"A Life for the Tsar" on the Milan Stage

Tchaikovsky Research

"A Life for the Tsar" on the Milan Stage («Жизнь за царя» на миланской сцене) [1] (TH 289 ; ČW 554) was Tchaikovsky's twenty-fourth music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 25 May 1874 [O.S.], signed only with the initials "B.L.".

It contains a translation by Tchaikovsky of an anonymous Italian critic's review of the first performance of Glinka's A Life for the Tsar in Italy; a fascinating testimony showing how (a few years before the season of Russian concerts at the World Fair in Paris in 1878) a Western European audience in one of the great music capitals could react positively to Russian music, even in an opera which owed so much to the distinctive and (to western ears) unfamiliar musical idiom of Russian folk-song as Glinka's first masterpiece; and further confirmation of how highly Tchaikovsky valued A Life for the Tsar—"the greatest Russian opera" (see also TH 263)—and how much it pleased him to see Russian art finally being appreciated abroad (an important theme in some of his letters to Nadezhda von Meck).


Completed by 25 May/6 June 1874 (date of publication). Concerning the Italian premiere of Glinka's A Life for the Tsar in the Teatro Dal Verme, Milan, on 8/20 May 1874, conducted by Francesco Antonio Faccio and featuring Jean-Baptiste Merly (Susanin), Aleksandra Menshikova (Antonida), and Eufemia Martella Barlani-Dini (Vanya). The production was financed by the soprano Aleksandra Gorchakova-Santagano, who also translated the libretto of the opera into Italian.

English translation

Copyright notice
English text copyright © 2009 Luis Sundkvist
See our Terms of Use

A few days ago, an event took place in Milan which ought to gladden all those who take an interest in the fortunes of Russian art, both in our country and abroad. On the 8th (20th) of May, the greatest Russian opera, Glinka's A Life for the Tsar, was performed in Italy for the first time, on the stage of the Teatro Dal Verme in the aforesaid city. We have become so familiar with the beauties of this wondrous work, it is so close and dear to us, that I hope I can give some joy to readers of the Russian Register by presenting them with a complete translation of a review [2] which appeared in the feuilleton of a Milanese newspaper with a very large circulation—the Gazetta di Milano—and which is especially interesting because this detailed review was written under the fresh impression of the premiere and published two days later.

After scolding the Milanese public for its inability to show the requisite respect (dovuto raccoglimento) for serious musical works and complaining that during performances the Milanese, instead of listening attentively, like to chat with their neighbours and rush from one box to another to pay visits, or noisily pop in and out of the buffet even before the intervals, the anonymous reviewer provides a brief but detailed chronological account of the run-up to the premiere.

Expectations, he notes, were high. Those who had been allowed to attend the rehearsals told everyone that they liked the music very much, and that the performance would be splendid. As for the quality and quantity of the audience which would gather for the premiere of A Life for the Tsar, some very bizarre rumours were circulating in this respect. For newsmongers had spread the rumour that all the Russian colonies in Nice, Florence, Rome, and Naples had decided to come together in Milan for the premiere, so that no matter what they could applaud the finest work by their famous compatriot; moreover, that a host of Russians had arrived in Milan from Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Siberia, and the Caucasus, and had bought up all the seats, so that even if one offered pure gold it was impossible to get hold of a single box seat or armchair, or even just a place on one of the benches.

These empty rumours were soon refuted by the actual facts: the only Russians present were just a few compatriots living in Milan for the purpose of studying, as they say, bel canto italiano. Immediately before the start of the performance, and even after the curtain had risen, it was still possible to get hold of seats at the box-office [3]. This fact shows quite clearly that the audience which gathered in the Teatro Dal Verme for this premiere of A Life for the Tsar was chiefly drawn from the citizens of Milan. Furthermore, neither Russians nor Poles would have permitted themselves to burst out in such unseemly bawling as that which accompanied the dances in Act II.

The opera begins with a magnificent overture in which the most important motifs of the work are announced and developed. It is written in symphonic style and is worthy of the great symphonist that Glinka most definitely was. A stretta in the style of Beethoven, which anticipates the stormy blizzard at the end of Act IV, serves as an effective conclusion for the overture. The audience spontaneously burst into fervent applause at the end of this number.

The curtain then rises, and the spectator sees before him the village of Susanin, whose heroic deed will subsequently save the life of Tsar Mikhail [4]. The scene here is a Russian one, but the scenery looks a bit Ostrogothic. The amazing introductory chorus with its many figurations is performed perfectly by the members of the chorus, who had clearly rehearsed their parts splendidly. This music, with the unusual seriousness of its form, causes such a favourable impression that the unanimous cry of "Da capo!" is heard, and the audience's wish is indeed satisfied soon thereafter.

