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Mikhail GLINKA (1804–1857)
Ivan Susanin (A Life for the Tsar) Opera in Four Acts and an Epilogue (1836)
Maxim Mikhailov (bass) – Ivan Susanin; Natalia Spiller (soprano) – Antonida; Yelizaveta Antonova (alto) – Vanya; Georgi Nelepp (tenor) – Sobinin; Alexander Hosson (bass) – Commander of the Russian Detachment; Ivan Skobtsov (tenor) – Polish messenger; Fyodor Svetlanov (bass) – Commander of the Polish Detachment
Chorus and orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow/Alexander Melik-Pashayev (Acts 1 – 4), Vasili Nebolsin (Epilogue)
Recorded in Moscow 1947 and 1950 (Epilogue)
Appendix: Extracts from A Life for the Tsar, Acts 3 and 4

Act 3. Duet "When they killed the mother of the little bird". Sung by I.N. Sokolova and Mark Reizen (rec. 1950); Romance "I am not grieving over that, dear friends". Sung by Antonina Nezhdanova (rec. 1913). Act 4. "Brethren! In the storm." Sung by Helge Rosvaenge (in German) (rec. 1940); Aria "The poor horse fell in the field" Sung by Evgeniya Zbruyeva (rec. 1913); Aria "They sense the truth!" Sung by Feodor Chaliapin (rec. 1923, 1924)
NAXOS 8.111078-80 [3 CDs: 73:21 + 49:41 + 79:49]

Glinka belonged to, or rather founded, the Russian national school of opera. He was also the first Russian composer who set Russian music on the European musical map. He travelled widely in Europe, met both Bellini and Donizetti in Milan and it is possible to hear an influence from them in this, the first of his two operas. There are several arias that have a typical Italian bel canto cantilena. He was also influenced by Rossini; vocally if not dramatically. Sobinin’s part seems modelled after Arnold in Guillaume Tell with its extremely high-lying tessitura and need for power and brilliance. Still it is the Russian element that dominates this score, not least in the important choral parts. It’s also characteristic of much of the Russian operatic legacy that the chorus, the Russian people, play such an important part. He might have learnt something from Rossini, Guillaume Tell again, but essentially the patriotic feeling paired with an easily recognizable Russian tone was his pioneering contribution to Russian music. This element became part and parcel of the Russian operatic tradition, witness the operas of Mussorgsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov.

Premiered in 1836, Ivan Susanin was an immediate success. When before the first performance Glinka changed the title to A Life for the Tsar the Tsar also took it to his heart (not surprisingly) and accepted Glinka’s dedication. During the Soviet regime the subject of the opera was not comme-il-faut but since it was regarded as a kind of national opera the text was revised, on Stalin’s initiative, eliminating all the references to the Romanov dynasty. With the original title restored it was played again at the Bolshoi in 1939. The revision also meant that parts of the score were removed altogether. Thus in this recording Sobinin’s act 4 aria is missing as well as the coronation scene in the epilogue. This means that the abridged epilogue is less than seven minutes long, consisting of the agitated orchestral Entr’acte and the triumphant final chorus with church bells. These two extracts were separately recorded three years after the main work.

The action takes place in a village near Moscow and in a Polish army camp in 1613. In the first act Ivan Susanin, a peasant, brings the news that the Polish invaders are marching towards Moscow. This causes general alarm. His son-in-law to be, the soldier Sobinin, comes home and reports that the Polish forces have been defeated and a new Tsar elected. This also means that now Sobinin and Antonida can be married. In act two a big ball is held in the Polish camp. The officers learn that a new Tsar is to be crowned and plan to kidnap him. In the third act, while the village people sing patriotic songs about Russia’s victory and Susanin is planning his daughter’s wedding, Polish soldiers arrive and try to force Susanin to show them where the future Tsar is hidden. He agrees but decides to lead them astray and sends his foster-son Vanya to warn the young Tsar. In the fourth act the soldiers realise that Susanin has fooled them and he is killed. The epilogue takes place in Moscow, in Red Square, where the people rejoice in the salvation of the Tsar and mourn Susanin as a hero. Finally the Tsar arrives and is crowned.

