Bewitching Russian Opera: The Tsarina from State to Stage

spacer By Inna Naroditskaya
Oxford University Press; 401 pp. $74

Books Russian Opera lg 712

Inna Naroditskaya, a musicologist at Northwestern University, sets herself a daunting task in this broad yet highly detailed look at music during the reigns of Russia's four eighteenth-century female monarchs — Catherine I, Anna, Elisabeth and Catherine II. Rebuking scholarship that traditionally "discards operatic works before Glinka" — especially in the realm of opera-skazka (opera-fairy-tale) — the volume "explores two interconnected stories," writes Naroditskaya. "One is her story, which belongs to the Russian 'women's kingdom' … [in the eighteenth century when] women of a certain class enjoyed legal and social privileges far beyond those in Western Europe.… The other is his story, that of nineteenth-century Russian literati who contributed to the restoration of patriarchal rule, converging masculine ideals with nationalism." Among other things, the book is a consideration of history through gender conventions in Russian opera. 

The first four chapters of Bewitching Russian Opera, focusing on lesser-known eighteenth-century dramas and operas, include a fascinating look at the popular character archetypes of Dushen'ka and "poor Aniuta." Aniuta, found in many dramas of the period, predates Karamzin's 1792 story "Poor Liza," who herself became the model for many later loved-and-abandoned characters. (Think of Lisa from Queen of Spades.) Four meaty chapters tackle nineteenth-century operas by Glinka, Dargomyzhsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. Ruslan and Lyudmila, Rusalka, Mlada, Sadko and The Queen of Spades are covered and adjoined by musical examples and thorough dissection of the ways in which these operas are descended from their eighteenth-century predecessors. Among the most interesting topics covered is the widespread practice in Russia of writers and composers responding to censorship laws by filling their plots with double meanings, or providing clues in coded references; for instance, a choral polonaise (popular during Catherine the Great's time) or even a passage in the key of D-flat could be a stand-in for the empress herself. Such practices provide endless fodder for textual and musical analysis.

Catherine the Great is a large presence in the book. During her long rule, opera and dramas — usually performed in private royal theaters and often for audiences smaller than the cast of performers — were intertwined with state spectacles and incorporated elements such as slava choruses, coronations and elaborate wedding scenes that would be familiar to anyone who has seen operas such as Sadko or Ruslan and Lyudmila. The plots of these works often were recastings of recent events such as actual coronations or victories in military campaigns. It was not uncommon for eighteenth-century monarchs to write prose, poetry, drama or music, and Catherine the Great was no exception, writing five plays and the librettos for four operas. The author attacks the "historical bias" against Catherine's plays: "Their acute and pointed humor matches the tone of emerging native comic operas.... Had these plays been written by anyone else, Russian critics would have applied an entirely different analytical approach, celebrating these comedies as forerunners of the anti-absolutist movement." Arguing that the nineteenth-century operas, through their plots, actively sought to eliminate anything that would evoke powerful and/or sexually voracious empresses from the 1700s (especially Catherine II), Naroditskaya is at her most impassioned. "For the nationalist male ego — masculinity masquerading as nationalism — the memory and image of formidable empresses was unbearable. She should be put to sleep and subdued like Lyudmila, or ridiculed and defeated like Naina." 

Perhaps the book's most cohesive chapter is its final one, "The Inescapable Queen," analyzing The Queen of Spades from myriad angles. That chapter begins with a quotation from the 1833 Pushkin story in which Gherman is transfixed by the portrait of the Muscovite Venus (the Countess). "This episode," Naroditskaya writes, "could be viewed as the poet's imaginary encounter with Catherine II, had she not died two and a half years before he was born. Like his protagonist standing before the portrait of the eighteenth-century beauty, Pushkin was enticed by the glamour of the century, which he, born in its last year, did not experience. Sifting through every piece of Catherine's writing, hand copying her works, attending dinners and jotting down gossip shared by the relics of her time, envying the opportunities he missed, he found satisfaction in disparaging and satirizing the era and the woman." Unlike some other chapters of the book, in which the author devotes a lot of space to critiquing other academic research, here she dissects the story and opera in her own freewheeling, entertaining way, jumping from music analysis to historical observations and psychological insights. Gherman's obsession with the cards and the Countess seems to mirror Naroditskaya's own fascination with Catherine's presence in The Queen of Spades.

Naroditskaya's writing veers between almost impenetrable academese, as in "Inoskazanie relies on the hermeutics of intertextuality," and more relaxed and genuinely entertaining descriptions, such as the use of the term "liquidation" to refer to Volkhova's watery death in Rimsky-Korsakov's Sadko, or the following description of Rimsky-Korsakov's Mlada: "This opera, entitled with a lovely sounding female name, is about a man, his sexual pressures, fears, failures, and spiritual substitutions, monomania, possibly his dreams of himself as Mlada (young) and Lada (good-looking)." About the use of a non-singing dancer as the title character in Mlada, Naroditskaya asks, "Is this a prank?" 

Bewitching Russian Opera is heavily researched, with fifty-four pages of footnotes, but the fact that there is neither an appendix listing the operas covered nor a glossary of terms will make it a frustrating volume for research and reference. The target audience is presumably history scholars and devoted followers of Russian opera; with its heavy plot analysis, the book could also be a useful resource for stage directors. Naroditskaya's curiosity about everything related to this era jumps off the page, and her lines of reasoning are fascinating, but this is a dense piece of scholarship likely best consumed in small doses. spacer 


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