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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Tchaikovsky's Operas

When I was working at the ABC, one of my colleagues asked me if I could name any opera by Camille Saint-Saëns other than Samson and Delilah. (It’s the sort of nerdy thing we sometimes did in the office.) I racked my brains but couldn’t recall one that I had even heard of, let alone actually heard or knew. Once we looked at the list I realised there was a major body of work right there which is seemingly totally ignored. For the record, Samson and Delilah is the first of Saint-Saëns’ twelve operas.

We don’t normally associate Saint-Saëns with opera; works like Danse Macabre, the Organ Symphony and Carnival of the Animals more readily come to mind. A similar state of affairs exists with regard to an even more famous Romantic composer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky, at least outside Russia, is best-known for ballets – Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker – and orchestral works such as the last three symphonies, the Serenade for Strings, the first piano concerto and the 1812 Overture.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

But, like Saint-Saëns, Tchaikovsky gave a great deal of attention to opera. Throughout his entire professional life, Tchaikovsky wrote operas, producing eleven such works in all. Only two of these are performed with any degree of regularity today: Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades. In this article I want to survey this aspect of Tchaikovsky’s career which clearly he thought important but which today is little-known.

Tchaikovsky’s first opera was Voyevoda (The Provincial Governor). It was composed in 1867-68 and premiered at the Bolshoi in Moscow in early 1869 when the composer was 28. By all reports, the work was not well-rehearsed and it only ran for five performances before it was withdrawn. Tchaikovsky was so disappointed in the piece that he destroyed the manuscript score, but fragments were later reconstructed from the orchestral parts. Substantial chunks of the work were re-used in one of the composer's later operas. This is the opera's overture, not to be confused with a later symphonic poem of the same name written some years later. [listen]

Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow (1883)

Despite this being a very early work, there is much about the piece which is recognisably Tchaikovsky. And it’s interesting that right from the start he was keen to make manifest his – and his music’s – Russian-ness. Tchaikovsky was often criticised by his contemporaries for being “too western” in his music. The fact that he devoted much time to Germanic forms like the symphony, and French forms like ballet, had much to do with this. But Tchaikovsky never left his native sounds behind, managing rather to blend these with western forms to create an east-west hybrid.

Keen to make a success of his operatic ventures, Tchaikovsky got to work on a second opera right away, beginning Undina even before Voyevoda had its premiere. But Undina suffered an even worse fate than its predecessor. Apart from three extracts performed in a concert in Moscow in 1870, it was never performed. Again, Tchaikovsky destroyed the score, although the three extracts heard in the 1870 concert have survived, plus two other fragments. This is one of the parts which have survived, an aria sung by the title character. [listen]

As with Voyevoda, Tchaikovsky recycled parts of Undina in later works, including the second symphony. Most fascinating was the re-use of the opera’s main duet in Swan Lake, where the vocal parts were, in the ballet, replaced by solo violin and solo cello.

For his third opera, again written very soon after completing Undina, Tchaikovsky wrote the libretto (that is, the sung text) himself. He had played a role in creating the text for Voyevoda but in this new opera, Oprichnik (The Guardsman), the text was entirely his own work, based on a tragedy by Ivan Lazhechnikov. Oprichnik was written over two years and completed in early 1872. It was in this work that Tchaikovsky re-used a substantial part of the music for the first act of Voyevoda.

Oprichnik tells a gruesome story of Ivan the Terrible’s private army of oprichniki. There’s lust for revenge, a curse, and the execution of the young hero. Something for everybody, really. [listen]

Vasnetsov: Tsar Ivan IV ("Ivan the Terrible")

Oprichnik gave Tchaikovsky his first taste of success – to some degree - in the realm of opera, although he was again disappointed with his work. It was premiered in St Petersburg in April 1874, and during the rehearsals Tchaikovsky wrote to the publisher Vasily Bessel: “I couldn't stand the fiasco, yet at the same time received an excellent lesson in opera composition, because at the first rehearsals I could see my elementary blunders which I shall certainly not commit when writing my next operas.”

Moscow saw the work less than a month later, during which time it was heavily cut by the performers, causing Tchaikovsky no small amount of stress. But he himself admitted the result wasn’t as bad as he’d expected. Oprichnik was also performed in Odessa and Kiev in 1874, but a revival planned for Moscow in 1880 was cancelled by Government decree because the subject matter was regarded as too politically sensitive.

