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The Literary Lorgnette: Attending Opera in Imperial Russia.

The Literary Lorgnette: Attending Opera in Imperial Russia. By Julie A. Buckler. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000. [vii, 294 p. ISBN 0-8047-3247-7. $45.] Illustrations, bibliography, index.

Julie A. Buckler's The Literary Lorgnette: Attending Opera in Imperial Russia is a valuable addition to our understanding of the development of Russian culture during the nineteenth century. The central thrust of her argument is that western opera--including its plots, characters, and performers--was an extremely important component of Russian culture far beyond the confines of the opera house. What has sometimes been seen as a zero-sum contest between the western European and the Russian homegrown culture is shown to be the development of a triumphant Russian culture which incorporates both streams. Buckler's book succeeds in showing how that assimilation took place in the area of opera as musical genre, literary topic, and social activity; she shows how opera in all its facets was experienced by audiences and incorporated into the realist literature of the nineteenth century.

For music historians, this study is a worthy addition to that of Robert Ridenour, Nationalism, Modernism, and Personal Rivalry in Nineteenth-Century Russian Music (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981) and the more recent "Ital'yanshchina" chapter in Richard Taruskin's Defining Russia Musically (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997). Each of the three studies addresses a different aspect of mid-nineteenth-century Russian musical culture, although some of Buckler's ideas can be seen in embryo in Taruskin's chapter. A fourth book, Murray Frame's The St. Petersburg Imperial Theaters: Stage and State in Revolutionary Russia, 1900-1920 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2000), while treating a later period, has a pertinent introduction, including the historiography of the Imperial Theaters.

In each of her seven chapters Buckler analyzes historical accounts of Russian social and cultural life through the techniques of literary criticism, including new historicism, feminist criticism, and semiotics. She takes on a formidable task and arrives at a valid overall picture. As always, though, the devil is in the details. In general, her application of techniques of literary criticism to the Russian social and cultural landscape, still old regime during the period under examination, does not take enough account of the significant differences between Russia and the bourgeois society of western Europe. Given that the audience for this book is not likely to have much acquaintance with autocracy under Nicholas I, Alexander II and III, or with the social structure of a society still comprised of a small elite and an enormous underclass, some of her phrases--for example "the vast and inclusive middle space of cultural life" (p. 1), "ordinary citizens" (p. 16), and the "middle classes" (p. 44)--require mapping onto a social template that differs significantly from that of contemporaneous western Europe. The book makes the somewhat mysterious society of Russia seem quite understandable, but this may be an illusion that should be dispelled or at least qualified.

The chapter that will interest historians of theaters and audiences particularly is chapter 2, "Attending Opera." Here Buckler begins with a concise account of the "choppy narrative of structures built, reconstructed, renamed, and consumed by fire" (p. 17). But the description of the theaters and theater troupes of the capital--the Bolshoi, Malyi, Aleksandrinskii, Mikhailovskii, and Mariinskii--useful as it is, does not satisfy the desire for a clear longitudinal account of repertory, social custom, and class makeup of specific theaters, which changed greatly over the century (as did the Russian cities themselves). The author has included descriptions of opera performances and audiences in Moscow, St Petersburg, Kiev, and Odessa through the eyes of memoirists, letter writers, and Soviet scholars (among them Zotov [1860], Losskii [latter part of the nineteenth century], Skal'kovskii [1899], Grossman [1926], and Nikolaeva [1984], all cited in Buckler's bibliography). Unfortunately not all of these writers are specific about which theater they describe, and they are writing about various decades. To give a single example, the reader needs more help in interpreting descriptions of audience behavior at the Mikhailovskii, the favored theater of the St. Petersburg aristocracy, as compared to the Moscow Bolshoi, which "the highest society almost never attends" (quoted in Laurence Senelick, Serf Actor: the Life and Art of Mikhail Shchepkin [Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984], 59). Nonetheless, specialists will appreciate the inclusion of many sources, including some new archival ones.