The present set was recorded just after the war. Considering the age of the recording the sound is quite good with the brass ringing out impressively. Under the experienced Melik-Pashayev the orchestral and choral forces deliver a lively and incisive performance. The chorus as usual sounds very Russian with a big but rather unsubtle sound, where the higher voices are produced with a great deal of vibrato and the typically astringent tone; OK, it is sometimes rather unattractively shrill to modern Western ears. However it does give a strong feel of authenticity and the chorus sings with feeling and insight. Both the chorus and the orchestra suffer from constricted sound and act 2 - mainly a series of lively Polish dances - however well played, becomes something of a trial. This music, superbly orchestrated, cries out for stereo and a wider dynamic range.

The solo voices fare much better but there have to be some reservations concerning the quality of some of the singing. Antonida, Ivan Susanin’s daughter, is sung by Natalia Spiller, who has a strong, steady lyric-dramatic soprano. She has a fine legato and phrases nobly with a fine sense of the ebb and flow of each musical phrase. The actual sound is a different matter: it is unattractive – shrill and grating on the ear in a typical Slavonic manner. By contrast today’s Russian and other East European singers belong more or less to the same school as the rest of the operatic world. One gets used to the penetrating sound but only reluctantly will I replay her solos. Going to the Appendix we hear the legendary Antonina Nezhdanova in Antonida’s fourth act Romance. Through the swish of the almost century-old recording we hear the real thing: a lyrical voice of great beauty and lightness, glittering and warm and with exquisite pin-point high notes. She was a noted Queen of the Night and was greatly admired by Rachmaninov who wrote several songs for her, among them the celebrated Vocalise.

The title role is sung by Maxim Mikhailov, a true bass with much of the character of some other Russians: firm, sonorous, with great warmth and good low notes. He is also a superb actor. He was well past fifty when the recording was made but apart from some wooliness in the upper part of the register it’s a well-preserved voice. Having reputedly sung the part more than four hundred times he had been able to dig deep into this character. Being born into a peasant family he probably also could more readily identify with the role than singers from other backgrounds. He is deeply moving in the third act when the Polish soldiers appear, searching for the new Tsar and Susanin decides to pretend to show them the way but in reality lead them astray. This is the dramatic turning point in the opera when the rural idyll is shattered and Susanin deep inside knows that he will not come back. In the fourth act, when he has lead the Polish soldiers astray, he sings his aria "They sense the truth" (CD 3 track 4) and the following scene with great involvement. This is a great portrait of a role that could be regarded as the equivalent of Boris Godunov in importance. Some commentators claim that it is in fact more central than Boris as a representative of the people. In the Appendix we here a glimpse of another contemporaneous bass – and also a great Susanin – Mark Reizen. They are quite similar in voice and approach to the role, Reizen possibly even more rhythmically incisive with amazingly clear runs and an almost tenoral top. And there is also the master among masters: Chaliapin, in Susanin’s fourth act aria – an even sharper-etched reading, more baritonal but also more sonorous in the lower register than Mikhailov. I can’t remember a single recording by Chaliapin, especially not in Russian repertoire, where he isn’t 100% involved. Here he applies an extra lachrymose timbre, not exactly sobbing in the Gigli manner but one can almost see tears in his eyes. My first recording of this scene, with Kim Borg back in the sixties, is probably unsurpassed for beautiful vocalizing but he never goes quite as deep under the skin of the character. Chaliapin, by the way, sings not only the aria proper but also the following recitative – or arioso rather, although this is not indicated in the track list. Mikhailov’s is, however, a deeply felt performance and he brings out all the joy, warmth, despair and sorrow that afflicts Susanin during the course of the opera.