Tchaikovsky was determined to be successful as a composer of opera and, specifically, to put into practice the lessons learned during the Oprichnik rehearsals. Vakula the Smith was his next opera, composed hot on the heels of Oprichnik in the summer of 1874, right before the composition of the first version of the first piano concerto.

The libretto, based on Gogol’s Christmas Eve, was originally intended for another composer, Alexander Serov, but Serov had only written a small part of his opera before he died in 1871. Rimsky-Korsakov would write an opera on the same subject (called Christmas Eve) in 1895.

Clearly Tchaikovsky had high hopes for the piece while working on it. He wrote to his brother Anatoly: "All my thoughts are now intent upon my beloved child, darling Vakula the Smith. You would not imagine how I love him! It seems to me that I will positively go mad if I don't succeed with him.” Tchaikovsky had more than just stage success in mind for Vakula; he wrote it specifically to submit as an entry in a competition run by the Russian Musical Society. This he duly did, in late 1875, anonymously and under the Latin title of Ars longa vita brevis (Art is eternal, life is short). He won the first prize of 1500 roubles.

Despite winning, it seems that there wasn’t much competition. Rimsky-Korsakov gave Tchaikovsky detailed comments on the score, praising some things and criticising others, but once the competition was out the way it could finally be performed. The premiere in St Petersburg in late 1876 was described by Tchaikovsky himself as a “spectacular flop”. On this occasion he had nothing but praise for the performers and the production; he laid all the blame at his own feet, saying the work was “pallid and colourless”, that the writing was too symphonic and lacking in “vocal effects”. Despite this, Tchaikovsky still regarded Vakula the Smith as among his best works, ranking it with the fourth symphony and the second string quartet, and – most interestingly – his next opera. We’ll come back to Vakula, in a manner of speaking, shortly.

But it’s fascinating that Tchaikovsky’s next opera, after this sequence of failures, has become one of his best-known and best-loved works, and by far the most frequently performed of his operas today. Yevgeny Oneginor Eugene Onegin in English – was completed four years after Vakula the Smith, but perhaps significantly, between the two operas Tchaikovsky made one of his greatest contributions to music in another genre with his first full-length ballet, Swan Lake. Today we can easily forget how radical Swan Lake was for its time, treating ballet as absolutely the equal of opera and symphony. The theatrical instincts which find their expression so eloquently in the ballet clearly bore fruit in Onegin as well. [listen]

Onegin was described by Tchaikovsky as “lyrical scenes” rather than an opera, and the libretto sticks very closely to the source, Pushkin’s verse novel. The text was compiled by Konstantin Shilovsky and the composer; in addition to retaining much of Pushkin’s original verse Shilovsky is known to have written the words for M. Triquet’s scene, while the text for all of Lensky’s act one arioso and most of Prince Gremin’s aria was the work of Tchaikovsky himself.

Onegin is in many ways a radical work. It lacks the grand spectacle and multiple scene changes which were part and parcel of Russian opera at the time. The drama focused on the intimate interactions of real people. Worried that the comparative simplicity of his opera might puzzle audiences, Tchaikovsky entrusted the premiere to students at the Moscow Conservatory. This took place in March 1879. The Bolshoi mounted it nearly two years later.

The real breakthrough in the acceptance of Onegin outside Russia came with a performance many years later, in Hamburg in 1892. It was conducted by Gustav Mahler and Tchaikovsky was in the audience. He was applauded after each scene and took curtain calls at the end. The composer had nothing but praise for Mahler’s conducting and credited him with the opera’s international success.

After completing Onegin – and even before its premiere – Tchaikovsky was at work on his next opera. Perhaps emboldened by the success of Onegin, he decided to tackle the holy grail of western European opera at the time and write a work in the style of French grand opera. The result was an opera with a French subject – Joan of Arc – called Orleanskayadeva or The Maid of Orleans. Tchaikovsky write the libretto himself, based on a number of sources, including Schiller’s play on the Joan of Arc story.

Apart from its grand scale and subject matter, The Maid of Orleans reflects the French style by including a ballet. It had limited success in Russia after its premiere in St Petersburg in 1881, but it was the first opera of Tchaikovsky’s to be performed outside Russia, with performances in Prague in 1882. The role of Joan of Arc was originally conceived for soprano, but at the the request of the Imperial Theatre directorate he was asked to arrange the role for mezzo soprano for a revival in 1882. Despite this the work was taken off and never staged again in Russia during Tchaikovsky’s lifetime, a fact which gave the composer great disappointment, as he was very proud of it.

