The Russian and Italian Operas

Tchaikovsky Research
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The Russian and Italian Operas (Русская и Итальянская оперы) [1] (TH 307 ; ČW 573) was Tchaikovsky's forty-second music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 12 September 1875 [O.S.].

In this article Tchaikovsky makes further ironical remarks about the Imperial Theatres' Directorate's neglect of Russian opera in Moscow; criticisms about the low artistic and productions standards regularly tolerated at the Bolshoi Theatre; an interesting comment on Yevlaliya Kadmina's departure for Saint Petersburg, where she was due to take up an engagement at the Mariinsky Theatre; a tribute to the great progress made by the tenor Aleksandr Dodonov; and negative remarks on the music and subject-matter of Meyerbeer's L'Africaine (echoing those made earlier in TH 265).


Completed by 12/24 September 1875 (date of publication). Reviewing the Russian Opera Company's performances of Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila and A Life for the Tsarat the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow on 4/16 September and 7/19 September 1875 respectively, with several new young singers in each cast, including Aleksandr Dodonov in the role of Finn; and a production of Meyerbeer's L'Africaine by the Italian Opera Company at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre on an unspecified date.

English translation

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At this moment, when I am taking up my pen to begin my musical conversation with the reader, the period of the Russian Opera's annual brief flourishing on the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre has already come to an end. As is well known, the 365 days which the Earth requires to complete its revolution around the Sun are divided into seasons in the sense of the social diversions which correspond to the various times of the year.

Thus, there is a season for trotting-races, a season for the Italian Opera, a season for taking the waters at a spa, a season for bathing in the sea, and so on. Well, our modest Russian Opera also has its own season. This season is short: it has the so-called women's summer [2] allotted to it. I mean that brief period of time in which the flowers have started to wither, the leaves to become yellow and fall, even though the autumnal slush has not yet set in definitively—that small portion of the year when you don't quite know whether you should stay on at the dacha and carry on visiting the Château de fleurs [3], or whether it would be better to return to your city dwellings for good and protect yourself against the autumn chill with double windows. In other words, it is these days which hesitate between summer and autumn that the Theatres' Directorate has earmarked for the zealous cult of our native Muse.

The latter—the Directorate, that is—reasons thus: "I am in charge of the theatre of a large capital city. For the sake of appearances I must maintain a national opera company. The building of my theatre is currently unoccupied, since the lessee hasn't arrived yet, so I suppose in the meanwhile I may as well let these Russian artists sing their little homespun songs" [4].

And so, for three weeks in a row after the Dormition Fast [5] the titles of our three principal operas have been figuring constantly on the bill-boards: A Life for the Tsar, Ruslan and Lyudmila, and Rusalka. As for how all this is acted and sung, it's not really worth talking about. The company's members do their acting and singing anyhow—some parts well, some parts just about tolerably, and others quite abysmally. In recent years I have tried so many times to explain to the reader why, given the conditions which prevail at our city's opera-house, no opera, be it Italian or Russian, can be staged in such a way that even the most modest demands of a civilised listener are satisfied. I therefore think it would be inappropriate to expatiate on this subject again for the hundredth time.

In both our opera companies we can certainly come across brilliant talents, phenomenal voices, and strong dramatic gifts, but what you will look for in vain is a sensible, purposeful, and in all respects balanced deployment of the available forces. For example, if you have just heard an aria sung well, the next minute you are left aghast, as if a bucket of cold water had been thrown on you, by some ensemble sung out of tune which had clearly not been rehearsed properly. Of if the orchestra, with its performance of the overture, has just left you in a delightfully agreeable mood, immediately after it the chorus starts to howl so furiously, and at the same time with such poor intonation, that you feel like running out of the theatre. Or the other way round: you may have just received a fine aesthetic impression from a successfully performed choral scene, but are condemned immediately thereafter to hear the trombones roaring out at the wrong point or a stray oboe starting to squeak… What was performed well today will invariably be mangled tomorrow. Although it does sometimes happen that you are pleasantly surprised by the overall staging of a work which, with good reason, you had been expecting would be presented to you in the most ghastly form. Such surprises do occur, even if but rarely. For in most cases the overall performance is unreliable, poor in terms of intonation, wobbly, feeble, and pale.

