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Bewitching Russian Opera: The Tsarina from State to Stage by Inna Naroditskaya (review)

From: Notes
Volume 70, Number 3, March 2014
pp. 423-426 | 10.1353/not.2014.0036

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This delightful essay in revisionism departs from the premise that students of Russian opera face a major task of forgetting. We have to forget the first fact we ever learned: viz., that Russian opera begins with Glinka. Even those of us who think we have become sophisticated on the matter of nationalism, who have refined the notion of Glinka’s primacy to acknowledge the existence of his predecessors, and who define his significance in terms of genre (the first real operas—that is, sung-straight-through) and reception (performed and admired abroad!)—even we, the author insists, are still blinded by a discourse that is the unholy ahistorical issue of utopian nationalism and masculinist revenge. The muchtouted fact that Glinka’s contemporaries immediately recognized his work as “a wonderful beginning” (to quote Gogol yet again) merely locates the source of that ahistorical discourse in the need for nineteenth-century Russians to forget that their country had been ruled in the eighteenth century by women, and that the one among those women who mattered the most to the histories both of Russia and of opera was a foreigner to boot. So we must now remember what they forgot and forget what they would have us remember. And if we manage to do all that, we will put Catherine II, known as “the Great,” in place of Glinka in the founder’s seat. Then, and only then, will we be able to see the history of Russian opera as a single continuous development and understand both how it got going and how it became what it became in the years of its greatest fame.

Does it still seem odd to put a non-composer in such a place? Such a thesis comes with less strain to an ethnomusicologist, which is what the author, Inna Narodit skaya, is by training and self-description; but as the work of scholars such as Ellen Rosand and Martha Feldman has shown, even unprefixed musicologists are getting used to the idea that, when it comes to charting their histories, artistic genres are better viewed as social practices than as collections of works. The empresses who ruled Russia (but for three tiny interregna totaling less than four years) from 1725 to 1796 were the ones who brought opera to the Saint Petersburg court. There were four of them, but as it was the second, Anne, who first imported the genre from Italy, one tends to think of them as a trio. Catherine the Great was the last, and she did more than patronize the genre. She also contributed to it as a librettist, composing (with the assistance of literary secretaries) the Russian texts to five comic operas and one historical pageant with music. The composers who set them were an assortment of Italians and locals, who sometimes collaborated (so that the pageant, The Early Reign of Oleg, had music by two Italians, Giuseppe Sarti and Carlo Cannobio, and one Russian, Vasily Pashkevich, who also set one of the comic librettos).

Catherine’s activity was never a secret to historians of Russian opera—even though aristocratic mores did not permit her name to appear on the works she authored until they were posthumously published or reprinted—but it was never taken seriously. Her spoken comedies have fared better with historians; there is even a literary scholar, Lurana O’Malley, who specializes in the works of Catherine the Great. But the present book contains the most extensive treatment her operas have ever received in any language. Naroditskaya’s book has only one noteworthy predecessor: Russkaya opera do Glinki (Russian Opera before Glinka), a monograph published in 1948 (Moscow: Muzgiz) by the Soviet musicologist Alexander Rabinovich. The very title of the book, with its suggestion of prehistory, reinforces the influence of the old narrative; whereas some of the music by Catherine’s composers (especially the native ones who hailed from the lower social echelons) is praised, Catherine’s contributions are never actually discussed, only insulted: “The libretto of Fevey,” we read of one, “sets a veritable record for feebleness and tastelessness.” Another is dismissed with jarring, and memorable, crudeness: its text, we are told, is na redkost’ glup, “as dumb as...



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