Stilke: Joan of Arc's Death at the Stake (1843)

Joan’s aria near the end of act one, in which she bids farewell to her familiar world in order to follow God’s commands, is the only part of the opera heard with any degree of regularity today, and oddly it’s usually sung in French rather than the original Russian. [listen]

Pushkin was the source for Tchaikovsky’s next opera, specifically his poetic tale, Poltava. This tells a version of the story – a story much embellished by legends and political colourings over the centuries – of Mazeppa, the Ukrainian military leader and patriot who lived in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Composed between 1881 and 1883, Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa was written in fits and starts as he took some time to develop any real interest in the project. In the end, though, he created a grand opera on a grand scale.

The libretto this time was not written by the composer but rather by Victor Burenin, who nevertheless kept large portions of Pushkin’s original poem. Despite the grand dynastic, political and military backdrop to the opera, the drama is concerned with a love story, something which became more prominent with subsequent revisions to the text. There is a strong parallel between Mazeppa and Onegin, who are both drawn into a downward spiral through their love for a woman.

The Moscow and St Petersburg theatres fought for the right to present the premiere, and eventually they were both given the go-ahead to stage productions. Mazeppa was premiered in Moscow in February 1884 and was warmly received by both audiences and critics. Four days later it was performed in St Petersburg, where the reaction was viciously hostile. The musicologist and historian Richard Taruskin has perceptively pointed out the influence of middle-period Verdi on Tchaikovsky’s score for Mazeppa. Despite the story being set in the distant past, there is a strong element of dramatic realism in the piece, such as one finds in La traviata or Rigoletto, and also in Tchaikovsky’s own Onegin.

The cataclysmic scene in the second act between Maria and her mother, Lyubov, is an amazing example of Tchaikovsky’s operatic art, all the more tragic for being almost completely unknown. [listen]

Despite the mixed reactions to Mazeppa, the opera did signal the start of Tchaikovsky’s elevation to the position of leading Russian composer. Eduard Nápravník, a conductor associated with many of Tchaikovsky’s operas, led the St Petersburg performances and complained that the piece heaped “scene upon scene, each more horrible than the last; enmity, betrayal, torture, execution, murder and madness – there is nowhere for the listener to relax”. Maybe someone should mention the score to a Hollywood producer...

Back in 1876, Tchaikovsky had been bitterly disappointed in the “spectacular flop” of his opera Vakula the Smith. In 1884 he decided he would revisit the work, which he believed didn’t deserve to languish in oblivion, with a view to revising it. The task of rehabilitating the earlier opera and creating a new one was undertaken in early 1885. Large sections were retained, but whole new scenes were added, existing scenes were either cut or extended, the orchestral texture lightened, the recitatives simplified, and a lot of the harmony was made less-complicated. Tchaikovsky didn’t want to call the new opera Vakula the Smith – even though the comic story was essentially the same – and it was his brother Modest who suggested Cherevichki (The Fancy Slippers). [listen]

Modest Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Cherevichki was given its premiere season in January 1887 in Moscow at the Bolshoi. It was notable for the fact that this was the first occasion on which Tchaikovsky himself conducted in public. In a letter to his brother, the composer said that he conducted at the first orchestral rehearsal, and that he felt everyone assumed he’d make a fool of himself. As it turned out, it all went so well that he conducted the first three performances. In Tchaikovsky’s own words, “The unanimous view is that I am a talented conductor”. For the rest of his life Tchaikovsky achieved great distinction as a conductor, quite apart from his fame as a composer.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (c. 1888)

It was as early as 1884 that the idea of making an opera out of Ippolit Shpazhinsky's tragic play Charodeyka (The Enchantress) occurred to him, and negotiations with the playwright for permission to do so began almost immediately. After completing the Manfred symphony in late 1885, Tchaikovsky went straight to work on the opera, but it turned out to be an exhausting process. He wrote the opera in short score then, on completing this, did the orchestration and piano vocal score more or less simultaneously, so as to make the music available to the singers for rehearsal. The piano score was rushed into publication before Tchaikovsky had the chance to fully assess the final work, and when he did so he realised it was enormously long. Cuts had to be made, lists of alterations had to be sent to the singers, and on it went. It has been claimed that The Enchantress is the longest work Tchaikovsky ever wrote.

