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Italians in a Russian manner: one step from serious to funny.

Russian-Italian cultural links have a long history of more than five centuries. In the end of the fifteenth century, Italian architects built the Moscow Kremlin; at the beginning of the eighteenth century, in cooperation with other foreign architects, they were actively engaged in the construction of Saint Petersburg, another Russian capital.

Russian capital got acquainted with Italian opera in 1731 while the court of Empress Anna Ivanovna was located in Moscow. Interludes, commedia dell'arte productions, operaseria and opera-buffa would often be staged in Moscow and Saint Petersburg by various Italian companies such as Giovanni Alberto Ristori, Joseph Avolio, Francesco Araja (2), and later Giovanni Battista Locatelli and Meddox. At Elizabeth Petrovna's court, attendance at the performances of Italian and French troupes was obligatory and was a part of the ceremonies of the court. There was a timetable of court entertainments: Italian interludes on Mondays, masked balls on Tuesdays, and French comedies on Thursdays.

It is interesting that, despite the general worship of Italian belcanto, Italy itself was producing plays making fun of the whims of opera prima donnas, who exaggerated the passion of the public with their seeming virtuosity but who were actually indifferent to the rest of action in the opera when they weren't singing. One of these works, L'impresario delle Canarie, written by Pietro Metasastasio, was set as an opera by 6 different composers between 1724 and 1744.

In the second half of the 18th century, enthusiasm for comic opera captured Europe, and the Italian troupes became extremely popular. That gave a great impetus to development of opera in Russia. The first Russian comic opera appeared in the 1770s, and, in the context of the birth of Russian national opera, based on folk tunes, some journals started publishing articles criticizing the blind passion of the Russian high society for Italian music, at the expense of development of national art. The latest craze to worship purely technical virtuosic fiorituras and triviality of certain Italian operas staged in Saint Petersburg were heavily criticized. Sharp polemic articles brought up the issue of supporting the young Russian opera, growing out of the best samples of national creativity.

The status of Russian opera did not change for long time. Beginning in the 1840s, an Italian opera troupe worked in Russia on a permanent basis, and massive state grants were spent on its support and maintenance. The government allocated huge amounts for the invitation of Italian opera celebrities. As a result, Russian opera suffered from lack of financing, repertoire, costumes, and scenery.

In Saint Petersburg, the Italian troupe was given a separate building, the stage of the Bolshoi Theater (nowadays the Leningrad Conservatory), and the Russian Opera was based in the Mariinsky Theater. In Moscow, the situation was much worse because the Italian and the Russian troupes shared same stage of the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre. In the middle of the 1860s, the Moscow theatrical business was in the hands of an Italian entrepreneur, Bartolomeo Merelli. It was he who would decide on the rehearsal schedule and the number of days to be given to the Russian and Italian troupes for performances. Needless to say, the latter was in a privileged position. All issues related to costumes, availability of decorations, additional orchestral players, etc. would be resolved to the benefit of the Italians. As a result, the Russian troupe had only two performances a week, and later only one. The chorus of the Russian troupe was obliged to take part in the Italian performances too, and the Russian singers were often engaged in secondary parts. There was even an initiative to dissolve the Russian opera troupe, but it managed to stand for its independence.

In the 1860s there was a question of starting a national Russian composers school, the Russian theatre, to continue the traditions of Glinka and Dargomyzhsky. It was vitally important to create an alternative to the Italian opera that would be founded on national creativity and original history. So, in the 1860s there was another wave of criticism of domination of the Italian opera.

This movement was headed by composers who grouped around Mily Alekseyevich Balakirev. The group included Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov, Modest Petrovich Musorgsky, Cesar Cui, and Aleksandr Porfir'yevich Borodin. Their main agenda was creation and popularization of the Russian classical music of all genres: opera, symphony, chamber, instrumental, and vocal music.

This serious and fundamental music seems very alien to a rather unusual and little-known opera-farce Bogatyri, (The Heroic Warriors) composed by Borodin, which was performed at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 1867. This composition was in accordance with the general trends of fighting against Italian opera. The main feature of Bogatyri is a parody reflection of arias and ensembles from Italian and others foreign operas, well known in Russia in the 1860s, as well as a new genre of operetta, that was especially popular at that time. The authors of the parodies include Rossini, Verdi, Meyerbeer, Offenbach, and others.

It is noteworthy that Borodin was creating Bogatyri in secret, unbeknownst to his friends, because he did not want this light-minded composition to discredit the high-minded goals of his group. Another reason was that Bogatyri was making light of absurdities of not only Italian but also Russian opera. One opera, for instance, was Rogneda by Aleksandr Nikolayevich Serov, which was favored by the Tzar and the court and was literally considered to be an ideal Russian opera.