After the chorus leaves, Signora Menshikova [5] appears on the stage. She is playing Susanin's daughter Antonida, and her dress is colourful and gorgeous… far too gorgeous for a peasant-girl who has just stepped out of her hut. Signora Menshikova is a lady from the Russian aristocracy, and her characteristically austere demeanour betrays her Nordic origins. It is with great stylistic purity that she performs her original song, which I would prefer to call a melodic recitative instead. The part of Antonida is written in the highest register, but Signora Menshikova copes with the demands that this makes on her voice with remarkable ease: her high notes are distinguished by a rare transparency and pliancy (flessibilita), so that she is able to move from a pianissimo to a forte whilst sustaining the same pitch for a phenomenally long time. Those who are endowed with a fine musical ear observe, however, that this marvellous singer would be perfect were it not for the fact that her intonation tends to be too high sometimes. Nevertheless, the audience immediately appreciates the graceful vocal resources of Signora Menshikova and rewards her with generous applause.

One of the most beautiful and original passages in this opera is the tenor's entry onstage, for in a very characteristic manner something like a Barcarolle (?) is sung off-stage to start with, as if coming from afar, and then it gradually comes closer and merges with the chorus and the recitatives of Susanin and Antonida [6]. The details of this number are wonderful, especially the quick pizzicato accompaniment in the strings. The audience, however, did not applaud so loudly at the end of this number as I would have wished, because the displays of enthusiasm which followed certain other numbers should justly have gushed forth after this passage too.

The tenor, Signor Bertolini, sang his part well, with a mellow, sonorous, and beautiful voice that was capable of the most delicate gradations. Indeed, all of the subsequent music of the first act is full of interesting features. Signor Bertolini delivered his heroic stanzas with great fervour. The apogee of this production's success came with the performance of the trio, with its beautiful minor-key melody and final cadenza, in which the high "c" of the soprano left the already astonished audience truly flabbergasted. Signora Menshikova first sang it in a barely audible pianissimo, and then, gradually intensifying her tone, went over into forte and subsequently descended to "h" and "a" without pausing for breath. Maybe La Patti and Frau Murska [7] would have managed to achieve a similar effect: apart from them, I cannot think of anyone else capable of such a feat. The first act closed with unanimous curtain-calls for the singers.

The second act serves merely as a pretext for including some Polish folk dances; it does not add anything to the interest of the developing plot, which, being somewhat stationary and ponderous at this point, should not really be interrupted, unless of course the ballet happened to be of such a high quality that it could entertain the audience. Our theatre-goers, however, were bored by all this, and from quiet grumbling they came little by little to loud demonstrations of hostility, laughter, hissing, and shouting—all of which they could certainly have refrained from, if only out of respect for the music, which was in no way to blame for this! For the music of these dances is magnificent and instrumented with such a fine and delicate touch that it is almost too much for a ballet.

These dances were choreographed by a ballet-master (whether he was Russian or Polish I know not) who had been invited specially for this occasion, and who brought onto our stage those very folk dances which are so popular in Saint Petersburg, Moscow, and Warsaw. The resulting effect was all the more lamentable in that our male and female dancers, who are such splendid performers of their local dances, got into a muddle with the peculiar rhythms of the Mazurka and Krakowiak. All the same, the audience should have abstained from its jeering and bawling, and considered that if we were to head for Russia or Poland in order to show the public there our Furlana or Monferrino dances, we would cut a very sorry figure indeed.

It would be better if in future performances the second act were left out, or if our ballet-master Tratesi were able to adapt the dances in his manner, that is in the classical style of contemporary choreography [8].

Post nubila Phoebus [9]. The third act was the one the audience liked the most: its success was complete, indisputable, and spectacular. The curtain rises to show the peasant-boy Vanya, an orphan adopted by Susanin, busy at work and singing a characteristic little song in true Russian style: it is gentle, melodious, but at the same time a bit strange (bizzarra) because of its now long, now short (?) rhythmic periods.

Signora Barlani-Dini [10] gives a perfect interpretation of this appealing role. It is almost as if Glinka had written the part specially for her, taking into account the manner of her singing. In her male costume she plays the blonde Vanya, with his quaint rustic simplicity, so convincingly, that it seems as if she had long ago familiarized herself with the customs of a Russian peasant. Signora Barlani-Dini's voice is stupendous: it is distinguished by a pathetic and sonorous timbre which really does tug at the heartstrings. Then we must also not forget her excellent pronunciation, great expressiveness, and broad phrasing, which is ideally suited to the classical style of Glinka's cantilenas.

