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Mikhail GLINKA (1804-1857)
Ivan Susanin (A Life for the Tsar) (1836)
A patriotic, heroic-tragic opera in four acts with an epilogue
Libretto by Sergei Gorodetsky (sung in Russian)
Ivan Susanin - Maxim Mikhailov (bass)
Antonida, his daughter - Natalia Spiller (soprano)
Vanya - Yelizaveta Antonova (mezzo soprano)
Bogdan Sobinin - Georgi Nelepp (tenor)
A Russian soldier - Alexander Hosson (bass)
A Polish messenger - Ivan Skobtsov (tenor)
Sigismund - Fyodor Svetlanov (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre/Alexander Melik-Pashaev/Vassily Nebolsin (Epilogue) (conductors)
Recorded in Moscow in 1947 no libretto
GREAT HALL MVT CD 012-013 [73.37 + 79.46]


It was thanks to his birth into the leisured class in Russia 200 years ago this year, that Glinka became a composer, a profession unrecognised in that country during the early years of the 19th century. He became the fountain-head of Russian nationalism based on the Western model. Though brought up on Russian folk music in the rural environs of the Smolensk district, his uncle Afanasy ran an orchestra on Western lines, staffed by serfs and to which the young Mikhail was exposed from the day he heard a clarinet quartet by Crusell according to the composer himself. During the 1820s Glinka was in St Petersburg where he studied, developed his compositional techniques and apprenticed himself to an opera company where he encountered the operas of Rossini. In 1830 he went to Milan and met Donizetti and Bellini, and in 1834 to Berlin. By the time he returned to Russia he was fully cosmopolitan in his outlook and utterly professional in his all-round musicianship. He then set about composing A Life for the Tsar, the first opera set to a Russian text on a national subject, under the influence of the Italian Rossini, the French Grétry, Méhul, and Cherubini and the German Beethoven; all of them ingredients in the mix. So rather than pin on him the title of the first Russian composer, it is better to see him as the first from that country to have established a European reputation for himself - Berlioz admired him and Liszt used his music for transcriptions.

A Life for the Tsar was first performed on 27 November 1836 and immediately became an obligatory annual season-opener at Tsar Nicholas Iís Imperial Opera House; originally intended to be called Ivan Susanin, the tsar himself bartered the composerís dedication of the work for its renaming. On 21 February 1939 the reworked version by Gorodetsky (and now using the composerís original title) was given for the first time at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, with all references to loyalty to the Romanov dynasty replaced by an abstract commitment to national liberation, as well as a secular view of the Russian nation, despite the bizarre consequences which arose from its retention of the original historical setting in 1612. Since 1989 Glasnost and supposed democracy has restored the original libretto to Russian performances.

The peasant Ivan Susanin was a hero of popular resistance to Polish infiltration following Boris Godunovís demise. Susaninís daughter Antonida is in love with Sobinin, but her father will not permit their wedding to take place until a new Tsar is safely on the throne, despite reassurances from Sobinin that the 16 year-old Tsar Mikhail Romanov has already been popularly elected. The second act takes place in the Polish military quarters where dancing is under way until news is brought of the Tsarís election. The Poles are told that he immediately went into hiding in a local monastery, and they resolve to kidnap him. Susanin also has an adopted orphan, Vanya, who fears that the Poles will soon arrive in their search for the new Tsar, but Susanin assures him that none will betray the young Romanov. When the soldiers burst in they force Susanin to lead them to the hiding place, to which he eventually agrees, though not without instructing Vanya to warn the monastery. He then deploys delaying tactics to give the Tsar time to receive the warning and escape. Meanwhile Antonida weeps, knowing the sacrifice her father will inevitably make. In a forest the Poles have realised that Susanin has misled them, but when he knows that the Tsar is safe he taunts his captors and they kill him. Sobinin and Vanya, together with a peasant army arrive too late to save him, but they fall upon their Polish murderers. The Epilogue celebrates both the Tsarís coronation and Susaninís ultimate sacrifice.

Despite what it says on the back of the box, this is a 2-disc set not 3, and the booklet has Vassily Nebolsin as conductor of Act Four, whereas the back of the box lists him (more accurately) as contributing only the Epilogue. What is certain is that this is a cut version of the opera with 46í33" lopped off the complete version which is obtainable on the Capriccio recording made in Bulgaria in 1986 (issued 1998) under Ivan Marinov with Ghiuselev in the title role. It includes all repeats in the second act orchestral dances, and Sobininís fourth act aria with chorus as well as Vanyaís which was composed later, supposedly as a replacement. The MVT recording under review, however, was recorded six years before the death of Stalin, and therefore dispenses with both the original libretto by Yegor Rozen and Vasiliy Zhukovsky, and reverts to the original title of the opera, A Life for the Tsar. Despite being over half a century old, quality is generally good, and from the outset the juxtaposition of what can only be Russian music, the combination of unaccompanied solo tenor and male chorus, (later used by Tchaikovsky in Onegin as the peasants return home from the fields after work) is set against Western concepts after the womenís chorus, when both combine in interlocking counterpoint, and highlights many of the strengths of this recording. Spiller is in total command of the demanding role of Antonida, its taxing coloratura and high lying tessitura uncompromising from the start, though some of her harder music later in the opera is cut. Neleppís tenor, occasionally tight and reedy, nevertheless successfully tackles some extraordinarily wide-leaping vocal lines with courage and bravura. Mikhailov in the title role may lack many of the darkly rich textures but he brings authority to a careful reading, and, despite some occasional sharp pitch, there are enough purple patches to make it exciting. The role of Susanin is really for a bass-baritone, one for whom the notes from middle C up a third to E are comfortable, and one rarely senses that Mikhailov is here. The trouser role of Vanya needs a far younger sound than the almost granny-contralto quality of Antonova. The chorus are fine, apart from the final top C which neither lasts the full eight bars nor holds its pitch, while the orchestra cope easily with the demands of a score which belies its 1836 pedigree in many ways. Only the ridiculous final bars drowned out by the bells of Moscow in 1812 fashion give it all the quality of a Gubbay-like Sunday night Royal Albert Hall jamboree, giving an unfortunate final impression of a work which requires, and largely gets, stylish treatment.

Christopher Fifield


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