Dargomyzhsky's "Rusalka". The Italian Opera

Tchaikovsky Research

Dargomyzhsky's "Rusalka". The Italian Opera («Русалка» Даргомыжского. Итальянская опера) [1] (TH 281 ; ČW 545) was Tchaikovsky's eighteenth music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 14 September 1873 [O.S.], signed only with the initials "B.L.".

In this first article covering the 1873/74 musical season, Tchaikovsky continues to criticise the low quality of the productions staged by Moscow's Italian Opera Company, despite so much money being invested in it and despite receiving so much attention from the public, to the detriment of the Russian Opera; enthusiastic praise for the "truthful and melodious recitatives" of Dargomyzhsky's Rusalka (premiered in 1856) alongside an attack on the same composer's even more radical approach to the relationship between music and text in his unfinished opera The Stone Guest (posthumously premiered in 1872); another glowing review of Yevlaliya Kadmina in a new role; more ironic remarks about Merelli's Italian Opera Company


Completed by 14/26 September 1873 (date of publication). Considering the revival of Aleksandr Dargomyzhsky's opera Rusalka in Moscow on 2/14 September 1873, featuring Yevlaliya Kadminaas the Princess; and a performance of Verdi's Il Trovatore at the city's Bolshoi Theatre on 10/22 September 1873

English translation

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It is now almost five months since I last discussed with readers of the Russian Register events in the music life of our city. During this considerable stretch of time a dead calm has prevailed in the field of my musical observations. True, in the near environs of the capital the music-hall strains of the Offenbach repertoire and other piquant wares manufactured in Paris have been sounding non-stop. True, every day posters went up announcing musical celebrations in this or that club—but the point is that all this does not fall under the remit of my chronicles, since in all places of entertainment of this kind music plays an altogether secondary role and is indeed just seen as a traditional accessory to pleasures of a decidedly non-aesthetic nature.

I know very well that even during the opera and concert season music life in Moscow is in the majority of cases no more than an illusion—and a very comic one at that because it is such a small-scale and short-lived affair. I know that, with the exception of the Russian Musical Society's concerts, all the events that make up our music life are cause for either indignation or scorn, but I am still obliged to talk about them. I cannot just ignore them because they do at any rate attract public attention to quite a considerable degree and offer plenty of material for my modest observations.

Now is it not the case that during the winter season in Moscow the Italian Opera absorbs almost all of the attention of a large majority of the public? Indeed, it is the Italian Opera which everyone cares about, it is the talk of the whole city; for its sake a huge and complex administrative apparatus is in place, with a whole legion of theatre officials from the lowest to the highest ranks! And yet take a good look, or rather listen carefully to the result of all this bustling activity involving so many people—some of them no doubt being very capable and conscientious—and you will soon come to the conclusion that our Italian Opera is nothing but sheer illusion!

We have a splendid opera-house with a large stage that has been adapted to allow for all kinds of special effects—ear-deafening thunder, say, if a storm is to be represented—a stage which has trap-doors for the appearance or disappearance of figures with demonic powers, which is equipped with electric lighting (and other types too), with huge and often beautiful scenery, machines, costumes, and props. We can also boast an orchestra, choruses, a ballet troupe—and yet what we don't have is opera in the sense that this word is understood in the western European capitals. We cannot follow the action on the stage because we don't know the language in question and the available librettos (which, by the way, are translated horrendously) are very expensive.

The scenery, costumes, and props are almost always so full of glaring anachronisms (sometimes of a very funny nature), the orchestra is so understaffed and plays so out of tune and sluggishly that the desired musical effect is never achieved. As for the choruses, there is just no way of hearing them, but if the hoarse sounds which they utter do accidentally reach a listener's ear, then it is merely to lacerate the poor fellow's auditory nerves! The beautiful, sometimes even phenomenal, voices of the Italian soloists do, it is true, captivate the ear, but only for an instant, because as soon as they start singing together they invariably garble their way through the text, and they do so, moreover, no worse than our worthy Madame Turchaninova, who, as we may mention in passing, has attained the highest degree of mastery in the art of musical garbling.

Now tell me: is this all not a huge illusion? An illusion that is all the more surprising in that an overwhelming majority of the public treats it as something quite serious? But enough said about the Italian Opera for now! I will have many a future occasion to speak about it in general and about its marvellous performances here in Moscow.