After this little song, Susanin comes in and sings with Vanya a lively, energetic, and bellicose duet, which went down so well with our public. I shall make use of this opportunity to acquaint the reader with the bass Signor Merly [11]—I say "bass", although one could equally well call him a baritone, because he could certainly sing baritone parts if he so wished, being endowed, like Cotogni [12] and Alighieri, with an exceptional tessitura which extends to high "g". Signor Merly has a strong voice, full of powerful dramatic expression, but when he wants to he can also sing gently and delicately as the consummate artist that he is: he understood perfectly what rhythmic accents Glinka's music requires, as the latter almost always avoids the usual clichés in his rhythmic figures, though consistently remaining simple, precise, and uncommonly original in his use of rhythm. The duet between Vanya and Susanin makes such a favourable impression that the audience insists on it being repeated—perhaps rather importunately because having to repeat this number is very exhausting for the venerable singers, who still have so much left to sing in the course of the performance.

The beauties of the third act followed one another in rapid succession, without ever repeating themselves and becoming all the more impressive. After a nice syllabic (?) chorus of peasants there begins a great quartet, which I consider to be not just the finest passage in the whole opera, but indeed one of the musical wonders of the past, present, and future. To tell the truth, the audience was not at all insensitive to these impressions of such a novel and elevated kind: the cantilena, comprised of six rather than eight bars, produces a most felicitous effect, and both the prayer with the long sustained chords and the exciting Allegro were received with stormy unanimous applause.

The scene between Susanin and the Polish soldiers, and then with his daughter, is full of dramatic colour and commanded the audience's undivided attention. The act closed with a small female chorus in 5/4 time and with a dramatic aria by Antonida, which Signora Menshikova performed so perfectly that she was called out again after the curtain had fallen.

The fourth act, which comprises a truly dramatic situation and produces a profoundly gripping effect, can boast passages of such artistic force as is only within the reach of the greatest masters: Gluck, Meyerbeer, Weber, Wagner, Verdi, and a few others. The first scene is rather insignificant, but it does give Signora Barlani-Dini the opportunity to display her splendid qualities. The dramatic interest begins to unfold in the following scene, in the depths of the forest where Susanin leads the Poles in order to let them perish of cold and hunger, at the price of his own life, which he sacrifices for the Tsar [13].

Here Glinka's music reaches the loftiest heights. The bass aria is of course one of the best in the whole repertory: the accompaniment of the strings, which so vividly conveys the suffering of Susanin's grief-stricken heart as he sacrifices himself for the fatherland, causes a staggering impression. After that, the orchestra plays some music which illustrates a winter blizzard in the forest—only the professional musicians in the audience immediately appreciate the astonishing beauty of this contrapuntal work. The rest of the audience, on the other hand, instinctively senses its strong dramatic effect and bursts out into applause. At the end of the act Signor Merly too was rewarded with loud ovations.

The fifth act is very short and opens with a chorus celebrating Tsar Mikhails accession to the throne [14]. Antonida, Vanya, and Sobinin are present at the popular festivities, but with a heart crushed by grief over Susanin's death. This grief is expressed in an arioso by Vanya, which is then followed by a harmonious trio. In a strange but very effective fashion this piece is accompanied just by the cellos, reinforced by a double bass. Signora Barlani-Dini performs it as perfectly as everything else that she sang, and is rewarded with enthusiastic applause. The finale of the opera is a solemn hymn with a procession of horses, the chiming of bells, and joyous cries of the people.

The solemnity and grandeur of this finale are beyond all doubt. In the Teatro Dal Verme, however, the final scene is staged abysmally: the procession of horses is quite lamentable, the action on the stage a clumsy and chaotic mess. Two horses, instead of walking to the right, insist on galloping to the left and cause universal pandemonium. Some impatient spectators, exhausted by the length of the opera, leave before the end, and, as a result, the epilogue of the opera is not crowned with the applause which both the music and the performers so richly deserve.

Amongst the latter I should above all like to single out the conductor Signor Faccio [15], who, with his sensible and energetic commands, was the very soul of the whole performance. It is to him in particular that we are indebted for such an artistically accomplished production—something that was by no means to be expected from the Teatro Dal Verme. In studying, rehearsing, and conducting Glinka's opera so well, Signor Faccio has once again proved his talent and skill. He had never heard or seen it before, and, in order to fully appreciate the high artistic standards which he obtained from his orchestra and the singers, one should also think of all the difficulties he had to overcome in carrying out the rehearsals, correcting the individual parts, and painstakingly studying the finest details. If it is true that the Russians worship their Glinka as if he were a god, then they ought to be very grateful to the artists who performed A Life for the Tsar, and especially to Signor Faccio, who really was the very soul of this whole enterprise.