The most well-known singer in the cast is probably the tenor Georgi Nelepp, who possesses a brilliant voice and encompasses the part admirably. It’s a difficult part which requires dramatic power and the ability to toss off cascades of ringing high notes. What he doesn’t possess is warmth. His forte notes are painfully metallic and when, as on CD1 track 5 he momentarily keeps the voice in check and produces legato singing in mezzo-forte, the tone becomes fluttery. Sobinin’s act 4 aria is not included in this recording, but in the Appendix it is sung, in German, by the fearless Helge Rosvaenge. He also has punch and gleaming high notes in abundance but produces much more agreeable sounds and a lovely honeyed mezza voce that Nelepp can’t muster. It is difficult to imagine this aria better done and with such fine nuance, even though the young Nicolai Gedda, who recorded it in 1957, runs him close ... and he sings it in Russian. In recent years Janiz Lotric and Vladimir Grishko, both on Naxos, have included the aria in recital discs but they can’t challenge the two Nordic singers; Rosvaenge was born in Denmark, although he spent most of his career in Germany and Austria.

The fourth central character, Vanya, Susanin’s foster-son, is a trouser-role, needing a mezzo-soprano with a good low register, or a contralto, which Yelizaveta Antonova most certainly is. We first meet her/him in the third act in a long scene with Susanin. He/she introduces him/herself with possibly the most well-known melody in the opera, also heard in the overture. She has a fruity, vibrant voice, sometimes over-vibrant, but produced with ease and in long unbroken phrases. The problem with most women singing male roles is that they seldom sound like young men and in particular this young man could never be mistaken for anything other than a rather matronly middle-aged woman. This problem is aptly illustrated in the Appendix, where I.N. Sokolova sings in the same duet. She has a somewhat lighter voice than Antonova and doesn’t sound as matronly, but it is still a feminine voice we hear. In the Appendix we also hear Evgeniya Zbruyeva, recorded in 1913. She is, by some distance, the best Vanya of the three, but not even she can hide that she is a woman. Her more restrained vibrato contributes, however, to create an image of a younger person. This, to some extent, is contradicted by excessive scooping and foghorn hooting on the highest notes, which was typical for the period; just listen to Ernestine Schumann-Heink.

In the minor roles it is interesting to find the bass Fyodor Svetlanov, father of Evgeny Svetlanov, the great conductor who also worked at the Bolshoi as music director.

I notice that I’m writing almost more about the appendix than the opera proper but there is so much to savour there, especially Rosvaenge and the unparalleled Chaliapin. Is it worth buying a three-disc set for the appendix alone? Well, there are other reasons, too. The first of these is to hear this epoch-making opera, although truncated according to Soviet aesthetics, in a Soviet recording from Stalin’s days, with a house-cast of well-versed singers. In addition, for good or ill, there are authentic sounding orchestral and choral contributions under one of the most experienced of Soviet opera conductors. Among the soloists Maxim Mikhailov in the important title role, stands out and his well-rounded portrait of Ivan Susanin, both vocally and dramatically is more than worth the price. However, for better sonics, which doesn’t mask too much of the brilliant orchestration, for a choral sound that is easier on the ear and possibly for better interpretations of some of the major parts one has to look elsewhere. The problem is that there is not much to find in the catalogues at present. On www.amazon.com I couldn’t find a single entry on Glinka in the opera department – on CDs, that is. On DVD there is a recently released Bolshoi set, recorded in 1992, with a star line-up: Nesterenko, Mescheriakova, Zaremba and Lomonosov as Sobinin and with Lazarev conducting. I haven’t seen or heard it but have read a couple of positive reviews. Long ago there was a Decca set, recorded back in the late 1950s under Oscar Danon and with the imposing bass Miro Changalovich in the title part, while Sony recorded the opera in the early 1990s in Sofia, conducted by Tchakarov and with Boris Martinovich, Chris Merritt, Alexandrina Pendachanska, and Stefania Toczyska. Finally there seems to exist a, possibly, live RAI recording from Milan, conducted by Simonetto and with Boris Christoff, Virginia Zeani and Giuseppe Campora on GOP.

I would suggest readers go for the new DVD but the Naxos reissue also has its attractions but the drawbacks I have tried to delineate need to be borne in mind.

Göran Forsling


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