The fairy-tale plot of Bogatyri is based on the same story as the opera Ruslan and Lyudmila by Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka: kidnapping of the bride, a search and release campaign by Russian knights. The libretto was written by Victor Krylov, at that time a beginning playwright, subsequently well-known prolific theatrical author. It was he who addressed Borodin with a request to compose music for his play. At first the composer refused, because a composition of such scale would demand too much time, and Krylov wished to stage the play as soon as possible. Borodin proposed to use ready-made music from the theatrical repertoire, and Krylov liked the idea and asked Borodin to pick up suitable musical parts. Eventually, almost half of the music of the Bogatyri consisted of fragments borrowed from Italian, French, German operas and operettas, and also national tunes, presented as parody. The second half of the opera is original music by Borodin.

In order to feel the sense of parody, we shall briefly review the plot of Bogatyri. The plot was very simple: it is a parody of a Russian fairy tale kingdom. The action takes place "once upon a time", in the Kurukhansky estate at the Kaldyk River (those names would mean, by definition, some very remote place). Prince Gustomysl ("very thoughtful") did not have that many thoughts despite his charachtonym, and he had difficulties in expressing himself. The real ruler is his wife, Princess Militrisa.

The play is in 5 acts. In the first act, "Marriage brokerage of the knights", a foreign knight, Solovey Budimirovich (this character can be often found in Russian ballads), gives an oath that he will openly kidnap the bride, Princess Zabava, in front of everybody's eyes. The second act, "Not a small theft", begins with an offering to god Perun and introduction of Russian knights: Anika the knight, Alesha Popovich, Kit Kitych, Avos and Nebos, all of them being secondary characters of Russian fairy tales and ballads; it ends with a song of Solovey, who puts the whole Kurukhansky kingdom to a deep sleep. While Solovey takes Zabava away, Alesha, another knight, takes advantage of the fuss and steals a very precious Perun necklace.

The third act, "Chambers of Militrisa Kirbitievna", makes fun of certain opera standards: depiction of a girl's chamber with mamas and nannies, obligatory walks in the garden, and gathering various berries (white, red and black currants, cherries, and raspberries). Another opera theme is revealed in long talks about how quickly the hero should act run, catch, but the hero is not moving. In this act, the knights, having learnt about the attack of a noble female knight called Amelfa Zmeevna, are going through long preparations for a trip, and Prince Gustomysl is advising them with sacramental words: "Take your time while hurrying".

The fourth act, "Foma the Winner", depicts a glamorous victory of a new knight, Foma, over the troops of the female knight Amelfa Zmeevna: with his eyes closed from fear, Foma slowly approaches the Amelfa, and she, suspecting some cunning trick, starts repeating his maneuver. Foma succeeds in tearing the magic wreath, which holds Amelfa's magic power, from her head.

In the fifth act, "Orgy at Solovey's", the kidnapped bride is found, while the Prince and Princess with the knights are visiting Solovey as guests. The play ends with two weddings: Solovey marries Zabava, and Foma marries Amelfa. The final scene tell of the global joy: "Our Kurukhan kingdom is ahead of the whole world".

By parodying operas of the Italian composers (Rossini and Verdi), Borodin reflected the numerous protests against the privileges of the Italian opera in the Russian capital. The prinicpal unusual idea of Borodin's was that music written by others and placed into a comic environment itself becomes the object of parody. And any object possesses its own set of expressive means. Placed in different conditions, it preserves its semantic meaning and, simultaneously, obtains a new comic connotation. Thus, there are two layers: original, initially inherent, and parodied. Specificity of Bogatyri is that the composer used a lot of pieces of music (absolutely different from each other both in terms of genre and style) as object of parody in his operetta. Each musical part of that opera-farce is, as a matter of fact, an independent parody, sometimes on several compositions. Such multiobjectivity, and the "polyphony"of the numerous semantic shades should be always borne in mind when studying Bogatyri.

Let's consider some examples.

First part of the opera-farce ("Solovei's song and chorus") opens with a brief introduction taken from the opera Robert le Diable by Meyerbeer. At first the spectators are perplexed: what performance are they watching? But the muffled sounding of the orchestra with gradual amplification of sound up to fortissimo breaks the general pause of the orchestra; then the opening curtain reveals not feasting knights, as in Meyerbeer, but flirting girl-friends of the future bride Zabava, singing on pianissimo: "Hush, girls, be quiet, be quiet", and, unexpectedly, Meyerbeer is replaced with Rossini. Deceived expectation, sharp change of dynamics--all of these is means of producing a strong comic effect. The spectator is confused and intrigued: what is next? Rossini's melodies from Il barbiere di Siviglia which constitute the musical basis of chorus of girls in Bogatyri, give a hint of further events: Borodin used the terzetto of Figaro, Count and Rosina from the second act ("Zitti, zitti, piano, piano, non facciamo confusione") and final chorus "Di si felice innesto serbiam memoria eterna". This final scene in Il barbiere di Siviglia is the end of all adventures, wishes of happiness, and love. In Bogatyri, the ardent chorus of the girls teasing Solovei, is only the beginning of love games and adventures which eventually bring the characters to the happy end and marriage, too.

