The Italian Opera

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The Italian Opera (Итальянская опера) (TH 282 ; ČW 546) was Tchaikovsky's nineteenth music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 23 September 1873 [O.S.], signed only with the initials "B.L.".

It contains a further appraisal of Weber as a Romantic composer (even more enthusiastic than the one given in TH 271); a discussion of Der Freischütz, in which the characters, according to Tchaikovsky, were drawn with a mastery "equalled only by Mozart"; extensive quotations from Berlioz's Memoirs about Weber's opera; and a few disparaging remarks about Verdi and Offenbach.


Completed by 14/26 September 1873 (date of publication). Concerning the Italian Opera Company's production of Weber's Der Freischütz at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre—premiere on 14/26 September 1873, with Yevlaliya Kadmina taking over the role of Ännchen in subsequent performances; and a performance of Verdi's I Lombardi di alla prima crociata at the same theatre on 13/25 September 1873

English translation

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The first performance of Weber's opera Der Freischütz, written in Dresden in the years 1819–20, took place at the Royal Theatre in Berlin on 18 June 1821. The appearance of this great work of art on the musical horizon of Europe signalled a memorable epoch in the history of musico-dramatic art. Der Freischütz immediately achieved the most brilliant and unequivocal success that had ever fallen to the lot of a work of art. The reason for this success lay above all in the excellent choice of subject and in the splendid way in which it was elaborated by Weber's talented librettist, Friedrich Kind [1].

The fantastic element, which in Der Freischütz is brought into immediate contact with the life and customs of the people, gave this opera a unique charm that was all the more irresistible in that it appeared precisely at a time when all of European society was suffering under the yoke of the reaction which had followed on from the great upheavals of the end of the preceding century and the first decade of ours. That is, at a time when in both society and literature the revolutionary rationalism and sceptical tendencies of French philosophy, which had hitherto pervaded the whole civilized world, gave way to an irrepressible yearning for mystical emotions; when the Romantic sounds of Byron's poetry had already sprung forth in reply to the cries of despair of a century that had lost its traditional beliefs and was roaming in the darkness of a whole string of new, unresolved questions.

However, it goes without saying that the main reason for the unprecedented and universal success of Der Freischütz lay in the incomparable novelty and charm of its music, which even today, after more than fifty years since it was created, has not lost one bit of its enchanting attractiveness.

Weber did not possess such an inexhaustible source of inspiration as his great contemporary Beethoven. His inventive faculty is more limited, he often repeats himself, the harmonic texture of his music is sometimes poor and clumsy; but on the other hand there is almost no other artist with a musical individuality that is so original, independent, and at the same time so appealing as his. This appealing quality of Weber's music lies above all in its warmth, the spontaneity of its inspiration, and the complete absence of any artificiality and technical overstrain. Weber was especially successful at conveying the fantastic and demonic, and also the national element. As far as musical characterization is concerned, he is a master equalled perhaps only by Mozart. The dreamy and sentimental Agathe, her flighty cousin Ännchen, the weak-willed Max, the energetic Kaspar, even so episodic a figure as the hermit who appears in the final scene all the opera—all these characters are depicted by Weber, on the one hand, with such palpable veracity, with such love but also strict consistency, which makes no concessions whatsoever to the demands of the public, and, on the other, with such vocal virtuosity, that his music almost attains the spatial reality of the plastic arts.

Extremely simple as it is and rich in beautiful, easily remembered melodies, but at the same time utterly free of any triviality, the music of Der Freischütz has always been, and to this day still is, a favourite with both experts and the overwhelming mass of the public. If even today this splendid music, in spite of the sixty years that have elapsed since that first performance in Berlin, has retained its ability to affect deeply even the modern listener who has already been corrupted by the vulgar striving after effects and the trivial puppet-show works of Messrs Verdi and Offenbach, then one can imagine how strong an impression it must have produced on the unsullied ears of our fathers and forefathers.

Beethoven, who didn't like Weber, said, after looking through the score of Der Freischütz, that he would never have expected to find so much strength in "such a weakly little man". This is what Berlioz wrote after the first performance of Der Freischütz in Paris:

The poetry of this opera is full of energy, passion, and contrast. The supernatural element introduces into it strange and startling effects. Melody, harmony, and rhythm, all combine to give rise to music that thunders, burns, and blazes… [2].

