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Culture news, 06.05.2004 15:19

'First Russian opera' to be revived in Mariinsky Theatre

Mikhail Glinka In Russia, "A Life For The Tsar" is widely considered to be the country's first classical national opera, while its author Mikhail Glinka is traditionally referred to as the founder of Russian operatic school. This month the Mariinsky theater is reviving this operatic jewel, which was the first show that the theater opened with in 1836.

The new production, showing on May 30th and June 1st, marks 200th anniversary since the composer's birth. "A Life For The Tsar" is set in 1612, and is loosely based on a legend about a Russian peasant Ivan Susanin from the town of Kostroma, who saves the life of Mikhail Romanov, the founder of the Romanov dynasty. At the cost of his own life, Susanin misleads the Polish troops, who invaded Russia during its "Times of Troubles" (1605-1613) with a plan to murder Romanov before he succeeds to the throne.

Written in 1836, the opera is believed to be inspired by the Russian victory in Napoleonic war in 1812. The composer discussed the topic with the literary elite of his time, including Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol and Vasily Zhukovsky, with the latter even volunteering to write a libretto. In the end, the libretto was completed by baron Yegor von Rozen. After the 1812 victory, the quest for the Russian cultural identity - as opposed to Gallomania of the 18th century - preoccupied the minds of the country's aristocracy and intellectuals. The aristocrats admired the courage and dedication of the Russian peasants who had sacrificed their lives for the cause, whereas the gentry had often fled the estates seeking safer places. In 1812, when Glinka was 8 years old, their family estate was devastated by the French army on its way to the Russian capital.

For Glinka, the parallels between the 1612 Susanin's courageous self-sacrifice and the patriotism of peasant soldiers in 1812, were obvious. The opera heralding the virtues of simple men, reflected the tendency in the 19th century Russia of growing number of aristocrats to seek the genuine, sincere Russia in the provinces and reject the Western way of life as alien. The "Slavsya" (Glory) chorus from the opera has several times been offered to serve as a national anthem of Russia. Last time the chorus lost the battle to the restored Soviet anthem by Alexandrov. The first Russian opera is very European in its form and structure. Both the Russian musical roots and the Italian tradition can be traced in the work.

During the Soviet era, the opera was seen on stage in a severely altered version. The opera's patriotic fever appealed to the Communists but they obviously wouldn't let Susanin's sacrifice to take place in the name of a monarch. Thus Mikhail Romanov was replaced by partisan leader Kuzma Minin and his warriors [who fought for liberation of Moscow in 1612], while the altered opera appeared - and can still be seen in a number of Russian companies, including the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow - under the title "Ivan Susanin."

Dmitry Chernyakov, the director of the forthcoming Mariinsky production who also directed the Golden Mask-winning production of "The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh" at the Mariinsky in January 2001, claims to have left all conventions and stereotypes related to the opera, and the story behind. "It is all my own perception, and I am not visualizing what other people have said about Russia," he said. "The audiences can be sure that what they are going to see is absolutely sincere."

"A Life For The Tsar" at the Mariinsky is aiming to tell the audiences much more than the story printed in the libretto by both the musical and visual means. "Naturally, it is impossible to move the 1612 events to nowadays but the audiences will still be able to see the signs of different periods of Russian history. It is not meant to be a shapeless heap of ethnographic elements but an array of symbols important to the audiences."

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