkov), born Yevlaliya Pavlovna Kadmina (Евлалия Павловна Кадмина).

Yevlaliya was the daughter of a comparatively well-off merchant and a gypsy. It was from her mother that she inherited her musicality, her distinctively dark hair and beauty, and a passionate, uncompromising temperament which would cause her much trouble in the course of her tragically brief life. When she was 12 or 13 her father managed to enrol her in the Yelizavetinsky Institute, a boarding-school for girls of the nobility in Moscow. In her last year at this school (1869/70) she took part in a concert which was attended by Nikolay Rubinstein, who was so impressed by her singing that he convinced her to enrol at the Moscow Conservatory, promising to secure a scholarship for her because her father had died that year and her family was left without means.

In the autumn of 1870, Kadmina became a student at the Conservatory, joining the singing class of Aleksandra Aleksandrova-Kochetova. She also attended the drama and declamation classes of Ivan Samarin, as well as Tchaikovsky's composition class in the last year of her course (1872–73). She took part in various student performances at the Conservatory, including an appearance as Tatyana in scenes from Pushkin's Yevgeny Onegin. Her non-professional stage début as a singer took place on 2/14 May 1872, during a student production of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein. Tchaikovsky attended this production and was greatly impressed by her performance as Orfeo (see TH 270), as was Nikolay Kashkin, who would later recall: "Kadmina acted and sang like a fully-fledged artiste. She had a tremendous, outstanding dramatic talent and an innate feeling for the beauty of the stage. In addition to that, she was very pretty". Whilst still a student she appeared as a soloist in a concert of the Russian Musical Society on 24 November/6 December 1872, singing an aria from Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito (Tchaikovsky enthusiastically reviewed her performance in TH 270).

In the spring of 1873, Kadmina graduated from the Conservatory with a silver medal and received a proposal from the Imperial Theatres' Directorate to sing contralto and mezzo-soprano parts in some productions at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre prior to a permanent engagement. Her first professional début was as Vanya in Glinka's A Life for the Tsar on 30 April/12 May 1873, and she achieved a remarkable success (recorded by Tchaikovsky in a separate article — TH 280]]). Her second and third trial débuts were as Azucena in Verdi's Il Trovatore on 10/22 May (where she could draw on her own gypsy ancestry for a stirring performance of "Stride la vampa"!) and as the shepherd Lel' in the premiere of The Snow Maiden with Tchaikovsky's incidental music on 11/23 May 1873 (the composer had created this role specially for her). Kashkin noted her "velvety, rich mezzo-soprano voice".

Kadmina as Vanya in Glinka's A Life for the Tsar at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre in 1873

In the autumn of 1873, the Bolshoi Theatre offered her a two-year contract — a remarkable success for such a young singer — and she went on to appear in several important new roles, her performances almost always winning the praise of Tchaikovsky: the Princess in Dargomyzhsky's Rusalka (see TH 281), Ännchen in Weber's Der Freischütz (TH 282), the title role in Serov's Rogneda (TH 285]]), and Ratmir in Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila (TH 302). Tchaikovsky had hoped that Kadmina would sing the difficult part of the Boyarinya Morozova at the premiere of his opera The Oprichnik in Saint Petersburg (12/24 April 1874), writing to the music publisher Vasily Bessel: "She is a magnificent actress and most appealing as a singer". However, this did not come off and Kadmina would not sing the role until the Moscow productions of The Oprichnik on 4/16 May 1875 and 26 September/8 October 1875 (TH 308]]). Tchaikovsky, who admired her greatly (despite some reservations — see TH 286), dedicated to her the song The Terrible Moment — No. 6 of the Six Romances, Op. 28 — which she performed for the first time during a concert in Odessa on 16/28 July 1875.

In the autumn of 1875, Kadmina decided not to renew her contract at the Bolshoi Theatre, because she felt that she wasn't being given enough chances to appear on the stage, and accepted an invitation to the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg. Her engagement there was enthusiastically welcomed by Herman Laroche, who wrote of her "fresh, beautiful voice, impeccably clean intonation, expressive and thoughtful singing and graceful simplicity in her acting", and added that her outstanding gifts were wasted in Moscow whose principal stage was then dominated by the Italian Opera Company. Tchaikovsky was on the one hand sorry to see her leave Moscow, but on the other, he was sure that her talents would be able to thrive much better in Saint Petersburg (see TH 307).

Her début at the Mariinsky Theatre was as Morozova in Tchaikovsky's The Oprichnik on 22 October/3 November 1875, and seven days later she sang Ratmir in Ruslan and Lyudmila. These successful performances led to her being offered a permanent contract with the Russian Opera Company there. However, she began to get negative reviews from some of the city's critics, especially from César Cui, who argued that her voice wasn't big enough for the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre (perhaps Cui, a perpetual antagonist of Tchaikovsky, knew that the latter had placed such high hopes on her!).

As a result perhaps of these unfavourable reviews, Kadmina unexpectedly left the Mariinsky Theatre at the end of February 1876 and returned to Moscow, where she appeared in a few productions at the Bolshoi Theatre (including as Azucena again). In March, though, she set off for Italy, where she hoped to perfect her vocal technique. Kadmina spent over two years in Italy (from March 1876 to the autumn of 1878), and it seems that the teachers she sought out there advised her to attempt soprano roles — something that naturally flattered her ambition, but would prove fateful in a few years' time. She performed at opera-houses in Naples, Turin, Florence, and even in Milan, receiving favourable reviews. It was also in Milan that, during a stay in hospital, she fell in love with an Italian doctor whom she soon married. Theirs was not a happy marriage, though, and they separated shortly after her return to Russia in 1878. Kadmina's life in Italy was also clouded by a sense of isolation: she felt that she had been forgotten by everyone she cared for in Russia (especially Nikolay Rubinstein, whom she venerated), although she found some consolation in letters she received from the lawyer Lev Kupernik.

