What do you think of when someone mentions Russian opera? Most likely, it's something somber and dark, and with good reason. The most famous of Russian operas include Mussorgsky's grim historical epic Boris Godunov, along with Tchaikovsky's pair of bleak psychodramas The Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin, operas with an epic quality of their own.
And those three, popular dramas have something particular in common with plenty of other Russian operas. All three are based on works by Alexander Pushkin -- not most people's idea of leisurely reading. Yet there is one great Russian opera, also inspired by Pushkin, that occupies a far lighter region of the dramatic spectrum.
Mikhail Glinka is often credited as the founder of the Russian opera tradition. Ruslan and Lyudmila was Glinka's second opera, and also his last. It appeared in 1842, after six years in the making, and it is based on a Pushkin epic. But this one might well be called an epic frolic -- a lush yet lighthearted romp through a world of fantastic adventures and fairytale love. The story sweeps its way across the vast Russian landscape, depicting a furious conflict between good and evil. But when it all shakes out, this epic features far more fun than furor.
Glinka’s opera follows Pushkin's original fairly closely -- the whole plot is there, and then some. The opera may come up short of fully capturing the poem’s astonishing dramatic flow, but that would have been a tall order. Pushkin's epic is a real page turner, with disparate elements of the story tumbling over each other at a breakneck pace. The opera is more a series of related set pieces, and it probably didn’t help that the scenario was reportedly devised, by a buddy of Glinka’s, "in a quarter of an hour while he was drunk." Yet Glinka’s musical contribution is beautiful throughout, conjuring lively characters and vivid theatrical images, even when the action itself occasionally slows to a trot.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone present's Ruslan and Lyudmila from one of Russia's most historic musical venues, the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Soprano Albina Shagimuratova and bass Mikhail Petrenko star in the title roles, in a production led by conductor Vladimir Jurowski.