When going through the operas of the old or new school it would be difficult to find a score equal to that of Der Freischütz in terms of the freshness of its melodies throughout all the forms in which these are presented, in terms of the striking originality of its rhythms, its harmonic richness and variety, and the way in which the vocal and instrumental masses are used with such effortless energy and unaffected gracefulness.

From the opening of the overture to the very last note in the final chorus, I cannot find in the whole opera a single bar which I would wish to see omitted or reworked. Intelligence, imagination, and genius shine on us from all directions and with such dazzling strength, that only the eyes of an eagle could bear this splendour, were it not for the fact that its intensity is tempered by an inexhaustible plenitude of emotions which spreads its soft veil over the listener.

The overture is the queen of all overtures, and the jewel in its crown is that wonderfully moving phrase played by the clarinet, which tears through the orchestra's tremolo, like a distant lamenting cry carried by the wind into the heart of the woods and valleys. It truly pierces one's heart, and for me this maidenly tune, which seems as it were to be sending a timid reproach heavenward, at the same time as a sinister harmony is quivering threateningly somewhere below, is one of the finest and most poetic passages in all contemporary music […]

One would have to write a whole book if one wanted to analyze in detail this magnificent work. Incidentally, who could fail to be amazed by the sarcastic merriness of Kilian's song, accompanied by the laughter of the chorus?! […] Who has not felt the despair and dejection of Max, the moving sympathy of the chorus when it seeks to console him, the joy of the peasants as they prepare for the hunting contest, the comic crudeness of the march with which the triumphant Kilian is greeted, Kaspar's demonic drinking song and the wild outburst: "Triumph! Triumph! Revenge is mine!" in his great aria that anticipates so well the crash of thunder with which the first act concludes?!

Dilettantes and artists alike go into raptures over the charming duet in Act II in which the contrasting characters of the two girls are conveyed from the very start. Having once grasped this idea of the composer, it is easy to follow through its development to the end. Agathe is always tender and dreamy, Ännchen always childishly and coquettishly playful—her jesting chatter keeps throwing sparks of carefree merriness into the sad conversation of the two lovers. No listener can fail to hear the lamenting sighs of the orchestra during the young girls prayer as she awaits her betrothed, or the gentle, vague modulations which convey the soft rustling of the birch-leaves in the nightly breeze. And then it seems as if the darkness becomes even more impenetrable, the night even colder, but then, suddenly, what a joyful sensation overcomes us when Agathe recognizes Max approaching in the dark and cries out: "Er ist's! Er ist's!" [It is he! It is he!] […]

No! No great master before Weber had ever managed to express through music, in one single, short scene, devout praying, anguish, restlessness, reverie, the slumber of nature, the eloquent stillness of night, the mysterious flickering of the starlit sky, the torments of waiting, hope, half-certainty, joy, bliss, the ecstasy of love! There is nothing like it! This is divine art! This is love itself!

On the day that Weber heard this scene performed as he may have hoped for in his dreams—if indeed he ever heard it thus—on that blissful day he should have died. For after such joys what more can you wish from life? [3].

To this enthusiastic review by a great artist of another great artist's work I do not wish to add anything of my own, and I shall move straight on to my report about this production of Der Freischütz on our stage—it is much to the credit of Signor Merelli that this opera has been brought into the current season's repertoire.

Madame d'Angeri, whose performance of the role of Leonora in Il Trovatore I have already had occasion to praise [4], caused a great impression in the scene where she is waiting for Max. She has a sonorous and brilliant voice, with a timbre that is very appealing. She sang Agathe's marvellous aria—discussed by Berlioz in the excerpt I quoted above—with remarkable warmth and a sufficient dose of passion. Unfortunately, the positive impression produced by Madame d'Angeri's singing was undermined by her lack of acting skills and terribly clumsy gestures, which gave rise to a somewhat comical effect when next to her tall figure we saw the short and chubby Masini pottering about as her beloved Max [5]. As always, Signor Masini's singing was dull and lacked the necessary nuances, and it was also clear that he hadn't learnt his part properly. Indeed, one could ask why Signor Masini took on such a role as Max in the first place, considering that this is a part without any of those high chest notes that this hopelessly poor artist otherwise depends on to scrape through performances?!