Dargomyzhsky's "Rusalka"

I shall now proceed with my report about the recent revival, by our city's Russian Opera Company, of Dargomyzhsky's delightful opera Rusalka. The Russian Opera in Moscow is dragging out an even more miserable existence than that of the Italian. In the case of the latter company, public interest is sustained considerably by the appearance of a large number of soloists (some already familiar to theatre-goers and others completely new) who very often are quite remarkable by virtue of both the beauty of their voices and their artistry. In the Russian Opera, in contrast, which for a long time has been borne on the shoulders of the same more or less estimable, conscientious, albeit rather aged, singers, all the interest lies exclusively in the splendid music of our operas, which, though they may be few in number, really are first-rate. So enchanting is the music of these few operas by our finest operatic composers, that for its sake alone one can sometimes even forget about the scandalously abysmal way in which they are staged!

By virtue of its melodic delights, the warmth and naturalness of its inspiration, the elegance of its cantilenas and recitative, Rusalka, in the pantheon of Russian operas, is without any doubt second only to Glinka's two operas of unattainable genius. Unfortunately, the splendid qualities of this extremely appealing work are overshadowed by its considerable faults, which derive from the lamentable fact that the late Dargomyzhsky did not receive a solid technical grounding, and that, consequently, in spite of his vigorous talent, he proved to be a dilettante in the sense of not finishing things off properly and a lack of critical self-assessment, all of which are unfortunately reflected in every page written by this gifted composer. Last year, when discussing Glinka with regard to the revival of his Ruslan and Lyudmila [2], I pointed out to my readers those unfortunate circumstances which resulted from the composer's social position and, to an even greater extent, from the way of life and customs of that time, and which prevented Glinka from securing a place right up there with the greatest masters of European music.

The same unfavourable circumstances, i.e. an artistically undeveloped milieu, impinged to an equal extent on the artistic evolution of the highly gifted Dargomyzhsky. It was only thanks to the amazingly fine intuition of his richly endowed and extremely characteristic individuality that Dargomyzhsky was able to attain, in some aspects of the operatic genre, a level of artistic perfection which has only ever been reached by a few chosen ones.

It is well-known that Dargomyzhsky's strength lies in his astonishingly realistic, and at the same time gracefully melodious, recitatives, which endow his splendid opera with the charm of inimitable originality. The late composer was himself evidently conscious of where the predominant strength of his talent lay, and this consciousness, which was unfortunately not backed up by a firm critical basis, suggested to him the strange idea of writing a whole operatic work consisting exclusively of nothing but recitative. For this purpose Dargomyzhsky selected the text of Pushkin's The Stone Guest, and, without changing a single letter in it, without adapting it to the demands of the operatic genre—as is usually the case when a work of literature is chosen as the canvas for the broad musico-dramatic contours of an opera [3]—he strung recitatives onto every line of the original text.

Now everyone knows that recitative, lacking as it does any specific rhythm and clearly traced melodic lines, is not in itself a musical form—it is merely the cement which binds together the individual parts of the musical edifice, and is necessary on the one hand for the simple purposes of plot development, and, on the other, by way of contrast to the opera's lyrical moments. What a lamentable delusion on the part of a composer whose audacious talent was not guided by the sober understanding of an aesthetically cultivated artist! Writing an opera without music—is that not the same as fabricating a play without words and a plot?

I must, though, return to Rusalka. As I already said, the principal merit of this opera lies in the extraordinary truthfulness and elegance of its recitatives, as well as in the beauty of its melodic contours. As for harmony and orchestral technique, it must be said that in these respects Dargomyzhsky stands far beneath not just Glinka, but beneath most other Russian composers too. It is perhaps for this reason that he was much less successful with the fantastic element of his opera than with the realistic scenes. For in order to convey effectively the underwater world of the rusalki [water nymphs], it would have been essential to have a fine feeling for musical colour and to be able to express this through a picturesque and brilliant instrumentation [4]—and it is precisely this ability which Dargomyzhsky so lacked. His orchestra is limp, dry, and devoid of any striking effects; his harmonic technique is at times interesting but lacks that mastery in polyphonic development which is characteristic of Mozart, Glinka, and other great masters in the realm of fantastic opera.

With regard to this particular performance of Rusalka, I can only say that it was of a kind as you are never likely to hear outside of Moscow. In the ensemble scenes there was complete chaos; the orchestra sounded feeble and sluggish; the choruses, as always, sang mercilessly out of tune; and the staging was extremely careless and wretched.

