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Mamontov's Private Opera: The Search for Modernism in the Russian Theater.

Mamontov's Private Opera: The Search for Modernism in the Russian Theater. By Olga Haldey. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010. [xiv, 354 p. ISBN 9780253354686. $44.95.] Plates, figures, chronology, list of premieres, bibliography, index.

After the revocation of the crown's monopoly on theatrical enterprises, in Tsarist Russia in 1882, private opera companies mushroomed. Only one could actually compete with the crown (court) operas: the enterprise founded and owned by Savva Mamontov (1841-1918), a Muscovite merchant and heir to a large railway company. It existed from 1885 to 1888 and from 1894 to 1904; Mamontov dropped out after bankruptcy in 1900.

Olga Haldey's book is the published version of her doctoral dissertation, ("Savva Mamontov and the Moscow Private Opera: From Realism to Modernism on the Russian Operatic Stage" [Ph.D. diss., Ohio State University, 2003]). Her revisionist portrayal of Mamontov and his company aims at debunking myths, following the lines of Richard Taruskin and Marina Frolova-Walker. Haldey emigrated from Russia at an earlier stage of her life than Frolova-Walker, whose writings reflect a continual and conscious struggle with her own Soviet education. Haldey takes a more relaxed, "outside" stance. Surveying the considerable body of existing literature on her subject (pp. 6-14), she concludes that even the best latter-day Soviet scholars, such as Abram Gozenpud, were too severely constrained by ideological demands to produce a valid assessment of Mamontov's achievement. The standard study of his opera company, Vera Rossikhina's Opernyi teatr S. I. Mamontova (Moscow: Muzyka, 1985) is actually an abridged, posthumously edited version of a dissertation from 1954.

Soviet historiography could not deny that Mamontov was the quintessential capitalist, but it was common to stress the national component in his outlook and to praise his attempts to make high art accessible to the masses. On the other hand, his formative years in Rome (p. 37) received little attention, and the consequences of his sojourn--his passion for the art of ancient Greece and Rome, his penchant for Italian opera, and his belief in l'art pour l'art--were routinely denied or played down (as was done in the case of Tchaikovsky). Haldey offers detailed insight into Mamontov's complicated, sometimes contradictory aesthetics and sets the record straight. If his opera emerged as a nationalist hotbed--acclaimed as such by writers in the tradition of Vladimir Stasov, both in the Soviet Union and in the English-speaking world--this was, according to Haldey, mostly the doing of the Muscovite critics and audience. In some (unholy?) alliance they ranted against the foreign dominance at the Bolshoi and demanded a sanctuary for Russian opera, which Mamontov granted them (chap. 7, "Politics, Repertory, and the Market").

Haldey's subtitle underscores her view of Mamontov as a harbinger of artistic progress. Dismissing the equation of "modernism" and "avant garde" (Mamontov despised the latter), she declares him and his opera the immediate forerunner to Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets russes--both with respect to aesthetics and to the formation of a creative collective, an "ensemble" (the term used in Mamontov's circle, p. 104) from which the productions--veritable Gesamtkunstwerke, but hardly indebted to Wagner--emerged. It is well publicized that Mamontov backed Diaghilev's journal Mir iskusstva, yet Diaghilev also took a lively interest in his productions. Mamontov's staging of Gluck's Orfeo (1897), a Moscow premiere, probably made a deep impression on Diaghilev (pp. 127-29): standing up against all trends then current in Russian art (nationalism, realism, modernism), it was a manifesto of art for art's sake and an endorsement of ideal beauty (pp. 49-53). Haldey comes up with an interesting discussion of two Russian caricatures of Diaghilev in which a mammoth--in Russian, mamont--figures prominently (p. 287 and plates 39-40). Last but not least: while Mamontov's opera was a Moscow-based institution, its main agents (especially assistant stage director Pyotr Melnikov) frequently traveled to Paris together to study current trends there and develop their own projects, and Mamontov repeatedly considered guest performances there. It seems that only his bankruptcy prevented the step abroad. Haldey also describes Konstantin Stanislavsky and, to some extent, Vsevolod Meyerhold as Mamontov's disciples.

The fact that Mamontov was not just the underwriter of his opera company--which, officially, was never his (p. 44)--but also its artistic (and stage) director has been publicized before, although his artistic merits may have been underestimated. Mamontov hardly ever took credit for his involvement, whether as a patron or as an artist. Haldey identifies Mamontov as Russia's first operatic stage director in the modern sense, taking a deliberate stance against Lucinde Braun (p. 318 n. 8), who in her Studien zur russischen Oper des spaten 19. Jahrhunderts (Mainz: Schott, 1999) assigned this pioneering role to the stage director of the Mariinsky Theater, Osip Palechek (Czech: Josef Palecek; Braun, pp. 126-51) and, ironically, singled out stage direction as the weakest point in Mamontov's productions (ibid., p. 96). Both authors refer to the contemporary press, pitting testimony against testimony. Yet although Haldey makes an excellent case for Mamontov's skills as a stage director (Braun's treatment of his company, based on published material only, may be the weakest spot in her otherwise groundbreaking book), it is somewhat disappointing to see her ignore the dissenting critics.

