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Mikhail GLINKA (1804 - 1857)
Ivan Susanin (A Life for the Tsar) (1836) [169:47]
Ivan Susanin - Miroslav Čangalović (bass)
Antonida - Marija Glavačević (soprano)
Bogdan Sobinin - Drago Starc (tenor)
Vanya - Milica Miladinović (contralto)
Sigismund III, King of Poland - Vladeta Dimitriević (bass)
Polish messenger - Bogolub Grubać (tenor)
Russian soldier - Ivan Murgaški (bass)
Yugoslav Army Chorus, Belgrade National Opera Orchestra/Oskar Danon
rec. September/October 1955, House of Culture, Belgrade, Yugoslavia
Notes, synopsis, no libretto. ADD
ELOQUENCE 482 6924 [3 CDs: 169:47]

It is interesting that there are only eleven recordings of this opera in the catalogue, yet nine of those are studio-made, of which five were recorded by the Bolshoi, two in Sofia and two with Belgrade forces, including this one. In other words, it has remained an essentially eastern European/Russian affair, with a couple of forays into Italy, where it was performed in Italian, so those can hardly be considered as legitimate, authentic versions. The opera has remained perennially popular in Russia by virtue of its position as a seminal work in the establishment of a national style which both preserved Russian musical traditions and harmonies but also assimilated the Italian bel canto practices. Glinka was to Russian opera what Weber was to German. The fact that it celebrates Russian identity and victory over the Poles also explains its continued appeal in its homeland; in Tchaikovsky's time the audience went wild over the nationalistic portions of the score but were afraid to applaud the Polish music.

The opera itself is rather halting and episodic; the plotline is perfectly clear and simple but Glinka deliberately holds up its development to afford many opportunities for set pieces; thus the doughty Russian peasant culture is celebrated by the introduction of many rousing folk tunes and choruses, while the Polish court is characterised by dances such as the mazurka. It does not have the fairy-tale charm of Ruslan and Ludmila to divert the listener, being rather darker and more martial, being a history. The most famous aria, "They sense the truth" comes in the most moving part of the opera by far, when Susanin reflects on his inevitable fate, to be cruelly executed by the Polish soldiers when they realise that he has decoyed them away from the Tsar - or, in this case, Minin of Nizhny, because this is the Soviet version which reverts to its original title, Ivan Susanin, instead of A Life for the Tsar, meaning that some thirty minutes of music have been cut to eliminate all references to the Romanovs. This is therefore not the complete version as you may hear it, for example, on the Brilliant issue conducted by Marinov (review) or the Sony recording conducted by Tchakarov. The 1967 Markevitch set is also moderately cut but has a starrier cast led by Christoff, Gedda and Stich-Randall and will probably appeal more to the traditionalist/purist; I have not heard it in its entirety but Christoff is in his element. Christoff is also in a live, 2 CD performance in Italian with Virginia Zeani and conducted by Simonetto, available on various bargain labels but that is hors concours if one is looking for an echt russich recording. The historical choice is the 1947/50 set conducted by Melik-Pashayev with the great Maxim Mikhailov as Ivan and the equally great Georg Nelepp as Sobinin (review) and two more reviews for the Naxos issue here.

There are cuts and it is of course in hissy mono, but the performance is well worth hearing.

So how does this one compare? First, it has never before been available on CD; secondly, it is in remarkably good stereo sound for its era, clean and clear, if rather wiry, showing up the lack of sheen in the Belgrade strings. Thirdly, the performance standard is generally high, beginning with a splendidly lusty chorus who really do justice to the stirring patriotic numbers. The Antonida, however, is sung by one if those piercing, “Minnie Mouse” or “tweety bird” style of sopranos with great agility and a machine-gun vibrato which some ears will not be able to abide and others will find charming. She certainly sings confidently, accurately and feelingly within the limits of a rather shrill voice and I enjoy her plaintive, melancholy arias. Tenor Drago Starc is once again excellent, coping well with the high tessitura and the high Cs. Likewise Miroslav Čangalović is admirable, bringing his big, rolling bass to the role of Susanin and singing with great warmth and authority. Both artists also excel in the Eugene Onegin recorded the same year as part of the Decca project. Milica Miladinović has a firm, if rather fruity contralto for the breeches role of Vanya, Susanin’s adoptive son; she sings attractively without wobble. Their vocal ensembles are sung in lively and lively fashion; Act 3 in particular is just a stream of melodious numbers until the Polish marauders burst in - and even they sound awfully jolly. Čangalović might not have the vocal distinction of such as Christoff and Ghiaurov – who in any case never made a complete recording - but he rises magnificently to his big aria and is similar in sound and manner to Yevgeny Nesterenko, another great Ivan Susanin.

As long as you are aware that you are listening to the reduced and adapted version of Glinka’s original concept, this is an excellent, bargain-priced account of the ur-ancestor of Russian opera.

Ralph Moore

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