No less gratitude is due to the venerable Madame Gorchakova [16], who, with unwearying zeal and sparing no pains or sacrifices, helped to bring about this magnificent production, which is bound to heighten and spread the glory of her renowned compatriot.

"B. L."

Notes and References

  1. Entitled '"A Life for the Tsar" on a Milan Stage' in ČW.
  2. "This review was kindly forwarded to me by V. N. Kashperov" — note by P. Tchaikovsky. Vladimir Kashperov (1827–1894) was a Russian composer and professor of singing at the Moscow Conservatory from 1865 to 1872. Although there was some ill feeling between the two colleagues (see note 20 in TH 277), this clearly did not prevent them from sharing their delight at this triumph of Glinka's opera in one of the music capitals of Western Europe — translator's note.
  3. In Italy, as is well-known, the overwhelming majority of the male public stand during opera and theatre performances — note by P. Tchaikovsky.
  4. The phrase "whose heroic deed… Tsar Mikhail" was omitted from the republication of this article in the Soviet collected edition of Tchaikovsky's writings— П. И. Чайковский. Полное собрание сочинений, том II (1953), edited by Vasily Yakovlev— but restored here by way of P. Tschaikowsky. Musikalische Essays und Erinnerungen (2000), edited by Ernst Kuhn. See also notes 13 and 14.
  5. Aleksandra Grigoryevna Menshikova (1840–1902), Russian soprano, sang at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre from 1867 to 1869, and subsequently (until 1880) appeared mainly at the Saint Petersburg Mariinsky Theatre — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  6. This is indeed a very beautiful passage in A Life for the Tsar, and it is quite possible that Tchaikovsky had this effect in mind when he wrote the rousing peasants' chorus in Act I, Scene 2 of Yevgeny Onegin, where the singing of the peasants is also heard off-stage and gradually comes nearer. The interrogation mark after "Barcarolle" shows Tchaikovsky's bemusement at the Italian reviewer's attempt to explain the unusual style of Russian folk-song (which Glinka very much made his own in this opera) by comparison with the familiar concepts of western music — translator's note.
  7. Ilma di Murska (1834–1889), renowned Austrian soprano. Her vocal range (almost three octaves!) and perfect technique qualified her for high dramatic soprano roles and even for Wagner heroines — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  8. From a reader's letter published in the Saint Petersburg Register, we now know that the reviewer's wish has been fulfilled and that at the second performance Act II was left out altogether. A new choreography of the dances is being prepared for the third performance — note by P. Tchaikovsky.
  9. Latin for "After the clouds, the sun emerges".
  10. Eufemia Martella Barlani-Dini (d.1894), Italian mezzo-soprano and contralto; sang with Gayarre in La Giocondatranslator's note.
  11. Jean-Baptiste Merly (1828–1885), French baritone, début in the Paris Grand Opéra in 1851, sang at all the major European opera-houses — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  12. Antonio Cotogni (1831–1918), famous Italian baritone, appeared with the Italian Opera Company in Saint Petersburg from 1872 to 1894 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  13. The phrase "which he sacrifices for the Tsar" was omitted from the republication of this article in the Soviet collected edition of Tchaikovsky's writings (see note 4).
  14. The phrase "celebrating… to the throne" was omitted from the republication of this article in the Soviet collected edition of Tchaikovsky's writings (see note 4).
  15. Francesco Antonio Faccio (1840–1891), Italian composer and opera conductor in Milannote by Ernst Kuhn.
  16. The initiative for staging A Life for the Tsar in Milan came from Madame Gorchakova, the favourite of Kievan audiences who has now retired from the stage — note by P. Tchaikovsky. Aleksandra Aleksandrovna Gorchakova (née Mezenkampf; stage name in Italy: Santagano; 1841–1913), Russian lyric coloratura soprano; sang in Italy from 1865 to 1867, then in Kiev from 1867 to 1871 before her early retirement from the stage. She translated into Russian the librettos of some 75 foreign operas (including Carmen, Samson et Dalila, Werther, Roméo et Juliette), and translated the librettos of eight Russian operas (including A Life for the Tsar) into Italian. She financed from her own means the productions of A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Lyudmila in Milan, in 1874 — translator's note.