Midge Woolsey, WQXR Host
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Most opera lovers are familiar with Tatyana in Eugene Onegin and Lisa in The Queen of Spades, but Tchaikovsky also wrote some fabulous music for several other heroines in operas that aren’t heard very often. In this edition of Opera in Brief, F. Paul Driscoll, editor in chief of Opera News Magazine, introduces us to three of Tchaikovsky’s lesser-known heroines.
As is the case with both Tatyana and Lisa, these roles are traditionally sung by mature voices. The performers cited below – Renée Fleming, Dolora Zajick and Natalia Sokolova - were all over 40 when they made the featured recordings. “The trick about Tchaikovsky’s heroines,” Driscoll told us, “is that they’re all very young but his orchestrations are very heavy. So even though the ladies in these operas are supposed to be teenagers, they need a lot of heft to cut through.” Simply put, “this rep is not for sissies,” he said.
As for why these operas aren’t performed very often in the international repertory, Driscoll said that it’s hard to get singers to learn them because they’re long and difficult. And most people don’t want to invest so much time learning something that they might only perform once or twice in a lifetime.**
Although she is betrothed to another, Natal’ya, the daughter of a Prince, is loved by Andrey Morozov, a boyar’s son who has joined the oprichniki, the Tsar’s mercenaries. “It’s a gorgeous piece of music,” Driscoll says, “It’s a very rich role. Tchaikovsky captured suffering womanhood as well as any composer did in his era.”
This recording features Renée Fleming in her mid-40s and yet there is “a freshness, urgency and youthfulness that suits this music beautifully.”
The Maid of Orléans is “Tchaikovsky’s opera version of Schiller’s 'Die Jungfrau von Orléans,' which means that we have a French peasant girl who is the subject of a German play which becomes a Russian opera,” Driscoll explained. “Most people know this aria in French as “Adieu, forêts.” Joan says goodbye to the fields and hills of her native Domrémy as she prepares to leave home to fight for France.
The beautiful young widow Nastasya, nicknamed Kuma, is known as the enchantress because every man who sees her falls in love with her. At the beginning of the opera she sings this song about the river Volga. “It’s a metaphor for her vitality, her beauty and her Russianness,” said Driscoll. “What I like about this particular piece is the way Tchaikovsky uses orchestration to give color to support the voice, and to give a little bit of magic and conviction to the fact that this is a woman that people fall in love with.”
(**Though Tchaikovsky’s lesser-known heroines remain unfamiliar even today, it is rumored that the Metropolitan Opera will be mounting a production of another of Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard gems, Iolanta for Anna Netrebko in a future season.)