Mamontov's attitude toward music and musicians may have been the most problematic aspect of his enterprise. He had universal artistic ambitions: he was trained as a sculptor; he wrote librettos (including the one for Vasily Kalinnikov's unfinished Year 1812); he had studied singing and played the piano well; he acted and directed. Yet music did not take the first place in his universe. Abramtsevo, the artistic community he created, was dominated by arts and crafts; in his theatrical productions, acting and visuals took center stage, especially the innovative decorations by eminent painters such as his personal discovery, Mikhail Vrubel. Mamontov viewed opera as "a perfectly synthesized artistic medium" and opposed those who regarded opera chiefly as music (pp. 100-101). (Did Mamontov care for any non-operatic music, let alone "absolute" music, such as Mitrofan Belyayev championed? Haldey does not address this question although she conjures up Belyayev's ghost; p. 245.) Mamontov's casting was governed by non-musical concerns such as personality, acting talent, and visual appearance--not to be confused with the Hollywoodian cult of physical beauty--and he repeatedly cast singers as principals who vocally were not up to the task (pp. 146-59). While the singer-actor Feodor Chaliapin became his model performer (pp. 165-70), Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov and his protege, the company's prima donna Nadezhda Zabela-Vrubel (wife of Mikhail Vrubel, whom she met through Mamontov), were continually fighting his choices (pp. 159-65). Haldey concedes that Mamontov could have paid more attention to musical issues, yet she never mentions the harsh verdict of his newly appointed Kapellmeister Sergey Rachmaninoff: "[In Mamontov's theater] rules real chaos ... 25 of 30 singers should be laid off because of inadequacy ... the repertory is vast, but everything is done so poorly and sketchily that 95% of the repertory should be either dropped or newly rehearsed" (Rachmaninoff to Nataliya Skalon, 22 November 1897, in S. Rakhmaninov: Literaturnoe nasledie, ed. Zaruya Apetyan, 3 vols. [Moscow: Muzyka, 1978-80]; translation mine). Ironically, Haldey alerts the reader to the Soviet practice of tacitly omitting all evidence that could contradict an author's cause (p. 10), but here she follows the pattern herself in her desire to idealize her subject.

Mamontov was determined to stage a broad repertory of Russian operas by many composers. Rimsky-Korsakov, six of whose operas Mamontov premiered, was the most famous of the lot. (But did he qualify as "Russia's greatest living composer" [p. 278]? Outside opera, he hardly did.) The most obscure was probably a certain Nikolay Krotkov, who belonged to Mamontov's inner circle and received two commissions from his master, never to be performed on another stage. Haldey cannot be blamed for the lack of hard facts on Krotkov (even the year of his death is unknown, and his scores are lost), but she quotes from his unpublished correspondence with Mamontov and possibly could have given more profile to this enigmatic figure. She mentions in passing that Krotcov was "a one-time student of Brahms" (p. 246) without naming a source but apparently relying on I. M. Yampolsky's article "Krotkov" in the third volume of Muzykalnaia entsiklopediia (Moscow: Muzyka, 1976). Even though Brahms may have had students beyond his officially acknowledged disciple Gustav Jenner, the complete absence of Krotkov's name from the vast body of literature on Brahms (including correspondence and other source material) casts serious doubts on Yampolsky's claim, to say the least.

Laudably, Haldey's book comes with an extensive bibliography. On the other hand, a book that aspires to be the definitive study of Mamontov's opera should offer a complete listing of the premieres at the company rather than a selective one (pp. 295-96). Among Haldey's omissions is Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov's Asya (1900). In view of the fact that Ippolitov-Ivanov was the company's music director, this omission is astounding. (By the way, Ippolitov-Ivanov never studied with Tchaikovsky [p. 103] but only with Rimsky-Korsakov [p. 146].) On a different level, one can only regret that the various paintings included among the forty plates of the book appear all in black and white, reproduced from earlier publications rather than from the originals, and printed on ordinary paper. Only the dust jacket with its color portrait of Mamontov by Mikhail Vrubel gives a clue to the possible grandeur of these works of art.

Native speakers of Russian are notoriously reluctant to adopt a consistent system of transliteration, and Haldey is no exception. Apparently dissatisfied with the Library of Congress and New Grove systems, Haldey (whose last name, incidentally, would begin with kh according to both systems) draws up her own, basically a conflation of the two. Predictably, she also prefers traditional forms from "Tchaikovsky" and "Cui" to "Diaghilev" and "Chaliapin" (albeit not "Rachmaninoff"), except in bibliographical citations. Her decision to spell the administrator and nominal head of Mamontov's company "Claudia Winter" instead of "Klavdiya Vinter" should be accompanied by the instruction that the name be pronounced the German rather than the English way.

Despite these minor defects, Haldey's book will change our understanding of Russian opera in the "Silver Age." It is the necessary--and overdue--complement to Braun's 1999 study, whose focus is on the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. Assuming that in this niche of our discipline Russian is the lingua franca, one might consider Russian translations of both books highly desirable.


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Author:Gaub, Albrecht
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Jun 1, 2011
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