In the autumn of 1878, Kadmina left Italy and made her way to Kiev, where she was immediately engaged by the former singer and impresario Iosif Setov (1826–1894) for his newly set up private opera company (discussed by Tchaikovsky in TH 298). She made her Kievan début as Amneris in Verdi's Aida, causing a profound impression. Two weeks later, she appeared in the challenging soprano role of Marguerite in Gounod's Faust, and although her voice sounded somewhat dry and sharp in the highest register, her tremendous dramatic talent was able to make up for these vocal defects. Subsequently, she would appear in Kiev (and later in Kharkov) in both the mezzo/contralto roles that had made her famous in Moscow and in various new soprano roles (Natasha in Rusalka, Selika in Meyerbeer's L'Africaine, Rachel in Halévy's La Juive). In January and March 1879, she also appeared in two concerts conducted by Ippolit Altani for the Kiev branch of the Russian Musical Society, where she sang songs by Schubert, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, and Dargomyzhsky. On 15/27 January 1880, at a literary-musical soirée in Kiev to raise funds for impoverished students, she performed the Letter Scene from Yevgeny Onegin. As Tchaikovsky's opera was not yet established in the theatre repertoire, she never had the chance to sing Tatyana in a complete production.

Embittered by the unscrupulous methods used by Setov to squeeze every last drop out of his singers, as well as by the behaviour of the claque who favoured Emiliya Pavlovskaya and hissed during her own performances, Kadmina left Kiev in March 1880 and accepted an engagement with the Kharkov Opera. During her last season as a singer (from 8/20 September 1880 to 26 February/10 March 1881 — later scheduled opera productions were cancelled after the assassination of Alexander II), she appeared in 47 performances, singing some of her finest roles.

However, her voice was increasingly deteriorating (it had clearly suffered from her decision to tackle the soprano repertoire), and the local impresario suggested that she should retire from the opera stage and devote herself to drama instead. Although it cost her great pain to give up opera, she eventually agreed, and for a while it seemed that her great dramatic talent would help her to carve out a satisfying second career. Indeed, her début as a dramatic actress in Kharkov on 19/31 December 1880, as Ophelia in Hamlet, was very favourably received. In June the following year Kadmina appeared in various plays by Ostrovsky in Odessa, and on 9/21 September 1881 she commenced her first, all too brief season as an actress at the Kharkov Theatre, where in the two months that she had left to live she appeared in some 20 roles, including plays by Ippolit Shpazhinsky.

In the summer of 1881 she had passionately fallen in love with an army officer, who was quite unworthy of her. When, later in the autumn, she found out that he was going to marry a wealthy local heiress, it was yet another bitter disappointment for her, but outwardly she seems to have concealed her sorrow and even tried to forget about it by devoting herself to her work. However, on 4/16 November, when she was performing the title-role in Ostrovsky's Vasilisa Melentyeva, she suddenly caught sight of the officer in the audience together with his betrothed. During the interval she swallowed several boxes of matches and collapsed on the stage in the following act. The doctors who treated her could do nothing, and her sufferings lasted for six days.

Yevlaliya Kadmina died in Kharkov on 10/22 November 1881, aged just 28.

When Tchaikovsky, who was then in Rome, found out about her tragic death, he wrote to Nadezhda von Meck on 26 November/8 December 1881: "This news has grieved me terribly, as I feel very sorry for this talented, beautiful young woman, but I was not surprised by it. I knew her strange, restless, morbidly touchy character well, and it always seemed to me that she would not end happily" (letter 1902).

Kadmina's funeral was attended by thousands in Kharkov — many of them students who were grateful for her generous participation in various charitable concerts on their behalf — and several obituaries (including one by Lev Kupernik) paid heartfelt tributes to her extraordinary musical and dramatic talent. A few lines from one of Tchaikovsky's glowing reviews of her are engraved on her tombstone in Kharkov.

The greatest tribute, however, was paid by Ivan Turgenev, whose last published story After Death [После смерти], also known as Klara Milich [Клара Милич], appeared in January 1883 and created an unforgettable portrait of a gifted young woman who is torn by inner contradictions and whose ideal yearning for love cannot be satisfied in this world — a portrait which captured remarkably both Kadmina's physical appearance and her complex psyche. Turgenev had only seen her on the stage once, but he spoke with those who had known her, and evidently also studied the existing photographs of her. It is not far-fetched to suppose that Kadmina reminded him of the fateful love of his own life — Pauline Viardot, a remarkable dramatic mezzo-soprano in her own time and often dismissed as a "gypsy" by her enemies — and in After Death the heroine Klara is shown not only performing Tatyana's Letter Scene from Yevgeny Onegin (not the opera, but Pushkin's novel), but also a song by Tchaikovsky which both Turgenev and Viardot liked very much: None But the Lonely Heart — the last of the Six Romances, Op. 6. For this song, too, conveys something akin to the fate of Klara's prototype — Yevlaliya Kadmina.

Several other works of Russian literature were inspired by this tragic death, though none as memorable as Turgenev's late story. It is also known that Anton Chekhov was interested in Kadmina's fate, and perhaps the figure of Nina in The Seagull (1896), an actress who is able to rise above adversity and persevere in her vocation even if she knows she will never get away from the provincial theatres, was meant to illustrate what might have been if Yevlaliya Kadmina had possessed a stronger character.

Tchaikovsky's Works Dedicated to Yevlaliya Kadmina

Bibliography

  • Boris Yagolim, Комета дивной красоты: Жизнь и творчество Евлалии Кадминой [A Comet of Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Work of Yevlaliya Kadmina] (Moscow, 1969).