Readers already acquainted with Russian opera or theater, as well as specialists, will probably have quibbles with some of Buckler's generalizations. For example, in her review of Literary Lorgnette (in Slavic Review 60, no. 4 [2001]: 877-79), Rosamund Bartlett, author of Wagner and Russia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), disputes the definition of the 1840s to 1880s as the "Golden Age" of operagoing in Russia, when it should really be characterized more narrowly as Russia's "golden age for the Italian opera" (p. 877). Bartlett also points out several important factual errors. I have a similar discomfort with Buckler's depiction of the destruction of the Malyi Theater in 1832, to make room for the Aleksandrinskii, as the demise of "the last site of theatrical eclecticism in St Petersburg, offering theatergoers a varied menu of tragedy, drama, comedy, comic opera, and vaudeville, and showcasing both touring and hired troupes" (p. 18). This is true only to a degree. A spot check of repertoire offered in 1827, 1873, and 1891 (in other words, before and after major changes in the theaters) shows that the Malyi was not alone in presenting various genres; at some time or other all of the theaters mentioned above presented two or three different genres: comedy, drama, tragedy, "plays," comedy-vaudevilles, vaudevilles, opera, and ballet in two or more languages: Russian, German, Italian, and French. In January 1873, for example, a decade before the destruction of the Bolshoi, the Mariinskii presented in one week opera, drama, comedy, and vaudeville, and the Alexandrinskii staged comedy, drama, and vaudeville--the latter, of course, including music. The Mikhailovskii (still the aristocrat's theater of choice at the end of the century) presented comedies, dramas, and vaudevilles in both German and French. What does stand out is the concentration of the Bolshoi--home of the Italian troupe and thus subscribing to Western ways--on Italian opera: Il trovatore, La sonnambula, La traviata, Un ballo in maschera, and Romeo (Vincenzo Bellini's I Capuletti ed i Montecchi), but it too included a second genre: ballet. In view of the specialization of theaters in western Europe (and especially in Paris), the Russian mixture of genres at a single theater, and especially during one evening's entertainment, is not a negligible factor in defining the Russian theater experience.

Chapter 3, "Embodying Opera: The Prima Donna in Russia," concerns the female opera star, comparing the adulation accorded Western divas such as Giuditta Pasta, Maria Malibran, Pauline Viardot, and Adelina Patti with the denigration of the Russian female vocalist. The legacy of the serf theater (where talented performers were still treated as property), and the lack of financial support accorded the Russian theaters themselves, made it difficult for Russian performers, male and female, to attract the respect their talent deserved. Buckler restricts herself to describing the ambiguous social position of the female opera singer (even, at times, the Western diva), but the same observation could be made of the acclaimed comic actor and vaudeville singer, Mikhail Shchepkin.

Buckler names Marco de Marinis, The Semiotics of Performance (Semiotia del teatro, trans. Aine O'Healy [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993]) as the theoretical basis for chapter 4, "Representing Opera: Scene and Self." Here the spectator's experience of opera, both fictional and non-fictional, is central to the discussion. An account of an actual performance of the Italian singer Medea Figner, "naturalized" in the Russian role of Pushkin/Tchaikovsky's Tatiana, leads into the central discussion of the book: the relationship between opera and prose fiction in nineteenth-century Russian culture. The next two chapters, "Naturalizing Opera: The Case of La traviata in Russia" and "Reading Opera: The Theater of Psychological Prose," continue with detailed examinations of the way in which the roles of the Russian Tatiana and the Western Norma and Violetta are incorporated and inflected in Russian short stories and novels. The reception of La traviata is given particular attention, from early negative criticism through Russianized retelling and finally sympathetic evaluation of the heroine, largely through the empathy evoked by adored divas who played Violetta so sympathetically. Pointing the lorgnette in the opposite direction, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, both novel and character, is seen through the operatic lens, with Anna "as the diva in a grand opera" (p. 170) and Vronskii characterized by his affinity to opera bouffe (note the switch from Italian to French opera genres). Alexander Amfiteatrov's fictional portrayal of a theater troupe in his 1908 novel Twilight of the Little Gods integrates operatic and literary practices even further. All four central chapters (chaps. 3-6) focus on the prima donnas and female characters, rarely on their male counterparts.

The final chapter of the book deals with prose fiction about divas and memoirs written by opera divas themselves. Locating this realist picture in the later nineteenth-century vogue for operetta, a definite descent in genre, Buckler describes these stories as "middlebrow literature" (p. 184), never accepted into the Russian literary tradition. The chapter closes with the memoirs of Russian divas Daria Leonova and Alexandra Smolina, as well as several stage actresses and, a little incongruously at this late stage, Fyodor Chaliapin.

This book is an important contribution to the growing scholarship on opera as a socio-cultural phenomenon, especially valuable for bringing Russia into the discussion. Its main conclusion, that "Russians made western opera their own" is credible and consistent with more narrowly musical studies of this genre.


University of Guelph
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Title Annotation:Historical and Cultural Studies
Author:Woodside, Mary S.
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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