Breaking New Ground: Glinka's 'A Life for the Tsar'

WOO-1239-Tsar-300-2When it comes to theatrical music, the most popular Russian export is probably ballet. Yet, ballet was imported to Russia from France -- and in both countries, its roots were tangled with those of opera.

Ballet was an important part of the Russian musical scene as early as the 1700s. By the late 19th century, Russia had a specific ballet tradition all its own, heard in works such as Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty, and continuing in the 20th century with scores by Stravinsky and Prokofiev.

Yet, in the earlier days of Russian ballet, it developed as it did in France -- in association with opera. And ballet plays a prominent role in Glinka's trendsetting drama A Life for the Tsar, one of the most important Russian operas of all time.

When the subject is Russian opera, we tend to think of works such as Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov and Borodin's Prince Igor -- sweeping dramas highlighted by great choral scenes, in which the Russian people serve as a collective character in the story, spurring on the dramatic events. These operas are often billed as "Russian historical epics." But with A Life for the Tsar, Glinka may have invented that bill -- while also playing his part in the history of Russian ballet, composing an entire act dominated by crowd scenes and dance numbers.

A Life for the Tsar has been described as the first, true Russian opera. That is, as the first Russian musical drama that contains no spoken dialogue, and uses a musical idiom that's clearly distinct from the Western operas of the time -- while still upholding recognized operatic traditions.

Glinka's opera is based on a historical episode that gave it a natural, patriotic appeal in Tsarist Russia. The story concerns a courageous peasant, Ivan Susanin, who gave his life to protect the Tsar in the early 1600s.

The premiere took place in St. Petersburg, in 1836. It was an instant success, and the theme of the choral finale was even pitched as a possible Russian national anthem. During the Soviet era, the opera was given a new libretto, with a different spin, lacking the nationalistic theme of loyalty to the tsar. Possibly in the spirit of perestroika, the original was revived at the Bolshoi in Moscow in 1989. Since then, performances of that version have been widespread.

The libretto seems to have been constructed with the aim of providing all the necessary voices for traditional, operatic ensembles. On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a performance that takes advantage of that emphasis with an exceptionally strong cast. The stars include bass Gennadi Bezzubenkov as Ivan Susanin, and soprano Albina Shagimouratova as his daughter Antonida, in a production from the Montpellier Festival, led by conductor Alexander Vedernikov.