Sunday, September 14, 2008

Russian Opera: Not for the Faint of Heart

It's very fascinating to study the history of Russian classical music, seeing as it's only been a real factor in the culture for the last two hundred years or so. Because of its slow progression and development, as well as its geographical isolation, Russia didn't have access to the musical revolutions occurring in western Europe. When Mikhail Glinka began to compose and contribute, the Italy-Germany-France triumvirate had already seen the Baroque and Classical movements, and Beethoven, Schubert, and Berlioz were making large strides in music. Opera as well had evolved from the "da capo" (repeated verses) style of Handel to the flourishing French Grand Opera of Weber and Bizet.

Opera made its debut in the form of A Life for the Tsar, written by Glinka. It described the life of the peasant hero Ivan Susanin who saved the life of the Tsar by leading a group of assassins astray. The orchestration (the way the instruments are used in the orchestra) and the overall sounds of the music would prove to be influences for later Russian composers such as Mussorgsky, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev.

Modest Mussorgsky had the genius and musical inclination of Mozart. What I mean by this is that when he composed, he would basically write down what was in his head, and upon doing so, it was almost without flaw. Not only did he compose fantastic piano and orchestral pieces, but his opera was revolutionary. His most famous opera, Boris Godunov, has been a staple of the high-level opera houses around the world. It also provides the most extensive and difficult role for the Bass-baritone voice type. The opera is immensely moving, as it chronicles the rise and fall of Tsar Boris, who reigned in the late 1500's to early 1600's.

A composer who breaks the traditional Russian classical mold is Tchaikovsky. He is a bit of an anomaly, as his music was much more similar in style and sound to Italian and German music of the time. While many scholars argue that his music doesn't truly have the "Russian sound" and spirit, he provided a solid foundation for the recognition and exposure of Russian classical compositions to the rest of the world. His opera Eugene Onegin is a masterpiece of a work, which contains complex orchestration, deep characters, and some of the most challenging solo voice pieces in the operatic repertoire.

The following two videos are excellent examples of Russian opera. The first is from Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, and the second is from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin.

The first clip is of the great Bulgarian bass Nicolai Ghiaurov singing Boris' Death Scene, and the second is a young Russian bass Dimitry Ivaschenko singing a concert version of Gremin's Aria from Eugene Onegin. An interesting side note: Listen to the tone quality of their voices...besides being basses, there is a "steely", heavy quality to their voices which seems to be a characteristic of Russian singers.

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