One more quote from Il barbiere di Siviglia from Act 2, the "Storm" scene, can be found in a scene of offering to a Slav god Perun (the second scene of Bogatyri, No. 6). In Il barbiere di Siviglia, the storm in the sea illustrates the storm of emotions in Figaro's soul. In Bogatyri this orchestral fragment becomes a background for a nonsense spell pronounced by the priest: "the Malicious Ocean rustles-roars, the thunder-storm will come, the thunder-storm will pass". Excessive gravity and importance of the musical material enters into an obvious contradiction with insignificance of the action. It is a clear hyperbole, the image of "tempest in a tea-cup", is another way for creating a parody effect.

Interesting parody on stamps of opera-seria can also be found in the final episode (No. 10 of the same scene--"Let him die!"), its music being entirely based on the terzetto from act 2 of Verdi's Ernani where Duke Silva caught his bride Elvira together with Ernani and was eager to take vengeance while the faithless couple begged for mercy. Bogatyri does not treat it seriously beyond the very first phrases: "Let him die! Let Solovei die!" Later it appears that the brave knights only intend to teach the groom a lesson ("we'll punish him properly, all five of us we'll give him a black eye!") and, following the prince's advice, they go round in circles singing: "We are running, we are running. Go faster, go faster!". Certainly, it is a parody on similar scenes in many serious operas that were popular at that time, where characters often hang about, making no headway and singing about the urgent deeds things to be done. A combination of the grave music and stupid lyrics sung by the knights, make the whole final scene a farce and make the characters look buffoons, the borders between dramatic and funny being washed away. Really, there is only one step from serious to funny.

One more representative episode is the end of the fifth act (No. 20 "Glory to Gusto ... yes, glory to Gustomysl"). Chorus glorifies Prince Gustomysl, Princess Zabava, Foma the winner, and all the Russian knights. The musical theme of this part is based on the final chorus of priests from the first act of Rossini's Semiramide (the solemn chorus glorifies the ancient empire of Euphrates and the new Assirian king). The solemnity and significance of the situation is completely reinterpreted in a comic way in Bogatyri. Prince Gustomysl, who observed the duel between Foma and Amelfa while hiding in the raspberry-canes during the fight boasts that he knew the outcome already: "I have foreseen such outcome of the battle and was quietly waiting for your reports" (with no mention of his foreseeing the future while sitting in the raspberry-canes). The knights give a picturesque yet brief account of the battle using triplets and pattering corresponding syllables in a funny way: "Our victory-tory-tory-tory-tory! They're beaten-eaten-eaten-eaten-eaten! We gave them creeps! We frightened them: boom! They cried: ah! And then Foma pulled down a magic wreath!". Gustomysl praises: "Well done! Well done!". The repetition of the same rhyme, a monorhyme, is applied by Borodin with a satirical purpose.

The middle part represents the Amazons' chorus, begging for forgiveness ("Poor us, we are destroyed"). Then glory to Gustomysl repeats again and he says the words "master" and "winner" with similar triplets: "I am the master-aster-aster-aster-aster! I am the winner-inner-inner-inner-inner!" The scene ends with a celebratory parade with the music of Semiramide (introduction to the chorus of priests), with the composer playing his witty tricks again. The introduction of the original serves as the end of the parody.

The text of this musical part was composed by Borodin himself, including the comic treatment. He used monorhyme, repetition of separate syllables of a word down to full loss of its meaning with the purpose of creating a comic effect.

After a long break (in 1867 was the first night at the Bolshoi theatre, and in 1936 staging at A.Tairov's Chamber theatre, which became a special, tragic page in the history of this composition) the opera-farce of Borodin Bogatyri was staged in 2003 through the efforts of students of the Russian Academy of Theatrical Art (Moscow, the Department of Musical Theatre). This performance has shown the viability of Bogatyri, with its rich opportunities for modern interpretation, improvisation, and parodying the actual events of today's world. This opera-farce was an important step in Borodin's activity towards his main opera Prince Igor. Having laughed enough at the absurdities and deliberate gravity in the opera genre, Borodin has cleared his way to the creation of an original, deeply musical masterpiece rooted in Russian history, national tunes and legends, with truly national characters.

(1.) Svetlana Martynova is senior staff scientist at the Glinka State Central Museum for Musical Culture, Moscow.

(2.) Also known as Francesco Araia.

Svetlana Martynova (1)
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Author:Martynova, Svetlana
Publication:Fontes Artis Musicae
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Jan 1, 2009
Words:2674
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