To return, though, to the women's summer with its season of Russian Opera: it brought us a few débutants and débutantes. But what is the point of these débuts? Who is being taken in by whom here? Is it the management that is deceiving the débutants by making them believe that it is keen for them to join the staff of its 'almshouse', which is idle all winter long anyway? Or are the young débutants trying to delude the management by pretending that they are eager to get to enjoy the sinecure which is attached to the title of "Artist of the Russian Opera in Moscow"? The latter does seem unlikely in the case of a young artist for whom pragmatic considerations shouldn't outweigh the thirst for feverish activity which is characteristic of youth.

Be that as it may, we had the opportunity to become acquainted with five new artistic personalities aspiring to the honour of being admitted into the troupe of our Russian Opera. Of these, two young singers, Madames Kondyreva and Bogengardt, are vying with each other for the vacancy in the contralto vocal category which will be created soon by the departure of the talented Madame Kadmina. If, on the one hand, it is impossible not to be sorry to lose this remarkably gifted and promising artiste, one must, on the other hand, be glad that Madame Kadmina—frightened by the prospect of seeing her further development harmed by that ruinous idleness to which our Russian artists are condemned in Moscow as long as they do not have a theatre of their own, separate from the Italian Opera—has decided to go to work in a place which is more favourable for the flourishing of her rich natural gifts [6]. I am certain that sooner or later the state of affairs at our opera-house will change for the better, and I am convinced that our Russian Opera will finally occupy that place in our country's central capital which belongs to it fully by rights. I do believe that better days will come for our native art, and then Madame Kadmina will appear here again, together with a whole swarm of other talented artists, all of whom will then find in Moscow a fertile soil for their growth and development. Who knows, perhaps this time is not so far off as many people think.

Now, though, I shall give a brief characteristic of the five new artists who introduced themselves to the public.

1) Madame Larina. She sang the part of Gorislava in Ruslan and Lyudmila. She does have a voice, albeit not a particularly pleasant one—it is almost as if it had been eaten away, if not by time (for Madame Larina is still young), then certainly by putting excessive strain on it. At any rate, in comparison with Madame Turchaninova, who in the past sang the role of Gorislava, she is a valuable acquisition for the company. Madame Larina's appearance is quite cut out for the stage. The audience received her warmly.

2) Madame Kondyreva. She made her début in the role of Ratmir. This artiste certainly knows how to sing: her interpretation is graceful, though somewhat cold, too. Her voice sounds a bit muffled in the low register, but on the whole it is sufficiently strong and agreeable. She has a very good stage presence, but she acts without any particular enthusiasm. The reception which she got from the audience was undeservedly frosty. However, one can readily suppose that the better the public gets to know her, the greater sympathy it will accord her.

3) Madame Bogengardt. An extraordinarily strange voice. The high notes are strong and extremely beautiful, but there is a complete lack of middle notes, which are replaced by some sort of strange jingling sound of fluctuating intensity. In the chest register Madame Bogengardt constantly keeps stopping short. She was making her début in the role of Vania. The irresistible charm of this appealing role, together with the débutante's good looks and her beautiful high notes, saved her from a complete fiasco. If I am not mistaken, Madame Bogengardt just hasn't received sufficient training. She is not yet ready for the stage, especially one which is as large as ours. Her immaturity was especially evident in the coloratura passages of her role. However, it may also be that excessive shyness prevented Madame Bogengardt from showing her artistic merits in their true colours.

4) Mr Kudryavtsev. He made his début in the role of Ruslan. Mr Kudryavtsev's voice is not endowed with top-notch strength, but it is very pleasant. His phrasing is elegant and tasteful. I don't think we have ever heard such a good Ruslan in Moscow.

