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<<  -- 2 --  Roderic Dunnett    MAD ABOUT GLINKA


Yet it was Glinka, along with his younger contemporaries Alexander Darghomizhky (1813-69) and Alexander Serov (1820-71), who made the real breakthrough with Russian opera. Glinka's first operatic effort, based on a story by Sir Walter Scott, reached sketch form only, as did his second, based on his friend, the poet Vasily Zhukhovsky.

Foreign travel transformed his fortunes. By the time Ivan Susanin took shape, to a text forged mainly by the German-born Tsarevich's secretary, Yegor Rozen (or Rosen), travels abroad had completely reshaped Glinka's operatic perception and potential.

The patriotic story immortalised as A Life for the Tsar is set in the early 1600s, the time of the establishment of the Romanov dynasty, consequent upon the upheavals that followed Ivan the Terrible's death and the civil war-vexed reigns of Boris Godunov and the false Dmitri, which prefaced the Thirty Years' War. The tale -- given contemporary nationalistic impetus by Russia's recent experiences against Napoleon -- is simple and direct : Susanin, a Polish peasant and retainer of the Romanov boyar family (sung at the première by the great Ukrainian bass Osip Petrov), knowing that the newly elected young Tsar Nicholas -- still a teenager -- is sheltering in a monastery on the family estate at Kostroma, is required by invading Poles to reveal his whereabouts. Susanin pretends to assist them, but instead warns the Tsar and leads them astray. Susanin is killed, but in a glorious final tableau the Romanov Tsar is seen on the way to his coronation, a new hope for the future.

The opera laid the historical groundwork for Boris Godunov, Khovanshchina and a host of ensuing historically-based Russian grand operas. The solo writing is impressive, especially Susanin's long nocturnal soliloquy as he reflects on his suicidal decision (an astonishing extended set-piece which moves the Italian multi-section aria-arioso firmly in the direction of mature Verdi), the dramatic soprano writing for Susanin's daughter Antonida, one vital tenor aria (for her officer fiancé) and two long contralto sections for Susanin's adopted son Vanya, one of them appended a year after the première in an amended Act IV.

The optimistic, folk-imbued duet for Susanin and Vanya just before the crisis unfolds is both beautiful and moving. A slowly unfolded quartet owes much to the blossoming Italian tradition. All the chorus writing, including some clarinet-led boat music in which strings imitate a balalaika, a wedding song that yields to anguish, some vigorous, aggressive Polish bravado, and the noble imperial finale, is dramatic and vivid. Glinka evolved his own influential form of aria-recitative for narrative and dialogue which his successors later took up, and achieved a degree of thematic unity with signal motifs (most notably for the notion of regality) that lends the opera even more weight.

Feodor Chaliapin as Ivan Susanin
Feodor Chaliapin as Ivan Susanin

Great modern performers from Chaliapin inwards, including Christoff, Ghiaurov, Ghusulev (all Bulgarians) and Nesterenko, have made the massive role of Susanin one of their calling cards, just as Valery Gergiev more recently made Ruslan and Lyudmila an early Mariinsky calling card at the Edinburgh Festival during the 1990s.

Glinka's operas each stand apart from anything being written in Russia at that time. Born into a comfortable landed gentry family near Smolensk, just how did he come to achieve this supremacy among Russian composers and the accolades of his successors?

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Copyright © 11 May 2003 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK


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