Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Godunov for me

Ignoring Russian opera — and, in particular, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov — is a mistake

On Opera

This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Say what you like, the opera gang was out of the traps like greased pigs with their Dutch auction of cheap gestures. Once they’d detailed some intern to find Ukraine on the map, it was all go: playing the Ukie anthem before shows, lighting up the theatre in blue and yellow … and then they went all imaginative: in Madrid, they wrapped Siegfried’s corpse in the flag; and top of the twats was Mariusz Trelinski of the Polish National Opera, announcing they were cancelling Modest Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov. 

“At times like this,” he intoned — having, like everyone else, suddenly turned into the Archbishop of Canterbury — “opera is silent.” Well, silent-ish: they’re still doing Carmen. 

There is the fair share of standard Russian bestiality

And why Boris? I can understand the Albert Hall thinking maybe this isn’t the moment for the 1812 Overture in their smash hits concert (they also bravely ditched Tchaikovsky’s genocidal Waltz of the Flowers). But Godunov — based on Pushkin’s Shakespeare-loving history play — is hardly thumping Russian nationalism.

Rather, its tone is set by an idiot in a tin hat who wails in the wilderness as endless night descends with war and famine. At its centre, tormented Boris longs to atone for the evil deed that got him to the Kremlin. 

Amid all the standard Russian bestiality, the opera gives a voice to benighted humanity, groaning for known or unknown crimes. And then at the end we hear that Poland is invading, which you’d think might actually raise a few cheers.

Opera is stuck with a tiny enough repertoire as it is. There are about a hundred actually performable ones (and a few more you can get away with for a whimsical one-off novelty), with the top twenty making up nearly all of what is actually put on: as if every opera company were the RSC. Good opera is bloody difficult to write. Given that, the cavalier way we ignore a big chunk of decent material seems pretty mad.

The Russky chunk is now obviously the deadest of Muscovy ducks. Yes, everyone swoons over Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin — though it’s hardly properly Russian, given that nothing insane or brutal happens — and those crazed historical dramas of Mussorgsky’s sometimes pop up, though they tend to make even Wagner look a bit of a wag and funster. 

No, the guy whose absence from the party is hardest to explain is Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov — that’s right, the chap who brought you The Flight of the Bumblebee and the orientalist sex-fantasy Scheherazade. His main job was as an opera composer, and he produced 15, of an originality, breadth and charm that certainly make their flaws tolerable. And though, now, you are never going to see any of them again, there’s one last chance as English Touring Opera take his final show, The Golden Cockerel, out on the road (sadly this cockerel is a right turkey, but hey-ho).

Rimsky’s unbuttoned music makes most late nineteenth-century Italian opera sound formulaic and tawdry. Like Wagner and Bizet he understood the orchestra is there for aural delight, and his gorgeous, untrammelled soundworld is a jacuzzi for the senses. 

Rimsky framed his later liberal-minded parables as fairy-tales

Drifting about in the enchanted fabrics of orientalism or Russian folk-magic, it finds its perfect vehicle in fairy-tale stories of vanishing cities, melting snow-girls and swan princesses, where myth and fantasy entwine into something new and marvellous. Sure, there are drawbacks: it can all seem unbelievably formless and baggy — and frankly, will that be enough folk-dancing (what we call in the trade “Fokine hell”) for one night? But come on, if we can trance through 16 hours of Wagner, this stuff is child’s play.

And it turns out that Rimsky is doing something more interesting than you might think: though no Bakunin, his operas in the decade before his death in 1908 are decidedly political, encoded critiques of the autocracy that was leading Russia on its unmerry way to (the next) disaster. 

Decades earlier, as a young, well-bred, ex-military amateur, he had shared a flat with Mussorgsky, and both embarked on creating historical dramas. There is a nice description of the two young pals, Modinka and Korsinka, sharing the piano to compose, while earnestly training themselves up in musical technique. Determined (unlike their dull-brained English counterparts) not to be slaves to continental models, they turned Russian music, popular and religious, into their magical palette.

History had just — briefly — been unbanned in Russia: hence their works of the 1860s, including Godunov and Rimsky’s Ivan the Terrible. The shutters had come down again by the 1880s, so Rimsky framed his later liberal-minded parables as fairy-tales. And he got away with it too, until the censor cottoned on and banned The Golden Cockerel with its halfwitted Tsar looking a lot like the generally bewildered Nicky II.

The only minus was that nobody realised — while watching The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia and Kaschei the Immortal — that Rimsky actually was being all topical. 

And indeed, who cares? The fewer people who think about “Russia’s meaning and destiny” the better, on the whole. And like I mentioned, you’re never going to see them now anyway.

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