Signor Foli [6], who appeared here in the role of Kaspar, left me wondering whether he always has to distort his face in such a terrible way and generally make such incredible efforts in order to produce these tones of a rather dubious quality (it must be said), or whether he thought this was necessary for a convincing interpretation of Kaspar, who, as we all know, seeks out the company of the Evil One. As for Madame Giuliani, neither her venerable age, nor her abysmal acting, nor her completely worn-out voice, give her the least right to present herself before our eyes and torment our ears.

The opera had clearly been rehearsed somewhat better than one would normally expect, and the orchestra even played with a certain degree of enthusiasm—perhaps because Weber's wonderful music touched a chord not just in the artistic sensitivity of the musicians but also in their patriotic sentiments, for ours is an orchestra which is almost exclusively made up of Germans.

The decision to include, in Act III of Der Freischütz, Weber's fantasia for piano Aufforderung zum Tanze [Invitation to the Dance] in Berlioz's splendid orchestration, is utterly incongruous. This is a fantasia which depicts, with amazing vividness, a ballroom scene in which you can quite literally hear the festive bustle of the brightly lit ballroom, with all its glitter, its exquisitely dressed ladies and their elegant partners; and in the Introduction Weber was surely seeking to convey the whispers and timid hints that might go on between a pair of lovers, how for a few instants they press their hands together or exchange passionate, furtive glances… And then the pair is swept away by the whirlwind of the waltz… [7]

And it was onto this very music that our most wise theatre management decided to artificially graft an utterly conventional pas de paysans et paysannes, as if the fact that both Der Freischütz and this fantasia are by Weber were in itself sufficient to create a profound intrinsic link between the two works! What a tasteless and silly idea!

After Der Freischütz it does somehow seem improper to go on to talk about a product from Maestro Verdi's musical factory: his opera I Lombardi, which was staged here last week. So I shall just limit myself to recording the fact that the said opera, which is abundant in all kinds of jolly Cossack-like dances that follow on from one another non-stop, even in the most tragic moments, was performed and gave an opportunity for M. Naudin [8], a splendid singer, to enchant both true connoisseurs and the whole audience with his inimitable artistry, whereas to Madame Giuliani it gave the opportunity to be hissed off the stage unanimously, vociferously, and quite deservedly!

Because Madame Giuliani was subsequently taken ill, the role of Ännchen in the following performances of Der Freischütz was taken over by Madame Kadmina [9], who thereby rescued the theatre management from a rather embarrassing situation. One cannot fail to be amazed by the courage and talent of this young singer, who, in such an incredibly short period, managed to learn this quite complicated role and appeared before the public not as a shy pupil stepping onto the stage of an opera-house for the first time, but rather as an accomplished, fully-fledged artist in her own right. Madame Kadmina was rewarded with enthusiastic applause from the public, even though the latter, as we all know, is so prejudiced against Russian artists.

"B. L."

Notes and References

  1. Friedrich Kind (1768–1843), lawyer and writer from Dresden, achieved considerable fame thanks to his libretto for Der Freischütznote by Ernst Kuhn.
  2. Tchaikovsky is quoting here from Chapter XVI of Berlioz's famous Memoirs (completed in 1865 and published posthumously in 1870) — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  3. These excerpts, quoted by Tchaikovsky in his own translation, are from Berlioz's article 'Le Freischutz de Weber', which was published in: Hector Berlioz, À travers chant. Études musicales, adorations, boutades et critiques (Paris, 1863) — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  4. See the last paragraph of TH 281.
  5. Angelo Masini (1844–1926), Italian tenor, famous for his virtuoso singing, but notorious for his poor acting. See Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1954), p. 201 — translator's note.
  6. Allan James Foli (real surname: Foley; 1835–1899), Irish bass, débuted in Catania in 1862, sang mainly in London from 1865 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  7. It is interesting to compare this description with what Fokine would later see in Weber's music when he choreographed his masterpiece Le spectre de la rose(1911) — translator's note.
  8. Emilio Naudin (1823–1890), Italian tenor of French origins, whom Tchaikovsky admired greatly. See, for example, TH 269 for an enthusiastic review of his performance as Elvino in Bellini's La Sonnambula together with Adelina Patti.
  9. Yevlaliya Kadmina (1853–1881), Russian mezzo-soprano and actress whose tragic suicide by taking poison in the middle of a performance of a play inspired a number of literary and musical works, most notably Turgenev's late story Klara Milich (1882). Tchaikovsky saw great promise in her and carefully followed her career ever since her first public performances — translator's note.