Russian Language Blog

Stars of the stage: Russian opera through several interpretations Posted by on May 11, 2022 in Film & Theater, History, Music

Russian opera is and has been legendary for well over a century.

In invite you to get acquainted with some legendary известные ру́сские о́перные исполни́тели through some of the roles they are most known for:

А́нна Нетре́бко – «Русла́н и Людми́ла» Михаи́ла Гли́нки1Anna Netrebko – Ruslan and Lyudmila by Mikhail Glinka

Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) was the first Russian composer to gain notoriety at home as well as abroad. His role as the cornerstone of Russian classical music was cemented by several operas he wrote, which are a part of the regular repertoire of every opera company in Russia and every major opera house in the West, including «Жизнь за царя́» (originally titled «Ива́н Суса́нин», which was also the name used for the opera during the Soviet era), and «Русла́н и Людми́ла».

Based on an 1820 poem by Alexander Pushkin, the opera dives into the world of Russian folktales and features a sorcerer, a bard, the Great Prince of Kiev, and the eponymous Ruslan and Lyudmila, a newlywed couple separated at their own wedding banquet.

Here we can see Lyudmila being played by Anna Netrebko (1971- ), one of the biggest names in modern opera. Originally from Krasnodar, Russia, she currently lives in Austria and regularly makes headlines. She is a treat to see in any role with her beautiful soprano and acting that is always great fun to watch. She began her career at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg.

Гали́на Вишне́вская – «Ле́ди Ма́кбет Мце́нского уе́зда» Дми́трия Шостако́вича2Galina Vishnevskaya – Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District by Dmitry Shostakovich

Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975) was a child prodigy, entering the Petrograd Conservatory at age 13. He composed his First Symphony in 1925 at 19 as a graduation piece.

He composed «Ле́ди Ма́кбет Мце́нского уе́зда» over several years, but the opera was first performed in 1934. Shostakovich was used to navigating the dangerous world of the arts during the Stalin years. However, he was unlucky enough to have had Stalin himself attend one of the performances of this opera, in 1936. This led to a publication of an article in the Soviet newspaper Пра́вда entitled Сумбу́р вме́сто му́зыки – Об о́пере «Ле́ди Ма́кбет Мце́нского уе́зда», believed to have been written by Stalin himself, and part of his attack on formalism. (You can find the text of the original article, translated into English, here.)

The opera was reconfigured by Shostakovich and rebranded as «Катери́на Изма́йлова», the name of the main character in the original story by Nikolai Leskov that told the story of a bored merchant’s wife who falls in love with a farm hand and starts a killing spree with him:

Galina Vishnevskaya (1926-2012) was the shining star of the Soviet stage. She and her husband, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, were the power couple of Soviet classical music and both led illustrious careers both within the Soviet Union and abroad. They eventually left the Soviet Union in 1974.

Дми́трий Хворосто́вский – «Евге́ний Оне́гин» Петра́ Чайко́вского

Piotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) is probably the most well-known Russian composer of all time. His melodies are familiar to a majority of people on the planet. His impressive body of work includes three ballets, four concertos, six symphonies, and ten operas.

Perhaps his most famous opera, «Евге́ний Оне́гин» is a story based on Pushkin’s novel in verse of the same name, about a man, an archetype in Russian literature known as a лишний человек, who wastes his life with cynicism and boredom. Here you can see Onegin, played by the famous Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, rejecting the beautiful Tatyana, who has just bared her soul to him in a love letter.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky (1962-2017) was a Russian baritone, and a prominent star of the post-Soviet Russian operatic stage. His incredible talent brought him all across the stages of Europe and the US, including alongside his colleague and friend Anna Netrebko. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor at the age of 53 and died of brain cancer in 2017.

Фёдор Шаля́пин – «Бори́с Годуно́в» Моде́ста Му́соргского

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was one of “The Five” (Могу́чая ку́чка) of Russian classical music. Although his career and life were very short, he managed to produce some of the most remarkable works of Russian music known throughout the world.

«Бори́с Годуно́в» tells of the ill-fated Russian tsar who reigned from 1598 to 1605, during the Time of Troubles (Сму́тное вре́мя) of Russian history, in which there was a crisis of succession, and after which the Romanov dynasty, which would rule Russia until the Revolution, took power.

Feodor Shaliapin (1873-1938) was a Russian bass who established his career in Russia well before the Revolution of 1917. He emerged from this period as the most memorable performer who put a specific emphasis on acting, which makes his name still quite familiar to opera fans today.

Who are your favorite performers? What is your favorite opera? Let us know in the comments.

  • 1
    Anna Netrebko – Ruslan and Lyudmila by Mikhail Glinka
  • 2
    Galina Vishnevskaya – Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District by Dmitry Shostakovich
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