5) Mr Lyarov [7]. He performed the role of Susanin, and performed it very well too. Mr Lyarov has a big, strong, and handsome voice, which is marred only by a somewhat excessive vibrato. He has very favourable natural gifts for the stage. His interpretation of Susanin was well thought-through, full of commitment, and made good use of the stage. He had a most remarkable success.

This last début took place last Sunday, in front of a full house. Indeed, during the whole of the Russian Opera's brief season the management had good box-office returns. The public expressed its sympathy for the Russian Opera not just by attending the theatre in large numbers, but by its enthusiastic mood. I would like to mention in this context that Mr Dodonov received especially spirited ovations—this artist really is becoming a favourite with our theatre-goers, and quite deservedly so.

In spite of the delicate, and often humiliating, situation in which the management places Russian artists with regard to the Italian Opera which it so blatantly favours and protects; in spite of the pernicious idleness to which these artists are condemned by the conditions that prevail on our stage; in spite of all these unfavourable circumstances, I emphasize, Mr Dodonov is making remarkable strides and is certainly not allowing himself to rest on the path towards self-perfection. His performance of the role of Finn in Ruslan left nothing to be desired. With all my heart I am delighted at the generous and enthusiastic applause which was accorded to Mr Dodonov in recognition of the artistic zeal with which he devoted himself to his task.

The following day after the last performance of A Life for the Tsar, the back gate of the Bolshoi Theatre was flung wide open to receive into its fold the foreign monster otherwise known as the Italian Opera enterprise. Armed with the irresistible magic spell ofLa Patti's name, whose services it has engaged for a mere eight performances, and lovingly, carefully, and firmly sustained, on the one hand, by the goodwill of the theatre management, and, on the other, by the unparalleled tolerance of our public, this monster will, as in previous years, devour not just its own juicy meal of four subscription series, but will also snap at the meagre portions that had been allotted to its two fellow-lodgers—the ballet and the Russian Opera—by ingeniously devising for this purpose a long series of benefit productions, as well as special performances and concerts, on top of the subscription repertoire.

This time the Italian enterprise presented a rather attractive face to the public. It introduced us to two very fine artists. I am referring here to Madame Wiziak [8], who made her début in the title-role of L'Africaine, and the tenor Señor Aramburo [9], who appeared in the role of Vasco da Gama. Madame Wiziak has a wonderful, sonorous, and powerful voice. She sings with great ardour and acts well, although her gesticulations are perhaps a bit over the top. One can confidently predict that this débutante will have a great many successes one after the other here.

As for Señor Aramburo, no more really needs to be said than that he acquitted himself with great success in view of the inevitable comparison which would be made between his artistic qualities and those of M. Naudin [10], his highly gifted predecessor in the role of Vasco da Gama on our stage. Señor Aramburo has a very fine voice, with a chest register capable of producing strong and beautiful notes. As an actor, though, he remains on the level of mediocrity.

Furthermore, the public was also introduced to a certain Madame Marque in the role of Ines: she has a very thin, shrill, and constantly quivering little voice, and moves altogether quite incompetently on the stage. At this performance we also heard some old acquaintances of ours: Messrs Padilla [11], Bossi, and Jamet. Señor Padilla gave a splendid performance as the slave Nelusko, even if he did sometimes fall into excessive sentimentality. His voice has not suffered at all the ravages of all those years which have passed since we heard him last. On the contrary, it seems to have gained in strength and roundedness. As an actor he has made great progress, too, and I must say that I hadn't expected from him such a thrilling performance of the difficult role of Nelusko.

L'Africaineis a terribly boring opera. It is incomprehensible how such a great master in the selection of subjects for operas as Meyerbeer could have been attracted by the caricature-like scenario of this geographical tragedy, which would not be out of place in a puppet-theatre. Moreover, not once does the music rise to those heights of artistic inspiration which we ought to expect from the author of Les Huguenots or Le Prophète. Granted, the beauty of the facture is inimitable here, too, but what an artificiality there is in the flow of melodic ideas, what a striking absence of poetry and warmth!