Of the soloists in the cast I shall just discuss the two new ones: Madame Kadmina, who appeared in the role of the Princess, and Madame Turchaninova, who because Madame Ivanova was taken sick, had to take over the small part of the Princess's confidante. Because of its extremely low diapason the role of the Princess is not quite suitable for the talented Madame Kadmina's vocal means. However, the remarkable gifts of this young singer, the fine sensitivity with which she had felt and thought through her interpretation, her fresh and pleasant voice, and, last but not least, her attractive stage presence, all combined here, as in her previous roles, to mark her out prominently from all the other performers. Madame Kadmina performed her aria in Act IV with such artistic self-command, with such graceful simplicity and warmth, that it really did seem as if she had been a professional singer for many years already and had assimilated everything that makes up the art of musical and dramatic performance. And yet it was only a few months ago that Madame Kadmina made her stage début! [5] What deserves our particular praise is also the fact that Madame Kadmina, unlike so many of our singers, has that rare quality of being highly consistent throughout her entire role. This is an invaluable quality which she has picked up from her teacher, and one cannot but be delighted that Madame Aleksandrova, in addition to good vocal technique, has been able to impart to her pupil something too of her remarkable musicality. Alas, it is this prized quality which Madame Turchaninova is utterly devoid of, and she cannot sing a single bar without getting herself and those around her into a muddle, which is a shame because Madame Turchaninova's voice is actually quite beautiful.

The Italian Opera

Moscow's Italomanes are rejoicing. The new season, which promises them a long series of exhilarating highlights, has already opened—on Monday in fact, with a performance of Il Trovatore, an opera which has already managed to bore everyone to death. The production featured two old acquaintances of ours: Signori Rota and Masini [6]. The former has lost none of his formidable vocal technique, although his voice has deteriorated considerably during the period that we have been denied the pleasure of hearing him sing.

As for Signor Masini, it seems to me that he is quickly following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Signor Stagno [7], who, as we all remember very well, shouted himself (or rather his beautiful voice) hoarse in his efforts to please his fans up there in the gallery, and indeed not just them but most of the rest of the audience too. Apart from a couple of sonorous chest tones ("B" and "C"), there is nothing left in Signor Masini that would be worthy of the attention of true connoisseurs of the art of singing. What he has to offer us instead of singing is some sort of hoarse squeaking; instead of acting he throws up his hands in the air like an automaton; instead of expressiveness, what we get from him are sickly-sweet prolonged notes from the falsetto register. The Muscovites, however, susceptible as they are to coarse demonstrations of strength, overlook all these little faults, and, as soon as Signor Masini strikes up one of his high chest notes, they work themselves up into a veritable frenzy of enthusiasm, as if in this extremely un-artistic screaming they somehow saw the cherished aim and purpose of their diligent visits to the Italian Opera.

Of the new members of Signor Merelli's troupe, it is impossible not to commen Madame d'Angeri [8], who has a rich and sonorous soprano voice, clean intonation, and a very good vocal technique. In contrast, Madame Bernhardi, who very conscientiously hammed her way through the role of Azucena, turned out to be a frightfully poor singer, with a broken voice and an utter lack of solid technical grounding. Apart from the boisterous applause elicited by Signor Masini's chest notes, the performance went down rather indifferently, and I was in fact surprised by the audience's coldness—surely quite inexplicable in view of such a moving occasion as the inauguration of the Italian Opera's new season?!

"B. L."

Notes and References

  1. Entitled '"Rusalka" by Dargomyžskij—The Italian Opera' in ČW.
  2. See TH 264.
  3. These critical remarks about Dargomyzhsky's use of Pushkin's The Stone Guest (one of the so-called 'Little Tragedies' written by Russia's national bard in the summer of 1830) without adapting the verses so that they could be sung, even if only in melodic recitative (as Dargomyzhsky had done in his earlier opera Rusalka, also based on a dramatic poem by Pushkin), are especially interesting in view of the problems Tchaikovsky himself would face when adapting, and (more embarrassingly) expanding on, the verses of Yevgeny Onegin in 1878–79. So as to avoid sole responsibility for this adaptation, Tchaikovsky delegated some aspects of this task to his brother Modest, and Konstantin Shilovskytranslator's note.
  4. A few years earlier Tchaikovsky, in Undina, had himself tried his hand at an opera whose fantastic subject was quite close to that of his favourite work by Dargomyzhsky, as well as sharing the theme of two lovers who belong to different worlds. It is interesting that Tchaikovsky would re-use some of the music from Undina (whose score he burnt) in later works which are also based on this tragic conflict: The Snow Maiden and Swan Laketranslator's note.
  5. See TH 280 for an enthusiastic review of Yevlaliya Kadmina's début in the role of Vanya in Glinka's A Life for the Tsar.
  6. 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.
  7. Roberto Stagno (originally Andreoli; 1840–1897), well-known Italian tenor, performed in Moscow in the 1869–70 season — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  8. Anna d'Angeri (stage name of Anna Angermayer; 1853–1907), Austrian soprano, débuted in Mantua in 1872, subsequent engagements in Venice and at La Scala in Milannote by Ernst Kuhn.