Great Russian operas in the Bolshoi Repertoire
A list of upcoming Russian operas not to be missed this year
Text by Valerie Stivers
A favourite culture trick of mine when I lived in Moscow in the early ’00s was to show up whenever I had time for cheap, same-day tickets to see opera at the Bolshoi. Back then, the mysterious powers inside the window marked KACCA seemed to be saving VIP placements until the very last minute, when they became willing to sell front-row seats for the equivalent of $20. This was in the historic building near the Kremlin prior to the theatre’s major renovation completed in 2011, when the parquet was scuffed and creaky the seats were worn and they served buterbrod and Russian champanskoye at the buffet. I went indiscriminately, and thus came to know and love the lesser-travelled works of the Russian canon.
Abroad, of course, we see Tchaikovsky’s operas, but usually only Eugene Onegin, or if we’re lucky Shostakovich’s opera The Nose, but in Russia opportunity abounds to see other great operas by Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, as well as those from lesser-travelled Russians like Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
Theatre Square, 1, Moscow
Peter Ouroussoff, Michael Maddox
The modern Bolshoi is now a more glamorous and complex affair. There are now three stages, Historic, New and the Boris Pokrovsky Chamber Stage, and same-day seats are unusual, thanks to COVID rules allowing only 50-percent occupancy.
The following are the highlights of Russian opera currently in the theatre’s repertoire, most of which will be on view in the upcoming year. Naturally, the company also performs international classics as its second mandate, after “showcasing the opera of Russia in an exemplary way,” explained Katerina Novikova, the Bolshoi director of public relations. In the future, Novikova expects the company will add opera by Prokofiev to the repertoire.
An opera by St. Petersburg-based composer Ilya Demutsky, a young rising star of Russian classical music is also another new addition. Demutsky’s previous opera, Black Square, was staged in Moscow, in English, in an exhibition hall at the New Tretyakov Gallery. The opera was based on Victory Over The Sun, an opera staged by Russian futurists in 1913, and named after the famous painting by Kazimir Malevich — provided by the museum for use in the show, a stunning cultural opportunity for those in attendance.
One of the best-known Russian operas, Eugene Onegin has a libretto based on the 1833 novel-in-verse by Alexander Pushkin. The book is one of the great classics of world literature, and tells the story of an idle young aristocrat who wins and ultimately loses the love of a forthright young woman. Pushkin’s fizzing verse and sophisticated self-consciousness were revolutionary at the time of publication. The opera premiered in Moscow at the Moscow Conservatory in 1879 and was first shown at the Bolshoi in 1881. This staging, which debuted in 2019, takes a simple and fresh approach that foregrounds the setting in the Russian countryside.
One of the most iconic of the Russian classics, this opera saw its premier in 1884 at the Bolshoi. It is inspired by a poem by Pushkin written in 1829 about the historic battle of Poltava in the Ukraine in 1709, when Tsar Peter the Great defeated the Swedish King Charles XII, despite the betrayal of the hetman of the Ukrainian Cossacks Ivan Stepanovich Mazeppa. The historical Mazeppa cast his lot with the Swedes in a bid for regional independence. The opera is a fictionalisation of Mazeppa’s relationship with the daughter of a wealthy Cossack landowner. A new production by the Bolshoi is set to premiere on the Historic Stage in 2021, running from the 23–27 of June.
The 1932 collection of stories by Nikolai Gogol, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, is Gogol for insiders, and the story “Christmas Eve,” from which the libretto for this opera was taken contains all the Gogolian motifs — a nasty devil, crafty peasant heroes, and a seething animist countryside. The opera’s premiere was in 1887 at the Bolshoi, and was conducted by Tchaikovsky — his debut as a conductor. The Bolshoi’s 2008 staging takes a “comic-fantastic” approach, and is on view at the Boris Pokrovsky Chamber Stage.
The historical Boris Godunov reigned as Russian Tsar from 1598 to 1605 during the Time of Troubles, and was eventually dethroned by the first False Dmitry, who claimed to be the son of Ivan the Terrible. The opera’s libretto is based on a dramatisation of those events written by Pushkin in 1925, and the composition is a dramatic story of its own. First composed by Modest Mussorgsky in 1874, it is his only completed opera, but was updated by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1898 and 1908, to correct perceived flaws. The Bolshoi’s current staging is a 2011 revival of a 1948 production that uses the version and orchestration by Rimsky-Korsakov.
Sadko is the story of the fantastic adventures of a 12th-century musician from Novgorod. Composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov wrote the libretto and composed the opera in seven acts, one of which takes place in the realms under the sea. The opera is considered to be exemplary of the composer’s strengths, though is unlikely to be seen outside of Russia. The Bolshoi staged it for the first time in 36 years with a new production in February 2020, setting a modern Sadko in an amusement park, a comment on the role of medieval Russian history in contemporary Russian society. The director is Dmitri Tcherniakov, whose 2011 production of Ruslan and Lyudmila for the Bolshoi caused controversy.
Katerina Izmailova is a 1962 updated version of legendary opera of the Russian avant-garde, Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District — in which an unhappily married woman in provincial, pre-revolutionary Russia falls in love with a man who works at the flour mill owned by her husband’s family, and is eventually driven to murder her father-in-law, and her husband too for good measure. The original premiered in 1934 in Leningrad, to popular acclaim and some controversy due to its sexual content, which is reflected in the music. It caused the 29-year-old rising star of Russian opera, Shostakovich, to be denounced, perhaps by Stalin personally in 1936, and the opera was banned in the Soviet Union until 1962. A re-staging of the original was causing controversy in Moscow when I saw it, twice, in 2004 (those affordable same-day tickets). The current staging premiered in 2016.
Sometimes known as just Cheryomushki, this opera was composed by Shostakovich in the late 1950s, based on a libretto by two leading Soviet humorists. It’s a real-estate opera about a group of people who are granted new housing in a development outside of Moscow known for its “bird-cherry” trees (the cheryomuskhi of the title), and is a rare example of light-hearted, late-period Shostakovich. Moscow, Cheryomushki has seen a bit of an international revival in recent years. A new production by the Bolshoi will premiere on March 25th, 2021.
Photos: Cover – Courtesy of Bolshoi Theatre, 1,2,3 – Rischgitz/Getty Images, 4 – Hulton Archive/Getty Images, 5 – Tommy Cahill/Getty images, 6 – Olga Zinovskaya/Shutter stock, 7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15 – Courtesy of Bolshoi Theatre