The Russians are Coming! Locating the Slavic Soul in Opera

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I try whenever possible to point readers to small opera companies doing important work, of which New York has many. After the large hiccup—let’s call it a belch—presented by the financial crisis that hit in 2008, companies began to surface again like mushrooms and truffles after torrential rains.

One of these is Opera Slavica, whose guiding spirit is the excellent musician William Hobbs. He is a pianist, conductor, teacher and orchestrator.

The concept of Slavic is large and important, one that could be given to great interpretation. I have heard it said that Europe can, in broad terms, be divided into three cultures. The first is grouped around the North Sea and might be called Germanic/Nordic/Britannic. This would be the British Isles, Scandinavia, Germany, the Low Countries and northern France.  The second would be called Latin, and would be centered on Italy plus Iberia and southern France. The third section would be known as Slavic and include the Balkans, Eastern Europe, the three Baltic republics, Russia and Ukraine.

Part of my fascination for the city of Trieste is that it is the place in Europe where Germanic, Latin and Slavic cultures converge as they do nowhere else. But that is a subject for another day.

The Slavic world is a complex one. And it is complex societies that often produce the most fascinating and contradictory works of art. often about peoples who have been highly oppressed, either by government, poverty or inner demons that might torment the soul but result in timeless works of art.  

Think of the heartfelt music of Chopin. The huge sweep and crushing inevitability of Russian novels or the bittersweet tenderness of Pushkin or Chekhov. Or the tangy irony of Ionesco's plays or the small-scale but apocalyptic incidents in Kafka. Or the soulfulness and rhythmic energy of Gypsy music. These are all purely Slavic sensations.

One of the first pieces of classical music that made me sit up and listen and really feel something—even if I did not know what I was feeling, was Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave, which I found more impressive than the showy 1812 Overture. Something about the Marche Slave, or Slavic March, skipped right past my analytical faculties and got right under my skin. I don’t know if it is my ancient Russian roots—my family escaped poverty and pogroms there in the 1880s and never looked back—or just that this music has hypnotic power.

When it comes to opera, the particular sounds of two Slavic languages—Czech and Russian—cannot help but provoke feelings of tenderness and sentimentality and, on occasion, a sense of alienation and despair. I think they give as much character and color to the stories they tell as do the three original languages of opera—Italian, French, and German.

Czech opera reflects the identity of a small nation with a strong cultural heritage that has frequently been overrun by Germans, Austrians or Russians. Nations that are under occupation cling much more closely to their history and language. Smetana’s The Bartered Bride is the prime example of Czech opera as it reinforces identity using humor and sentiment much more effectively and economically than Wagner did with his gargantuan Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Dvorak’s works, especially Rusalka, connect to the spirits and sprites of Czech landscape and folklore. I have come to believe that Leos Janacek, whose marvelous operas include Jenufa, Katja Kabanová, the Makropulos Affair and The Cunning Little Vixen, deserves a status equal to Puccini and Strauss as the best opera composers of the early 20th century.

Russian operas are often grand tableaux of heroism and suffering: Boris Godunov, Khovanschina, Prince Igor, Mazeppa, War and Peace. Others are more intimate, such as Eugene Onegin, but even this opera has a grandeur in its dance music.

A Double Bill of Rarities

Opera Slavica was founded by Hobbs in 2009 as a sort of hybrid. It was intended as a training program for young professional singers to learn Slavic languages but became a performing company to give the artists the opportunity to use what they learned. The company performed Dvorak’s Rusalka, Janacek’s Jenufa and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, all iconic works in the Slavic canon.

On August 22 and 23, Opera Slavica will appear at the Bohemian National Hall (321 East 73rd Street) in Manhattan with a double bill of unusual operas that certainly merit your attention. There is Iolanta (1892), the last opera by Tchaikovsky, and Maddalena (1911), the first opera by Prokofiev. The company describes the plot of the latter as “a scandalous, hot-blooded love triangle.”

Prokofiev completed a piano version of Maddalena but, for various reasons, never orchestrated it or had it performed during his lifetime. These performances will mark the New York premiere of Maddalena, its American premiere in Russian, and the world premiere of the opera in Hobbs’s arrangement for chamber ensemble. In 1982, the opera was performed in English by the Opera Company of St. Louis, with orchestration by Sir Edward Downes.

I contacted William Hobbs to ask him about the operas he programmed, especially Maddalena, which I know not at all. He replied, “I have always had a deep fondness for Prokofiev, both because of the ear-splitting causticity of the sonorities and because of the deep lyrical and sentimental thread that runs through so much of his music. He had very poor luck during his lifetime with most of his operatic projects despite the fact that The Fiery Angel and Love for Three Oranges have to be counted among the most significant operas of the 20th century.  The score is astonishingly original, especially considering Prokofiev was just 20 at the time of its composition. 

“It also is a testament to Prokofiev's forward-looking vision as a composer. Written just two years after Elektra, the score has no functional tonality at all, and predates both Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. In short, the score manifests everything I have always found fascinating in Prokofiev and, like its composer, deserves to be better known and appreciated for its originality and synthesis of Romanticism and Modernism.”

Here is a recent performance of Maddalena from Rostov-on-Don, Russia. It is not indicated whose orchestration is being used:

Hobbs programmed the double-bill with Maddalena as his point of departure. His original idea was to pair it with Rimsky-Korsakov's Kashchey the Immortal. He told me he wanted “to pit the nascent modernism of Rimsky's forward-looking score against the vestigial Romanticism of Prokofiev's score.” Then he decided that the Prokofiev and Rimsky operas would “dilute each other” in a double bill, “so I opted to bring Tchaikovsky's last and perhaps most mature lyrical flowering to the stage."

"It is incredible that the two operas were composed just 19 years apart, but could not be more different in their dramatic sensibilities and musical aesthetic," he continued. "My interest in presenting these operas back-to-back is to explore how profound the cultural sea changes really were that occurred between the end of the Czarist period and the beginning of the Soviet period. Obviously Maddalena predates the Revolution by 6 years, but the cultural sea change in Russia was clearly under way.”

According to Hobbs, “In addition to offering training in Slavic languages and performing experience, our mission is to promote understanding between American audiences and the countries of the former Eastern Bloc, so vilified in the 20th century and so poorly understood in the 21st."

Iolanta has a libretto by Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest and is based on a fable by Henrik Hertz called “King René's Daughter.” Hertz got the idea from Hans Christian Andersen, whose writings inspired the story of The Nutcracker. In fact, the opera and the ballet were first presented on the same evening, Dec. 6, 1892, in the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. They proved a great success among the public but the critical response was more mixed.

The opera is the story of a young princess who lives in Provence in a castle surrounded by high walls. She is blind but, because those who serve her are instructed not to talk about colors or anything else that might make her realize that she has this disability, she is unaware of it. Her father, the king, hopes that she will be healed so that she can discover who her intended husband is—Robert, Duke of Burgundy. I will not reveal how it ends.

Below is an old film version of Iolanta from the Soviet era. I think that, in addition to Tchaikovsky’s inimitable sound, you might hear traces of Massenet, Delibes and, at the conclusion, Wagner at his most mystical. Although Rimsky-Korsakov did not think much of Iolanta, it was a favorite of Gustav Mahler, who conducted it in Hamburg and Vienna. This video makes for a good introduction to the opera, but I would recommend hearing it live, as performed by Opera Slavica, and discovering the tantalizing Maddalena.