L'Africaine can only captivate an audience if it is presented in a dazzling and lavish staging. But that was not the case here: the costumes were worn-out, the scenery poor, and as a result L'Africaine on our stage can satisfy neither the eye nor the ear. Excruciating, seemingly never-ending boredom—that is what you take away from this opera when you walk out of the theatre.

Is it really true that M. Naudin has not been engaged because he asked the impresario for sixty-five thousand francs rather than the sixty thousand which he had been offered? And yet, Signor Masini [12] gets eighty-five thousand francs!!! Well, if that is true, then, in all fairness, a million eight hundred thousand francs would still be too small a sum to give to M. Naudin!

P. Tchaikovsky.

Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'Musical Chronicle (Russian and Italian Opera)' in ČW.
  2. A literal translation of «бабье лето», which corresponds to "Indian summer" in English-speaking countries. In the early agricultural communities of Eastern and Western Slavonic countries this phrase arose to describe the spell of fine weather in autumn when old peasant women could still warm themselves by the sun. Another explanation is that it is the time of year when the peasants have finished their field labour and the women can return to their domestic chores — translator's note.
  3. An outdoor establishment in the Petrovsky Park in Moscow, modelled on the famous Parisian café chantant of that name — translator's note.
  4. In April 1875, Nikolay Rubinstein and Mikhail Azanchevsky had sent a petition to the Minister of the Imperial Court, asking for the Italian enterprise in Moscow to be replaced with a private Russian opera company: "The performances so infrequently given by the Russian operatic troupe are an insult both to musical and national feeling […] The wonderful music of Glinka, which allows Russian art to hold its head up high in front of Western Europe, is performed in a way that makes it almost unrecognisable […] The decline in Moscow of Russian national opera is a social phenomenon without parallel in any other European capital…" The petition, however, was rejected, and the Italian enterprise's stranglehold over the Bolshoi Theatre lasted in fact until 1881. Tchaikovsky very much shared this indignation, as we can see from so many of his articles — translator's note (quoted from B. S. Yagolim, Комета дивной красоты: Жизнь и творчество Евлалии Кадминой (Moscow, 1970), pp. 52–53).
  5. A two-week fast before the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God on 15/27 August in the calendar of the Russian Orthodox Church — translator's note.
  6. That autumn Yevlaliya Kadmina had accepted an engagement at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburgtranslator's note.
  7. Aleksandr Andreyevich Lyarov (real name: Gilyarov; 1839–1914), Russian bass; soloist at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre from 1875 to 1878, later engagements in Berlin, London, and Copenhagen; Lyarov performed the role of Susanin at the Berlin premiere of A Life for the Tsar in 1888 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  8. Emma Wiziak (real name: Vizjak-Nicolescu; 1847–1913), Croatian soprano, débuted in Italy in 1869 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  9. Antonio Aramburo (1840–1912) (stage name: Aramburot), Spanish Heldentenor, débuted in Florence in 1871 and appeared subsequently at almost all of the leading opera-houses in Europe and the New World; Aramburo was also one of the first singers whose voice was recorded on gramophone (a recording of arias from Verdi's Otello made in 1902) — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  10. Emilio Naudin (1823–1890), Italian tenor of French origins whom Tchaikovsky admired greatly — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  11. Mariano Padilla y Ramos (1842–1906), Spanish baritone, sang at almost all of the leading opera-houses of Europe; married the Belgian soprano Désirée Artôt, who had briefly been engaged to Tchaikovsky, and appeared in many performances together with her — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  12. Angelo Masini (1844–1926), Italian tenor, famous for his virtuoso singing, but notorious for his poor acting. Tchaikovsky detested him. See Nikolay Kashkin, Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1954), p. 201 — translator's note.