Once rehearsals started it was obvious to all that even more cuts had to be made. It was a messy and protracted process getting The Enchantress into a performable state, and plans for productions in other cities were held up until Tchaikovsky reached what he regarded as a practical and definitive version.

The premiere eventually took place at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg in late 1887, which the composer again conducting. The audience was unimpressed and the critics were hostile, and after one season it was dropped from the repertoire. Moscow saw the work in a single performance in 1890, after which is was not performed in the composer’s lifetime. Posterity has been kinder to the piece, in Russia at least, and the work has had new productions at the Bolshoi beginning in 1916, 1958 and 2012. [listen]

Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg (2012)

In 1888 and 89, Tchaikovsky composed his other large-scale ballet, The Sleeping Beauty, his greatest ballet score. It's interesting that after completing his first ballet masterpiece - Swan Lake - Tchaikovsky wrote his first undoubted success in opera, Onegin. Now, after writing The Sleeping Beauty he produced his other operatic masterwork, which many regard as his greatest achievement in this field: The Queen of Spades.

Sometimes known by its French title of Pique Dame, The Queen of Spades sets a libretto written by Tchaikovsky's brother Modest, loosely based on a short story by Pushkin. It was written in response to a commission from the Imperial Theatre. The story is perfect for an opera: passionate love, the supernatural, revenge, and the deaths of all three of the principal characters, two of them by suicide. Tchaikovsky's score is passionate as well, and the principal tenor role, Herman, is hugely taxing as he appears in every scene. It was written for the famous Russian tenor Nikolay Figner, and he was extensively coached by Tchaikovsky in preparation for the premiere, which took place in St Petersburg in December, 1890. Figner's wife, Medeya, created the leading soprano role of Liza. [listen]

Tchaikovsky with Nikolay and Medeya Figner (1890)

The Queen of Spades was an enormous success at its premiere at the Mariinsky. Tchaikovsky wrote that the tenor, Figner, and the St Petersburg orchestra worked miracles, and for once the public and the critics agreed. Twelve days later the work was performed in Kiev, and the following year, in Moscow, also to great acclaim. And in my opinion it's acclaim which is truly deserved. For all the beauty and popularity of Onegin (and I do love Onegin) I think Queen of Spades is probably Tchaikovsky's most complete success in opera. The relationships and emotional states are real but the drama is somehow larger than life, and the supernatural element is chilling when done well on stage. Tchaikovsky himself - for once - wasn't embarrassed by his score, and felt justifiably proud of what he achieved.

The success of The Queen of Spades, though, cast its shadow over Tchaikovsky's next, and last, operatic project. This stemmed from a commission from the Imperial Theatre to write a double bill: a one-act opera and a two-act ballet, designed for performance on the same evening. The result was an opera very rarely performed today, Iolanta, and one of the most famous ballets ever written, The Nutcracker. Such mixed programs were not unknown in late 19th century Russian theatres, but the twin project caused Tchaikovsky many difficulties and caused great self-doubt. He felt that after the success of The Queen of Spades, that in Iolanta he was repeating himself.

Both the opera and the ballet were popular successes at the premiere in St Petersburg in December 1892 (the year before his death), but some critics - including Rimsky-Korsakov - were scathing. History has relegated Iolanta to the shadows, despite the fact that it was championed by conductors such as Mahler. The blame is placed at the foot of the libretto by many commentators, which was again the work of Modest Tchaikovsky, and because of the expense (and the length of the combined works) the double bill of Iolanta and Nutcracker is rarely if ever undertaken today. [listen]

Tchaikovsky's operas are perhaps best-known in Russia, where most of them are performed with some degree of regularity and a high degree of commitment and belief in their worth. Outside Russia, Yevgeny Onegin and The Queen of Spades are rightly regarded as the masterworks they are, although even The Queen of Spades is not heard as often as it perhaps should be. The Maid of Orleans, Mazeppa, Cherevichki and Iolanta could very well stand revival as they are worth hearing, although I don't make a claim for them being on a par with Onegin and Queen of Spades. I don't think Tchaikovsky would have, either.

I guess part of the problem with a historical artform like music is that we can't hear everything and so we naturally tend to focus on what floats to the top; it's the same with painting or drama or literature or film. But just being aware that Tchaikovsky wrote eleven operas, I hope, makes us at least curious about those we never hear any more, and with a musical mind as great as that of Tchaikovsky the results of such curiosity will never be anything less than interesting. [listen]

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1893)

This article is based on a pair of Keys To Music programs first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in October and November, 2014.

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